Deepshikha Dharmaraj talks to afaqs! about the evolution of PR industry, digital orientation, CSR firms, data overload, and more.
With the rise of digital mediums, information tends to spread rapidly and brand reputations can destroyed within seconds. This is where PR firms come into play.
The industry has evolved rapidly over the last few years. With over 30 years of experience in PR and integrated communication, Deepshikha Dharmaraj, CEO, BCW India Group, has had a ringside view of the industry’s evolution.
She spoke One-on-One with Sreekant Khandekar, co-founder & CEO, afaqs!, during the first edition of CommuniCon.
CommuniCon is an initiative by afaqs! for professionals in the fields of PR and corporate communication.
You’ve been in the PR business for a long time. What are the big PR industry phases that you’ve been through?
There have been five phases in the industry. In the early 1990s, agencies like us (Genesis BCW) were in the process of setting up, but we quickly moved to consultancies. Many Indian promoter-led firms started talking about professional and strategic ways of looking at PR - moving away from just press relations to public relations.
In the early-2000s, PR firms started talking about multiple stakeholder communication. The conversation – ‘Start looking at your reputation building across multiple stakeholders’ – started.
In the late-2000s, many big international firms started entering India.
The early part of 2010 was all about digital. From, 2012-16/17, there was a lot of experimenting. How do we grapple with social media, and so on?
Then, COVID struck. The pandemic, by itself, became a completely different phase.
Everyone makes content using digital marketing on a day-to-day basis. What does it mean for the PR industry?
The real role of a PR consultancy is to protect the reputation, and tell the stories and narratives on behalf of the organisation or a brand, to the different stakeholders. Today, our audience’s first pick is digital, followed by print.
To deal with a digital-first audience, we have to start thinking about a digital-first campaign. The first thing that one tends to check in the morning, is WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.
Today, when I’m looking at putting together an integrated strategy, I’m thinking about the mediums that I want to put out that communication through?
There will always be the traditional print, or earned media. Then, there will also be owned media, i.e., the company’s website, channels, and so on. There is the social or shared media. For me, it’s mandatory to look at all of these elements when I start thinking about how to get my message out.
Are you satisfied with the digital orientation in your company?
Digital is changing fast and every day. You can never be satisfied. You can never master it, because the medium itself is evolving. Now, you have Meta, AI, etc. What do you do with that? You have to continue to keep pushing to stay a step ahead, and that’s the only way.
How do you deal with data overload in the PR industry? How do you decide what’s important and what isn’t?
We aggressively train our people every day on what to do with data. You can’t just dump data onto a breadboard. Once you get the data, the question is, what do you do with all of it? Where do you go to get the relevant data? What are the tools you use to then make some sense of that data?
We have a newsroom team to handle the data. But the tools are the most important part. Today, enough tools are available (on news websites, social media, audio tools, etc.) to be able to make some sense of that data. You have to invest in the right kind of tools. Since, we’re a part of WPP, we have access to many of these tools and data.
BCW India Group recently launched a new service ‘CSP+’ (corporate social purpose) to help companies lead with purpose. Normally, CSR firms tend to guide corporates on these matters. Are you doing the same thing that CSR firms are doing?
We’ve started offering CSR in partnership with a (CSR) firm called WhiteKettle Consulting. We create the best partnerships for our clients. CSP comes above CSR. As a company, you have to be clear about ‘what I’m doing’, ‘why am I doing it’, and ‘how can I make a difference in the lives of my people’.
There’s a lot of skepticism, when it comes to CSP, because companies/businesses want to make profits. Many corporates are forced to say that they have a purpose. What’s your take on it?
If you don’t believe in, and don’t have, a purpose at the heart of your organisation, you’re going to get a lot of backlash that will impact your reputation. You have to make sure that if you bring purpose into your organisation, you’re living by it. It has to be something authentic, it has to be rooted in the values of the work you do every day.
It’s not easy to stick around your purpose statement. You have to do a lot of work to internalise it. The kind of work you do, the products you create, your engagements, etc., have to be linked to it.
We believe that many clients and companies need hand-holding, and that is where CSP comes into play. These brands/companies have the right intentions, but need somebody to work with them, to handhold and guide them.
There is corporate purpose, but brands can also have their own purpose. How do you mesh corporate and brand purpose together?
Look at Unilever. It has a large corporate purpose. It makes a lot of effort to ensure that every brand also addresses that corporate purpose.
Then, look at the cosmetics segment. We work with a company that has a purpose - to create beauty that moves the world. It actually looks at product formulations that aren’t harmful to the environment, and packaging, which is recyclable.
Many CEOs have quite a following on social media, whereas some aren’t that popular. What would you tell the latter?
If you’re a CEO, you’ve obviously got some interesting stories to tell. You haven’t become the leader of an organisation by being tongue-tied. You have talked about your business and you have lovely anecdotes about the people you’ve worked with. You have mentored people, you’ve gone through challenges, and you’ve come out stronger.
We have to just work with the leaders. We have to handhold/help them to clean up some of that storytelling.
Many executives from PR firms have ended up moving to the client side. Do you think it’s going to get worse before it gets better, or is this something you have to live with?
It’s a growing industry. If they go there (the other side), then they become my clients. I’m happy if clients get on board. It makes my life easier to be able to engage with somebody.
We, as a firm, have created many PR professionals over the last 30 years. We’re putting out some good, strong, intelligent, knowledgeable and experienced people.