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PR Professionals Are Also Part of India's Democracy

I have stated my SOCO up front. As Public Relations (PR) professionals, we are as much a part of India’s democracy as we are of its economy.

But PR is also about telling stories. So I’m going to tell you a story that I hope will give you a perspective on how our business has grown and developed and the challenges it faces.

Many years ago, when I came to India to set up IPAN (Indian Public Affairs Network), I used to tell the story of how PR became the world’s second oldest profession. We all know what the oldest profession is.

It has to do with Moses, who led the chosen people out of Egypt with the Pharaoh hot in pursuit. They found themselves stranded on the banks of the Red Sea. This was a huge problem. So Moses got his core strategy team together to look at the options.

There seemed to be none. His defence guy said they should stand and fight. His finance guy, who understood the salubrious impact of money, suggested the possibility of buying them out. But in their heart of hearts, his key advisers knew only a miracle could save them.

"Don’t worry," said Moses, "I will part the sea and we will walk across to liberty." At that point, his PR guy spoke up, "Sir, if you can do that then I will get you ten pages in the Old Testament."

So Moses performed the miracle and got his ten pages in the Old Testament.

I told this story 20 years ago, when PR consulting was a little known business. Times were simpler but mindsets were rigid. The press (and it was just the print media those days) did not entertain any releases or information from the corporate sector. For its part, the corporate sector saw PR as a free advertising.

Meanwhile clever operators like the public sector and some private sector firms managed to play the press like a fine-tuned fiddle. Just think, the public sector delivered very little but no questions were asked. It was the holy cow. I can remember the PR strategy of a Calcutta-based public sector firm: "Kill the story and I’ll get you two tickets on the Rajdhani."

Some private entrepreneurs also cultivated friends in the press to oppose liberalization and reform. The notorious Bombay Club fought tooth and nail against foreign investment and against any changes in the license-permit raj.

Fast forward two decades and we find that the media are friendlier; the PR profession is recognized in its own right and is a significant player in the fast growing economy.

Recent developments have however cast a shadow that could affect the profession's standing. I am referring to the current media attention on the role of PR firms in influencing choices in public policy. It is not at all surprising that the telecom sector is the source of stories about corporate sleaze and government corruption.

Why do I say it is not surprising? Let me digress a little: to the early 1980s, when I lived in the US. We had formed a group called India Forum that met weekly to consider developments in India. All of us were struck by the emergence of Rajiv Gandhi. In the event, many of us including my good friend Sam Pitroda took our first tentative steps to engage with India.

Our focus was on telecom because that was Sam’s field. At the time, the sector was in a primitive state. There were not enough phones and existent phones rarely worked. It was a project to make long distance calls, impossible to get connections. In fact, it was said that the entire telecom bureaucracy made money from providing out-of-turn connections.

We took the matter up with Rajiv Gandhi. The task was to convince him that the sector was vital to economic growth and to change political mindsets that held telephones to be a luxury. As such, Rajiv put his heft behind our recommendation that India should go in for digital rather than analog technology.

The rest is history. But the baggage is still there. The telecom sector seems to be a magnet for sleaze and murkiness as the recent controversy shows. And the PR profession risks being stigmatized unless it makes some forceful interventions.

In a recent e-mail interview to a leading financial paper, I was asked about lobbying and what the reporter saw as concomitant sleaze. She did highlight my responses in her front-page story and I believe I may have even helped her re-look at the lobbying controversy in which it was alleged that a PR firm tried to influence the choice of telecom minister and subsequently telecom policy.

There is nothing wrong in trying to influence public policy. Indeed, in a democracy, everyone has the right, nay the duty, to challenge wrong-headed legislation or to advocate for new policies to deal with changing situations. Over the years, I have chalked up many, many case studies in which we actively influenced government decisions in areas as diverse as consumer products; financial services; cable and satellite television; power generation; water management; public health and primary education.

Our strategy was to win media support, raise the debate in various public forums and to seek out articulate spokesmen and credible third-party endorsements.

To ensure that the profession does not get besmirched by the dirt and corruption of illegal methods, it needs to make the following assertions:

1. Lobbying is a legitimate activity. It does not mean the exchange of money and favors to achieve a desired outcome. Bribery and corruption are illegal.

