By Lucy Siegel | May 26, 2021

Worldwide, public relations encompasses communications counseling and the development of strategy. However, the way public relations is practiced in a particular country depends on how an organization’s messages are distributed and how local media channels operate. They can differ dramatically from one country to another, even when those countries are in the same part of the world.

We have focused here recently on PR in South Korea and China. In this blog post, we will report on the practice of public relations in India, vastly different from other Asian countries.

According to a recent report by Morgan Stanley, India’s economy has grown 11-fold over the last 25 years and is on track to continue this rapid growth. With the world’s second-largest population, analysts expect India to have the fastest economic growth in the world over the next five years.

PR Boutiques International (PRBI) is fortunate to have among its members Nucleus Public Relations in Bangalore, with a presence in Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata. We are grateful to Tarunjeet Rattan, managing partner of Nucleus and also the vice president of PRBI, for agreeing to an interview for this post.

PRBI: Tarunjeet, let’s start talking about PR in India by discussing the Indian media. In some countries, the most prominent media outlets are centralized and national, with most newspapers and broadcast media headquartered in one key city and consumed nationwide. In other countries, there are large, influential media outlets in each region of the country. Which model best describes the media in India? The answer must be vital to the effectiveness and cost involved in public relations since it takes more work and expense to reach out to media all over the country than centralized media consumed nationally.

Tarunjeet Rattan:  India is a paradox. While we use a handful of languages to communicate in the business world, the country has 21 official registered languages across its states, not counting the many dialects that change when you cross regions. There is no possible way a centralized system would work – but we try. I would best describe the media landscape as a hybrid model. Fewer than five publications cut across the country’s length and breadth and can be considered mainlines. The rest are fragmented and divided into regionals and vernaculars across print, television, online, and radio.  

PRBI: According to Wikipedia, India is a huge mass media market, the world’s second-largest newspaper market. About 100 million newspapers are sold each day. More than 110,000 publications are registered in India, and there are over 1,600 satellite channels (including more than 400 news channels). Is the print and broadcast news industry shrinking due to online media competition, as it is in many other countries?

TR: Yes, they are shrinking due not only to online media competition but also to COVID-19’s impact. Last year saw a massive shakeup in the Indian media. Print media was one of the worst affected. The pandemic disrupted the supply chain, and a wild rumor about contracting COVID from newspapers gripped the nation. These factors decimated newspaper readership and accelerated the growth of digital portals from legacy media. While digital was supposed to be the next big thing, most traditional media were only making a half-hearted attempt at building digital outlets since they perceived digital media’s growth as hastening their own end. However, in 2020 they had no choice. With readership and circulation at an all-time low, the traditional print media reduced pages and overnight laid off whole departments. It was a bloodbath. They also started investing in their online portals and experimenting with new communication media like podcasts, live sessions, webinars, and social media. The only traditional media that saw an audience increase was television. However, a wave of the bloodbath hit TV as well. TV advertising sunk to an all-time low. The lack of marketing spend by Corporate Inc. reduced their ranks. A lot of editions, supplements, and smaller television bureaus shut down for good. The second wave in 2021 has further reduced their ranks. A lot of journalists are now moving towards communication and corporate roles. 

Conversely, digital marketing, digital media and portals, and social media won hands down.

PRBI: How do you handle outreach to such a vast number of media outlets? Is it crucial to have relationships with individual journalists as it is in many Asian countries?

TR: Yes, to thrive in PR in India, it is essential to have a positive relationship with journalists. Media networking takes up a majority of our time. And you cannot give this up at any point in your career. But it is physically impossible to know all the journalists on each of your accounts. I do recommend that in the first decade of a PR career, you must invest heavily in building a solid network, but as you move up and take on managerial responsibilities, it can get tough to keep this up. So, it is imperative to learn to delegate. Since this is an essential element of successful PR, I have changed my approach.

My approach for the next decade of my career is to develop strong contacts with key journalists on each account who will give me an ear and share their feedback on our story pitches. The remaining media mileage I get rests on the strength of a story. If the story is relevant, our pitch resonates with the right journalist…that way, we cannot go wrong. While I handle this aspect of the work, my team gears up to get results from their time spent developing media relationships.

