This time in our Masterstroke Interviews, we bring to a veteran of the Indian PR business and someone who is very known and accepted as an authority on PR in India. Vikypedia.in had an opportunity to have a discussion with Xavier Prabhu, Founder & CEO PRHUB IMC Pvt. Ltd., excerpts of the interview given below, do write to us with your feedback and comments.
1) Being in the industry for so many years, what prominent paradigm shifts you have seen over the years in the Indian PR industry?
I am not into using big words like paradigm shifts since often they are misleading and misused. Any industry continues to undergo change due to constant changes in the marketplace and market forces which are if one can call it “normal” and not paradigm shifts anymore. PR industry in India is going through a transition period due to cumulative impact of multiple forces as below:
- Increasingly commercial media whose owners have vested interests and direct conflicts of interest – this directly impacts one major area of public relations – media relations – by limiting what one can professionally do while representing corporate and others organizations; unlike others in our space, I strongly advocate for a credible media and responsible investigative journalism since media credibility was one of the fundamental pillars behind the success of modern media relations worldwide. The moment the readers or the audience start questioning the credibility it veers closer to advertising. Public Relations is not indirectly paid for advertising or soft advertising. Unless it’s definition as I learnt has changed somewhere along the way.
- The advent of social media – enough has been spoken and written about it so am not delving further
- More aware and activist customers or audiences – Look at major or absolute public affairs failures and disasters, many large corporations are now going through or have suffered at the hands of audiences or activists; simply because rather than it being a genuine effort at engagement and listening, they believed snazzy sops thrown at the audiences is more than enough and they are learning in the hard away it does not work all the time
- Vexing talent issue – there are two facets to this – lack of availability of good talent and the attitude of the talent that is coming into the industry
- Globalization – most global PR majors are here in one way or other already and are gaining market share; by nature Indian clients have an allure for the phoren which may wear off down the line but if these majors start working at competitive costs for the Indian market – which is what they are doing already – then they definitely have a significant edge.
The final one and many in the PR industry are still missing it is the growth of boutique PR firms. Predicted in an article for PRWeek around ICCO 2009 Summit and am happy to see the prediction is coming true. A clutch of close to 10 PR firms all born in the last decade or slightly earlier have landed a significant chunk of the PR pie. More importantly, their quality of work and processes are either at par and in some cases higher or better than their larger peers. The attention they give to a client is higher as well. It is a healthy trend and am happy to say PRHUB is in there and we will continue to push the envelope further.
2) What are those key points that differentiate an Indian agency with a foreign agency based outside India?
Have held a slightly different view on this and continue to. Considering I worked for Weber Shandwick in India before I quit to start on my own, we were one of the two in-country support agencies for Fleishman Hillard for close to 2 years and have been speaking globally in over 13 markets across continents, can say with some confidence that have a truly good view of how it is done globally and in India. As much as one can say it works differently elsewhere, the factor to apply in conjunction to really find out its relevance to Indian market is how different the ecosystems that allow a certain way of working and approach. The key components of this ecosystem – media, clients, talent and to an extent the way the overall society functions determine and influence the way PR can operate in that region.
If one were to do this, then it is amply clear that while globally there maybe differences in working, not all of it is applicable or relevant to India. As much as global PR firms bring certain welcome changes to the Indian landscape, I am not sure if it is going to be very significant. On another note, will not underestimate the capability to innovate of Indian PR firms. For example, Adfactors is doing certain things really well and is still the leading player overall.
The other reason why am not so sure about huge leap in change or value bought by the entry of global majors is the quality of talent available locally. Have seen executives whom we found lacking basic communication skills moving onto some of these global PR firms. However good one’s tools and processes maybe, it all finally boils down to the quality of the person who is using it. Am already seeing watering down of standards and operating processes by many of these global PR firms in the Indian market and them behaving similarly since the same names move from one to another.
The area they will impact more is in the quality of what they provide to their employees – infrastructure, tools, access to global expertise etc. which is also investment driven and hence an area that needs to be the focus for any contending Indian PR firm.
3) What according to you are the biggest challenges today facing PR businesses in India? And what solutions you would propose to combat them?
Talent, talent and talent. Since everything else is to an extent handlable as long as this is right. There are serious challenges on this front and every player is suffering from this though they may be managing in their own ways internally.
Good and high quality talent aspires to and ends up in corporate communication largely hurting the industry in two ways – the investment made in them is no longer available back and if on a higher scale puts enormous pressure on the firms to grow talent all the time to these positions. This pressure leads to bad hiring or illogical promotions both of which again hurt in multiple ways.
