PR is about engagement: Jack Leslie of Weber Shandwick

By Tarana Khan , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Advertising | November 19, 2008
In an exclusive chat with afaqs!, the global chairperson of the PR agency talks about the changing role of public relations

As & #BANNER1 & # Indian companies reach out to global customers and international brands woo customers in India, public relations (PR) agencies in India have become an important part of communication plans. According to Assocham (Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India), the size of the PR industry in India is $3 billion and expected to double in size by 2010.

afaqs! caught up with Jack Leslie, global chairperson, Weber Shandwick, a PR consultancy firm based in the US, for an exclusive interview to discuss the role of PR in brand communication and how it is evolving.

Changing role
Elaborating on the changing role of PR, Leslie says, "I think the role of public relations is increasing because of engagement. Companies today are using more public relations because the best marketers are those who are engaging their customers or stakeholders." He adds that among the other forms of marketing communication, PR is the one that provides the most engagement.

Leslie explains that earlier, all PR agencies did was draft a press release, send it out and hope that the press would pick it up. "Now we are using the Internet in ways we have never done before. When you want to buy a product, one of the first things you do is jump online, read consumer reviews, check blogs and do a lot of research. That's what clients now expect public relations to be," he says.

For instance, Weber Shandwick uses a tool called Radian 6, which tracks conversations on the Web about particular companies or products. It tracks the context of the conversation, whether it is negative or positive and the other words associated with the key word.

"We are doing this for clients in order to track how much they are being talked about and whether it's consistent with the message they are trying to convey," says Leslie.

The slowdown
When asked about whether the economic slowdown has affected the PR industry and the communication strategies of its clients, Leslie says, "So far, we have been fortunate and we haven't seen a slowdown like the other industries. In fact, we have seen a greater demand for employee communication, crisis communication, financial communication, government relations and public affairs."

He adds that, in fact, there has been an increase in these activities since the slowdown.

Leslie believes that the slowdown will affect the digital industry positively because "companies can track their ROI (return on investment) very easily (on the Internet), so they know what they are getting for their money, and they can get good impact for their money. It's a pretty efficient way to keep their presence in the marketplace and it's very targeted."

The Indian scene
It is observed that PR in India usually consists of media relations, but Leslie claims that this is changing. "As businesses mature, they ask their PR firms to do more. Many of those functions, such as strategic counselling, will come. It's a matter of time," he says.

Advising Indian firms which are targeting a global customer base, Leslie says, "I think they need to develop recognisable brands and then develop trust in those brands. They need to do more in executive visibility and develop differentiated positioning in the global economy. India and China may be the economies that will continue to grow next year, while the rest of the world suffers."

Weber Shandwick is part of the IPG group of companies, which also owns McCann Erickson and Lowe Worldwide.