05 January 2017 13:07:36 IST

Brand-building is a two-way street

It is important for PR companies to lead the relationship rather than merely follow a client’s orders

How often do we (PR companies) feel frustrated when we are unable to convince our clients to take some action we know they must take for their own good, but they don’t do it? Very, I’m assuming!

Let me share with you a recent experience I had with one of our clients, a large, profitable firm that is rated very highly by its peers and competitors. The head of communications said, in a very matter-of-fact manner, that they could spare a couple of hours for the MD for media interviews — for the whole year!

Which brings me to a conclusion — that companies have time for discussions on revenue, costs, collections, operations, people, appraisals… basically just about everything except their brand image!

Why are discussions on brand image relegated to the backburner? And even if they do take place but the marketing communications head is unable to convince senior management about it, then isn’t the onus on the PR company to educate the client? And when we do get the opportunity, how ready are we to take on the leadership mantle?

Three kinds of companies

In my experience, there are three types of companies.

The understated kind

The first, perhaps more popular in the south, is of large, successful companies who are understated and low key. Their attitude is “our achievements must speak for themselves”. While this is noble, it leads to even their genuine achievements not getting the recognition they so richly deserve.

The frustrating thing, however, is that their competitors, who are probably half their size and nowhere in their league of achievements, get disproportionate share of voice, thanks to their desire to be in the news and eager beaver PR companies.

Forward-looking kind

The second type of companies is that which makes forward looking statements — many of which are wishful. “We will open 1,000 stores!” they say without batting an eyelid. And what happens when they complete the year? They have a mere 80 stores!

In the early days, before the internet became a way of life, we had a number of companies which would casually talk in this manner, and without too many after effects. Today, however, companies would be well advised to be more reticent, as their statements are being recorded for posterity on the internet. And no journalist will meet a client without doing his homework first.

Role model kind

The third type of company is akin to Infosys. Now here’s a company that has been a role model of how to handle one’s image and public relations. Whilst they have had fantastic achievements — like being the first Indian company to be listed on Nasdaq — they also ensured that they got the maximum mileage for these achievements.

This leads me to an important observation. While companies should be careful about making forward looking statements, they should not hold back on their genuine achievements and ensure maximum visibility for it whenever and wherever possible.

While a lot of new generation companies seem to understand the value of being in the news, the older, better established brick-and-mortar companies particularly, still suffer from what I call the stiff upper lip syndrome.

So what should PR companies do?

Running a PR company myself, I must confess that too often, we are comfortable in merely taking orders. We don’t rock the boat or assume the mantle of consultants who advise their clients on the desired course of action. We often rationalise and console ourselves by saying, “Every client gets what he deserves”.

What you should do

I need to also tell you that clients, too often, don’t like to be advised despite mouthing platitudes that they have an open mind and that we are partners. But someone must bite the bullet or the PR Company will be left holding the baby. Of course, there is a time and place for everything. Clearly the PR Company must find an opportune moment to share their recommendations.

In my experience, the beginning of the relationship is a good time. Ideally, if we could start the relationship with a media workshop, where senior management could be present, that would make a good beginning.

The reality is that many CEOs need to be told how Public Relations helps their company’s stock price, get better employees and improves the company’s pricing. They simply aren’t aware of these things. I think it is important for PR companies to lead the relationship rather than merely follow the client’s orders.

Which leads me to another difficult question: How many of us are truly ready to be consultants? Do we possess the knowledge and the confidence so that clients can look to us for advice? It’s not an easy question to answer, but it certainly is something that should occupy our attention and energies, if we are to get the importance we deserve.