PRBI: In some countries, the government or non-profit organizations provide at least a portion of news media funding, while in others, the news industry is entirely commercial, funded by a combination of advertising and subscriptions. How is the Indian news industry financed?

TR: A combination of advertising and subscriptions fund the Indian news media. Political parties are one of the largest advertising clients for most print media. A political sector budget cut pretty much causes the death knell to toll for many small print publications.  A lot of newspapers are moving into the business of creating branded sections, which brings good money. That seems to have become an increasingly important tactic for most traditional media houses as they try to stay afloat. However, with paid media gaining strength, freedom of press is at a serious risk in India. Editorial earned space is decreasing by the day. Digital media has, up to a limit, managed to maintain its editorial freedom. They have also pioneered some of the paid advertising / branded storytelling models.

PRBI: How can foreign companies in India gain some control over what the media report about them? Is it possible, for example, to ask to see a reporter’s story before it is published to influence the outcome of an interview? If a company is an advertiser, does it help in getting positive media coverage?

TR: No self-respecting journalist or media house will allow a review of their story before it is published. Therefore, we invest a lot of time and energy training our clients to hit the right notes during an interview. If you are taking the brand journalism route or paying for an advertorial (sponsored content), then, of course, you will see the story for proofreading before it is published.

Even if a company is a heavy advertiser, its influence on the editorial team is limited. But if you threaten to pull substantial ad spends, it will get their attention. The editorial team has little say about that.

PRBI: What are the biggest mistakes that foreign executives make when interviewed in India?

TR:  A lot can go wrong if they get their wires crossed. However, the top errors include:

  • Not reading the media brief shared by the PR team
  • Not being aware of the country’s media and political scenario
  • Taking sides with a political party in an interview
  • Not paying attention to the cultural nuances of the country
  • Not practicing basic courtesy and polite behavior
  • Not being aware of the mood of the nation and that media is a subset of it
  • Displaying a high-handed attitude towards the country, its people, and industry

PRBI: What is the most impactful trend in the media in India right now? How has the press been changing in recent years?

TR:  While there has been a sea change over the last decade, last year changed the game for a lot of media. The pandemic was the litmus test. Either they flourished or shut shop.  The key trend in the media right now is owned media – the growth of brand journalism, with companies creating their own digital channels and digital properties.

Events in 2021, however, have changed the tide again. We thought the worst was behind us and we were all trying to get back to normal (with caution). However, nothing could have prepared us for what happened this year. A lot of the journalistic community is quitting the field and moving to corporate communication, content, creative and corporate roles because journalism is just too risky as a profession for life. Many have lost their lives in the  second wave ofCOVID-19. The list keeps increasing, as do the condolence messages. A lot of journalists have been shaken to the core at the state of their industry.

For those who stayed, the key trend this year in media is finding their voice and proving to the public that they care about them.

This translates into more purpose-driven communication and storytelling for the PR industry, and the rise of owned media. 

PRBI: Recently, PRBI did an international survey on social media usage. We learned from your agency that both business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) marketing use social media as an essential channel and that social media heavily influences consumers. Your team told us that the use of social media is key to reputation and brand-building efforts for any brand and that it attracts significant budget, time, and attention from brands. Can you give us a short example from your own firm’s experience demonstrating the power of social media in India?

TR: Yes, both B2B & B2C marketing are now using social media as an important communications channel. We have used this channel for clients for a while, but it took center stage at the height of the pandemic. With media outlets on pause, shutting shop, or drastically reducing editorial space, it has been an enormous challenge to use one of our most vital brand-building tools – the media. Most coverage was also focused primarily on the pandemic and its impact. Every story we placed was a huge win. We roped in every client’s social media team to ramp up media coverage amplification on different platforms, giving us a wider reach. We also strengthened our efforts to provide the leaders at our clients’ organizations with counseling and thought leadership consulting to help them build strong individual profiles online and get more mileage from them. The combination of these efforts resulted in impactful results for our clients. We also turned social media management, which we were doing unofficially for our clients, into a proper service offering.     

PRBI: In many parts of the world, the lines between PR, advertising, and other communications disciplines are blurring. Is that true in India, and if so, could you talk about it a little and explain how PR firms in India are competing with other communications agencies?  Does your firm provide some of the same (non-PR) services as ad agencies?

