Is Vaishnavi’s fall a wakeup call for the Indian PR industry? The jury is still out on that. However, a decade back when it started, Vaishnavi’s foray set alarm bells ringing for other PR agencies. Its entry was as spectacular as its exit.
When most PR agencies in India took the safe route of naming themselves after predictable western monikers, this agency took an unfashionably religious name. Vaishnavi means worshipper of Vishnu, the Hindu god known as the preserver in the pantheon of gods. To walk away with the entire portfolio of India’s largest conglomerate was definitely a coup. Many agencies lost their prized Tata accounts. It shook the industry.
Vaishnavi had many ingredients that make PR agencies successful. It had the complete confidence of the top management of its biggest client. Many talk about its knowledge of the sector and environment in which its clients operated. Then there was a big network of influencers and opinion makers.
Vaishnavi could have potentially become the flag bearer for the Indian PR industry. At a time when many major Indian agencies have sold out to the big international networks, Vaishnavi maintained its leadership position in the country. Its average fees were much higher than those of a global PR agency in India. It could have become the first Indian PR agency to go global – Tata with its presence in 80 countries offered the perfect platform.
However, after a run of ten years, Niira Radia chose to exit. Her announcement almost outpaced the roar of the cars in the first Indian F1 Grand Prix on the same day. Is it a wake up call for the industry or is it just another passing phase?
With or without Vaishnavi, the Indian PR industry has never done a good job when it comes to its own reputation. Compared to advertising, PR remains a poor cousin. The Indian media celebrates advertising and its practitioners. There is dedicated editorial space for the advertising industry in mainstream TV and newspapers. Many ad agency chiefs have attained demigod status. If an Indian ad agency wins any international award, they become the talk of the town.
On the other hand, global awards won by Indian PR agencies are largely ignored. The Indian mainstream media rarely writes about successful PR case studies. In fact, social media agencies, some promoted by former PR agency people, have done a better job in this area. Also, most Indian media believe that a PR agency’s work begins and ends with media. The PR industry itself has never communicated the complex and nuanced nature of its work.
A lot of work Vaishnavi managed for its clients fell strictly within the definition of public affairs. Unfortunately, in India the public affairs/ corporate affairs profession has never covered itself with glory. Public perception around this profession ranges from plain dodgy to downright sleazy. One fallout of the Vaishnavi affair is that the term corporate lobbying unfortunately became bundled with PR agencies. ‘Lobbying’ became a byword for unethical maneouvering of policies and ministerial postings – a taint that will take some time to recover from.
There has been one unexpected outcome. The saturation coverage of the Vaishnavi affair has for the first time made the Indian masses aware of public relations as a profession. Media reports have made Vaishnavi (and maybe the Indian PR industry) much more influential in policy making than reality. Thus a larger than life image of a PR agency has been created in the process.
The question to ask is what now? Is this an opportune time for the Indian PR industry to seize and take control?The stage is open. Traditional methods of communication are becoming redundant. There is a wave of activism in India. Every institution from the government to corporations, civil society and media are being questioned. Media outlets have multiplied manifold. The internet has further added to the complexity.
Navigating through this maze requires people with experience in handling intricate, complicated and sometimes fast changing situations – a perfect situation for the PR industry to take charge.
There are some basics that PR agencies need to put in place. They need to learn from their advertising and social media peers and position the industry better, think 360 degrees communication, regain the social media space, follow a strict code of ethics, not sell their services cheap or undercut each other.
Carpe Diem, before somebody else takes the initiative.