The middle layer of the industry is the biggest issue. Coming as it does from a pure media relations focus or expertise, most middle managers across firms today have nothing much to add as value and are more survivors who know a thing or two about media relations or pleasing clients. Now, newcomers who get into the industry spend the largest time with these managers and soon they figure out there is nothing more than figuring few journalists, keeping clients humored etc. In a day and age where what PR can do is much more and the focus has moved beyond media relations, this poses a huge constraint. While training and exposure are answers, it is not so easy considering, salary expectations are high these days, per person productivity has fallen across levels relatively and most don’t have a long-term focus or plan.
Even the fresh hires, many are highly disappointing if one looks at the attitude they have and bring in. Their output is nowhere close to the projection and they refuse to learn with a Know it all attitude. Their entire focus is on fulfilling their checklist of demands and the only reason I think they survive (no other industry even IT which relies on engineers has not pampered its talent so much) is because they know there is one more agency willing to take them and at a higher cost. Worse, because the industry is not organized and is split into some seven camps in terms of industry bodies with each driving the vested interests of the key firms or people behind, most hire these guys with even basic processes like reference checks, previous employer check etc. being adhered to. The number of instances we have gone through where employees have their near and dear ones passing away, in death bed etc. only to see them in another PR firm within a few days or a week, is so high and predictable.
Here is what I see the firms not doing well:
- There is no formal induction (they are all just thrown in to the winds)
- There is no investment in training (issues are on both sides unless companies can sign contracts to protect their investments but employees may not agree to sign)
- The top leadership is removed from people function – leaving it to the middle tier which has its own constraints in handling this well
- Lower investment in HR function or lack of a strong internal HR teams
- Not going beyond media relations (or even the tactical part of media relations)
- Not being pushy enough of rigor (Learnt this the hard way when I saw employees who when inside us would violate all processes with impunity and resist it become all proper and adhering once they move to a large global PR firm simply because there it is a process and there is no escaping it)
4) What was the motivation for you to start PRHUB?
My original intention to start was not a PR firm. I was more excited by online and wanted to do something there but connected to Communication. It did not take off or work out and came back to what I knew well which is PR and started off with a PR firm. Having said that– the motivation is different today. Know for a fact that am among the few first generation entrepreneurs in this space. Am also among the handful who came into this business with no huge track record or brand equity or who had a strong mentor or benefactor. In a way, fortunately or otherwise, am not a typical PR firm owner.
This has helped as we are focused on building a more resilient and innovation focused firm that does not confine itself to traditional definitions or try to play within traditional approaches. Nor have I looked at the business, the way I know many other owners have looked at it. This is an interesting phase for us and will know in a few years the pluses and minuses of what we did and chose not to do.
5) How is business for PRHUB today and what do you plan to achieve in the coming years?
The business is picking up and we see our growth rates to be higher this year. We have just began embarking on a high investment expansion, modernization plan that will see us compare favorably with offices of global PR firms and truly equips our employees to deliver the value proposition of being consulting-led and value adding. We are among the few with truly deep capabilities in creative/social and digital and we intend to invest further in both the areas. We also have a small team focused on research & intelligence and when the time is right, we will grow that further as well. If you notice, we are not speaking about media relations alone. We are speaking about specialized capabilities and being able to deliver clients a more holistic solution than a lot of firms can do in the space. I am aware of this being a differentiator when I realize that everyone in this space today says digital and social but have not invested in own team in that area. We were ranked by The Holmes Report as “Best of the rest” which reiterates all that have been saying.
6) What do you see in PR practitioners before you decide to hire them in your own firm?
Clarity, curiosity, written and oral communication skills. If can detect – integrity.
7) What differentiates PRHUB from other Indian Agencies
Have already answered this in response to the above questions. To add to that, we are a truly professional firm which is becoming less and less founder driven and more and more professional driven. My co-director today is a person who has worked the longest with us and most of our senior managers have been with us for long. They have a say in decision making and get reasonable space to operate in as long as they are good. We insist in rigor and certain process-orientation which puts off some people who then go around but don’t see is relenting on it. Above all, the intention and vision is not to be a PR firm.
8) What’s next for Xavier Prabhu?
Building on further is the first on the agenda. We have built the foundations for a consulting & communication group with three distinct brands or business lines which may expand further in the near future and all of which individually will (or should turn) profitable this year. We are in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore besides a small direct presence in Hyderabad. We have as large an associate network as larger firms do and if one looks at us, we can and are ready to deliver national mandates.
Am primarily interested in consulting and already do projects when I find the time. These are strategy and brand consulting projects which allow us to learn what is cutting-edge thinking and apply it back in our three business lines.
Do teach a bit and will pick that up more. Not to mention a book that have been trying to write for a very long time and pursuing a doctoral degree.
Looping it all back, this is why I say we are structured differently and our drivers are different. If we just wanted to build size, would have just focused on business acquisition at any cost, hire people to fill and figure things later. Instead, we are not keen on becoming the largest, we are consulting driven and are truly passionate about what we do.