TR: Yes, that is happening in India too. Lines were already blurred and are becoming more so because of a drop in business for the advertising community. However, PR can deliver what none of the other communications tools can. Relationship-building will always remain at the core of PR. While there was a shakeup in the PR industry in 2020, overall, the industry did a roaring business. It won clients’ trust, strengthened its position in the boardroom, and often PR was the only communications discipline at the brand-building table. The comparatively lower costs and overheads worked in the industry’s favor. However, the scope of work, working hours, and workload increased drastically with the same or lower fees paid by most clients. It remains to be seen how we will balance clients’ fees with the workload.

In 2021, the need for empathetic and purpose-driven communication is even greater. When not to talk is as crucial now as what to say when you do. These are key questions that the PR industry is helping the brand world navigate as we keep a finger on the pulse of the media and the mood of the nation. It has taken all our strength and mental resilience to be able to brave this war for brand reputation.

At my firm, we lost a whole segment of lifestyle and hospitality brands when the pandemic hit, but we also added many more brands to our portfolio based on our work during this crisis time in 2020. In 2021, new clients in the luxury and lifestyle segment floated in and out for a brief period.  

And the new work was at the price we asked. We have added a few services to our service offerings that compete with the other communications disciplines. These include advertorial placements, influencer engagement, and social media management. There are also a few new services that we trained ourselves for and added to our roster, including live session management, owned media specialization, and podcasts that are unique and do not compete with anyone. However, since we do handle PR for marketing, digital, creative, design, and advertising agencies, we have consciously decided to create an ecosystem that works for all of us. We have partnered with different companies that specialize in each vertical and created integrated teams that we pitch together based on the budget and scope of work. 

PRBI: How does the PESO model – interaction among Paid, Earned, Shared, and Owned media – figure into the work of a typical PR agency or corporate PR department?

TR: I would not say it existed in India before 2020. If it did, it was pretty much on the fringes. We were one of the first few companies that adopted this model and included paid and owned media in our pitches, much to the confusion of brands we pitched to. We almost always follow our pitches with an education session on how this is a valid and more intelligent way of creating an enviable brand reputation and why it all falls under PR’s purview.  The global crisis has forced many agencies and corporate communication departments to look at this model to justify their existence and find new ways to communicate.

However, while this is a model of working, the true strength of PR professionals lie in their innate sense of binding stories together that touch a chord with the audience while being sensitive about the audience. In 2021, that is the need of the hour. The challenge is to talk about a story with sensitivity within the unprecedented havoc that the pandemic has caused for the brand, its audience and the media community. 

PRBI: Where does the PR department in Indian companies reside within most corporations?

TR:  Now, this year…this month, it is a part of the CEO’s circle. I would be remiss if I stated that this was always the case. There were always those firebrands that still exist today who would not have it any other way. But for most corporate communication departments, it was a slow uphill climb to reach the CEO’s inner circle.  They would often have to muscle their way in when a crisis occurred and could only stay until it was over. However, the pandemic has showcased the vital role PR plays in the brand-building ecosystem. Today I am happy to state that not being in the CEO’s inner circle is an aberration for PR in India rather than the norm. 

In 2021, PR has become even more crucial. All brands want to jump in, help with COVID relief, and provide aid in whatever way they can. Staying quiet and under the radar is just not an option. The tonality of the story and how we put it out is very crucial.

At Nucleus PR, we have encouraged all our clients to join the COVID aid effort in some way or another. 

PRBI: India is an enormous country in terms of geography and populationThere is a vast amount of linguistic, religious, and cultural diversity. How do you reach all these different audiences with PR in India?

TR: You read, meet, interact and network with individuals from the community. You travel to and stay in a place to get the general feel and understand the nuances of its unique culture. Don’t let popular film and media representation of a community fool you into believing you know everything about a community. Even though an entire lifetime is not enough to know every community, we in PR are lucky that our work brings us in contact with journalists, brands, colleagues, and industry peers from different parts of the country. Understanding a particular community is key to working with its people.  

In India, people are usually adventurous. Travel for education or work bring them in contact with new communities. Most of us have a fair understanding of different communities from our own personal networks and are often multi-lingual, helping us integrate and adapt faster.