2. Lobbying is not relevant in India because of the sheer lack of transparency in government and politics. Legislators do not have backup policy staff; bureaucrats are too control-minded to be open to legitimate suggestions.

3. An advocacy strategy may be the most effective way to influence public policy. This involves working with the media and other influentials to advocate our views to policymakers.

4. The claims in the media are wildly exaggerated. I find it difficult to believe that a PR executive can influence the selection of cabinet ministers.

5. The gratuitous remarks by civil society activists about the pernicious impact of lobbying should be dismissed out of hand. They are themselves power brokers and fixers. Their prescriptions have crippled the economy, especially in the areas of infrastructure and agriculture.

On the other hand, the media also have much to answer for. You would think triviality is the first as in the sad spectacle of Sania Mirza; Shashi Tharoor; Lalit Modi; the IPL. Obsessed with trivialities, the media and their concomitant sources, the PR guys, tend to hijack the public debate.

There are other issues such as the nexus between the marketing people of corporations and the "brand managers" in the media. Just recently, The New York Times ran a story about how the major media are selling editorial space and time.

What’s happening is a travesty. If you undermine Indian democracy, you take away a major advantage we enjoy in the world.

On the economy, while I lament the Leftist thinking that still dominates intellectual life in India; I have to say that rampant commercialism is a bad thing. If PR professionals acquiesce in "treaties" and "packages," they are selling their profession short, making it the equivalent of advertising.

It’s not just these subversive agreements, PR professionals are all called upon to measure their contribution in terms of advertising spends.

The PR profession has its roots in Mahatma Gandhi. He used an advocacy strategy in which he staged events to influence the press and the government and petitioned the courts to in order to assert his rights under the law. That defeated first, the racist government in South Africa and then the colonial British government in India.

His SOCO: it is possible to change things.

I know there is a deep-rooted cynicism in the public debate that the only way to get things done in India is to bend rules, pay bribes or resort to blackmail.

Of course, these things happen. But if PR professionals are ever going to build their profession as a legitimate part, not just of the economy but of India’s loud and raucous democracy, they have to stand for skepticism not cynicism; debate and negotiation, not surrender and compromise. Above all, they must stand for transparency.

This may sound impractical given the fact that media are willing to sell editorial space for a consideration. But then, I for one did not come to India to spark the PR consulting business only to see it flounder in murk and opacity.

I repeat: our business is squarely rooted in the Gandhian tradition. This sounds so idealistic that many of you would be blameless if you think I am naïve. Thank whatever Gods there be, our founding fathers who wrote our Constitution were not cynical. Else, we would have been like Pakistan, or Iran or any of the multifarious countries who are called the developing nations.

Remember the SOCO; the PR profession is as much a part of our democracy as it is of the economy.

And by the way, the term SOCO was invented by my team at Hill & Knowlton in Chicago in the early 1980s.

(The above article is adapted from a Keynote Speech delivered by the author at the Exchange4Media PR Summit held in New Delhi recently.)

Rajiv Desai
Rajiv Desai

Rajiv Desai is the founder of public relations consulting firm Comma. He established India’s first PR consulting firm, IPAN, in December 1987 when he relocated to Delhi after having spent the best part of the 1970s and 1980s in the United States.

In the 17 years that he steered IPAN, Mr Desai played a key role in the entry into India of Pepsi in 1988; in the launch of Citibank’s global consumer bank in 1989; in the rapid popularization of Golf, a 1990 campaign on behalf of ITC (Wills Circuit Golf); in the entry and launch of STAR TV in 1991; in the incipient technology boom for companies like Microsoft, Cisco and Intel in the mid 1990s; as also in the opening up of the telecom sector for companies such Nokia, Hughes, Alcatel, BT and BPL Mobile (the first cellular service).

Over the years, Mr Desai has also established a parallel career in journalism as a columnist on public affairs. In 1999, he authored a book, Indian Business Culture. He is the founding editor of India Tribune, a 30-year old community newspaper in Chicago.

Mr Desai served as media adviser to Rajiv Gandhi in the 1989 and 1991 parliamentary election campaigns. In 1993 and 1994, he was an adviser to the UNICEF representative in India. In 1997, he was appointed by Congress President Sonia Gandhi to its serve as counselor in the party's Media Department. In 1998, he was involved in the development of the Delhi’s government’s community initiative called "Bhagidari" (partnership).

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