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DECODING THE RENEWED BRAND-PR AGENCY AXIS

BY Ruhail Amin and Nafisa Shaheen

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The COVID-19 pandemic has not only put human lives at risk, its threat to businesses has been equally unprecedented. There is no doubt that brands and organizations are now repurposing themselves to align with a health-first world. As we co-exist with this pandemic, the alignment of brand message, sensitivity and sincerity are getting to be absolutely critical.

The last four to five months have seen every business irrespective of their size or areas of operations undergo a huge change. Businesses have had to deal with many unknowns and adapt to the changes in a very short time - implementing new business processes and setting up remote operations, introducing new safety procedures and much more. And the communications teams have been at the centre of all the action, playing a strategic role in helping both the employees and businesses adapt to the new realities.

“A brand’s dependence upon their PR partners to communicate authentically has dramatically increased in these past few months, driven primarily by a rapidly evolving digital ecosystem that is multi-mode and deeply engaging.

And the winners will be silent champions that camped in the trenches and went around their jobs pro-actively and passionately,

with minimum fuss and maximum impact”, says Amit Misra, CEO, India and South Asia, MSL Group. According to Nitin Mantri, President ICCO & PRCAI and Group CEO, Avian WE, in these uniquely challenging times, communicating with authenticity and humanity is more important than ever.

“Brands understand that only good communications will illustrate their shared humanity and show people a new way forward in these uncertain times. So, they are turning to their PR firms to steer them in the right direction”, says Mantri.

It must be mentioned that as their strategic communications partner, PR firms have risen to the occasion: putting in place contingency plans for their clients’ campaigns, implementing business continuity plans as much as possible, providing counsel on crisis and reputation management, scenario planning and media relations, and helping them to communicate from a place of purpose, clarity and empathy with their employees, customers, and stakeholders.

“We are also seeing a new normal with companies and their consultancies successfully shifting to online models. With consumers actively seeking virtual, non-traditional experiences, brands and their PR firms should take this opportunity to review their strategic plans through a new lens and tell their stories in new ways, in new places and with new tactics”, adds Mantri.

There is consensus among communications’ experts that the brands that are not afraid to experiment during this time will be remembered – as long as they ensure their campaigns align with their core brand purpose.

The experts also agree that PR practitioners must continue to work closely with their clients and help them to put communications at the centre of their recovery strategies. “The current situation has transformed the way we work and do business.

However, there is a silver lining where we have all become attuned towards being solution-centric”, says Sonia Huria- Head- Corporate Marketing, Communications and Sustainability, Viacom18.

Huria also notes that the apparent shift in the media landscape over the past four months coupled with overall reduced marketing spends has led to the spotlight being shifted on earned and influencer media, thus making the relationship between brands and agencies even more pronounced.

“The relationship between brands and agencies has evolved to be more dynamic where the true power of collaboration has been unleashed. These are times where one needs to look beyond only revenues but focus on mutual long-term value creation,” adds Huria.

A Strategic Shift
If we look at the last 120 plus days, there has been an upsurge in strategic communication-led campaigns. The need for purpose-led communication has exponentially increased making brands increasingly dependent on PR agencies.

Also, the need to stay relevant by brands, while at the same time not sounding too opportunistic or materialistic has amplified the need for good communication. Therefore, brands are taking a leap of faith and relying more heavily on their PR agencies to deliver at this time.

“Client-agency relationships have become more meaningful and impactful owing to the incessant need for reach and engagement with the customers through effective communication. Nowadays, clients and agencies interact more frequently with each other, work cohesively and as partners to justify the business objectives of each other.

The pandemic has definitely improved the brand- PR agency dynamic. There is substantial enhancement in the trust factor between the two parties. PR firms now act as consultancies to pave the way forward for brands and firms to shine out of the gloomy backdrop of the pandemic”, observes Udit Pathak, Director, Media Mantra.

According to Kunal Kishore Sinha- Founder Director, Value 360 Communications, the dependence of brands on PR agencies has become more defined now than ever. In his view, COVID-19 presented an uncharted territory and the brands needed a partner who would help them navigate the unprecedented challenge.

“Brands had to stay connected with their customers and forge a long-lasting relationship by being present on all the channels of communication. We helped our clients reach out to their customers with messaging that was empathetic and caring.

We also supported our clients on the policy front, helping them understand the impact of the policy measures on their business that were being announced to put the country’s economy back on track,” explains Sinha.

He also adds that in order to survive in this period, every brand has had to recalibrate its budgetary allocations and the PR industry as a whole has been considerate to make adjustments accordingly.

“It would be difficult to predict the impact of the current situation on the brand-PR agency dynamics in the long term, but in my perspective, the current crisis has accelerated the process of digitisation in the country. The post-COVD world is going to be starkly different from the one we lived in before the pandemic, which has changed our lifestyles. Agencies with a 360-degree communications strategy will command the dynamics of the industry in the long-term”, he opines.

A Pronounced Interdependence
There is no doubt that COVID has brought to the fore the interdependency between brand-building and public relations, which was definitely there but not so pronounced. “These are times when the level of scrutiny on brands is high. Any gaffes in communication done by brands, be it corporate or product, can result in undesired consequences”, notes Sujit Patil, Vice President and Head - Corporate Brand and Communication, Godrej Group. He further points out that in today’s stressed times, pompous brand messaging is being called out more often than in normal times – not just by the media but consumers too.

“In a period where the industry is undergoing a huge cultural and behavioural change, the ‘R’ in PR today represents Reality, Resolution, and Reputation. Current times have increased a brand’s vulnerability to reputational risks. Corporate behaviour is watched closely and hence from a communications angle, every narrative needs to be seen through the prism of empathy. An agile PR support system that has good listening and monitoring capabilities can help in the timely correction of adverse narratives, just in case”, says Patil.

One can safely say that communicators have truly emerged as custodians of corporate reputation over the past few months, as organisations have looked to find some method to combat the chaos caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“This crisis has once again highlighted the vital role that the communications function can play in quickly resolving critical business issues in an evolving crisis. A key business challenge has been how to develop consistent positions and communications strategies in the face of different and evolving government advice around the world, particularly in unprecedented situations that we are in, where everyone is learning from each other through the stages of this crisis.

This has seen business leaders lean heavily on communications functions to distil some clarity out of complexity for the business and facilitate a much needed two-way stakeholder engagement,” points out Varsha Chainani, SVP, group communications, Mahindra & Mahindra. “A brand’s dependence upon their PR partners to communicate authentically has dramatically increased in these past few months, driven primarily by a rapidly evolving digital ecosystem that is multi-mode and deeply engaging. And the winners will be silent champions that camped in the trenches and went around their jobs pro-actively and passionately, with minimum fuss and maximum impact.”

Amit Misra
CEO, India and South Asia, MSL Group

A key business challenge has been how to develop consistent positions and communications strategies in the face of different and evolving government advice around the world, particularly in unprecedented situations that we are in, where everyone is learning from each other through the stages of this crisis. This has seen business leaders lean heavily on communications functions to distil some clarity out of complexity for the business and facilitate a much needed two-way stakeholder engagement”

Varsha Chainani
SVP, Group Communications, Mahindra & Mahindra


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