I have personally relied on travel and interaction with the community on the ground and staying in a city for a couple of years to know more about its people. I have stayed in the east, north, west, and now south of the country. Each stint helped me understand the uniqueness of the local culture, food, and people. When I entered the workforce, my real adrenaline rush was traveling to a new city. I grabbed every opportunity I could to travel to a new place. I continue to do so and encourage all my team members to do the same. That is what gives us an edge and has helped us create a robust network of 100+ cities in India that we have stitched together to create an enviable affiliate network.

PRBI: Do universities offer public relations education? What do you look for when hiring a junior-level person?

TR: Yes. For the last five or six years adding mass communication and journalism to course offerings has been a trend in universities. However, I don’t look for a mass communication degree when I hire. If you have one, then it is a bonus. I look for basic written and oral communication skills and the right attitude. We can teach everything else. My team members have a variety of academic backgrounds. Some completed mass communication degrees to add to their resumes while with us.

PRBI: What are the differences (if any) in service and outlook between independently owned PR agencies in India and big multinational agencies in India that are headquartered in Western countries?

TR: Budgets, agility, market understanding, and overheads are where Indian firms win. Multinational agencies win most of their network-wide clients. When a global PR chain wins a company’s worldwide business, that agency’s Indian representative automatically wins it. They also have an edge in winning clients looking for international expertise or that want to reach out to global markets.   

PRBI: As a boutique agency, what is your firm’s “sweet spot?” What kinds of clients are best served by your agency (in terms of industries, specialties, and size of client organizations)?

TR: We have a sweet spot with PRBI as our hidden ace. We bring the agility and market understanding of an Indian firm to our clients within their budgets and provide exceptional attention to them with an international network’s expansive reach.

As a boutique firm, we can serve only a limited number of clients, and we are very mindful of the kind of brands we associate with. While we are industry agnostic, I like to work with clients that challenge the status quo and are willing to experiment to create a new path in PR.

PRBI: What is the most difficult challenge in serving Indian clients?

TR: Widespread misinformation about PR is still the number one challenge. A lot of brands still equate PR  with media coverage and not reputation management. With the field evolving rapidly and blurring boundaries with other marketing/communications disciplines this year, this will be a more significant challenge. For most of the five inbound new client requests I speak to every week, I must first help them understand what PR can do, how they should view it, and how they can measure impact.  Those who are willing to know more and take us on, we sign up. We pass on those who want to cling to their limited understanding of PR (usually only media coverage) and archaic budgets.

In 2021, the challenge is to help companies understand that they need to continue managing reputation in a tough year. It is crucial and takes an experienced hand. For those that continue to leverage PR, the challenge will be to help them stay away from tone deaf communication and keep it real – that is, in step with the nation’s mood.  

One of the key challenges that has emerged is that brands are now having to face the reality of their own communication. While mental health and empathy have been the top buzzwords since last year, most brands now are realizing that they need to live those ideals that earned them a reputation in the media. At our end we are very vigilant about this aspect. We must first understand how this is being implemented for their own teams and customers before we propose communication around it. 

PRBI: What is the most difficult challenge in serving foreign companies in India?

TR: The craziness of media timelines in India, missed deadlines and the resulting media hostility are very difficult for them to understand. Even with the turmoil in the media industry last year, there is still significant media to consider for editorial placement.  The opportunities are fewer (by our standards) and tougher to garner, and the deadlines even tighter. When setting up an office in India, most foreign companies lose their agility in communications. They often err on the side of overcaution, much to the frustration of Indian media and the PR professionals that serve them.

This year, we have had to educate international brands that campaigns they are running in Europe or the USA cannot be replicated here with the same upbeat tonality due to the impact of the pandemic. Things are grim, and that is a reality they cannot escape. There will be a severe backlash if they choose to run campaigns in a bubble and implement the same routines and policies as in their home countries. 

PRBI: Where is PR in India headed in the next five to ten years?

TR: The way I see it, the PR professional in India will evolve into a communication consultant and will craft more significant long-term brand reputation strategies that encompass all the brand-building tools across disciplines. How they handle themselves and their brands this year will be crucial to their long term survival in the industry.

But all said and done…the golden age of PR growth in India is here.