Pitch perfect: how PR companies are adapting to the new normal

As brands navigate the pandemic and try to stay visible and relevant, PR honchos review their changing roles. Going digital is just one part of it, they say

In the first month (of the lockdown), there was silence. As journalists, the hundreds of emails we received daily from PR agencies, prodding us towards launches and new collections, trickled down to nothing. Back in March, when economic activity had ground to a halt, promoting any products except health and food essentials seemed tone deaf. Moreover, be it celebrity missteps (“look, I can sweep the floor!”) or bad press faced by companies over their treatment of workers, navigating the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic was a minefield. It was no surprise that marketing and public relations budgets were pulled back.

“When the pandemic started, almost 100% of our clients asked us for a price break,” says Arjun Sawhney of Delhi-based The Communications Council (TCC), a 19-year-old firm with clients in beauty, luxury, hospitality and home goods. “I took a 30% to 40% revenue hit because… this is a time of survival,” he says. But after a dormant March and April, companies once again turned to PR firms as e-commerce resumed. And the emails returned, with a vengeance. Initial ham-handed efforts to tie products to the pandemic gave way to more focussed pitches (‘Zoom-friendly loungewear’ and ‘Insta Live book launch’). Now with IPL coinciding with Diwali this year, marketers are hoping that pent up consumer demand will provide a much-needed boost to sales. Case in point: an email that dropped last morning for a ‘luxury holiday in Dubai to watch cricket’.

The new ‘digital’ normal

Just as pitches for a product are changing, so is the business. Where earlier an offline event let people experience something new, now the challenge is to recreate that for digital. When designer Masaba Gupta launched her perfume for online retailer Nykaa in early June, she did so via a virtual event of 20 beauty influencers, replete with fragrance guessing games. “We had a week to reach out to these people, deliver the product, conduct online rehearsals and figure out the flow,” says Meghna Shah, of Mumbai-based PR firm Tandem Communications. “It was our first such experience, and gave us the confidence to offer this as a solution to other brands.” Over in Delhi, Archana Jain of PR Pundit, whose clients include automotive, beauty, and FMCG companies, says that luxury brands like Lamborghini and IWC used Augmented Reality (AR) to launch new products. As the big watch fairs were cancelled, the latter got “writers and influencers on Zoom to download an app” to see what the timepieces would look like on their wrists.

Working through the crunch

  • India’s PR industry is estimated to be valued at around ₹1,600 crore, according to PRCAI, and has grown about 15% on average over the past eight years.
  • But now, “revenues have been adversely impacted by at least 20% to 30%”, says Mantri. “If you look at the core sectors of travel, hospitality, consumer and retail, those have been the hardest hit.”
  • Consequently, at many firms, employees experienced anywhere from 30% to 50% pay cuts, and at the senior level, even higher, to offset dwindling revenues. While no PR agency has admitted to firing employees, there have been furloughs and resignations.

A PRCAI (Public Relations Consultants Association of India) survey suggests that the pandemic has led to greater need for PR, especially for social media and digital outreach. “The industry was already seeing a move towards digital in the last couple of years,” notes Nitin Mantri, President of PRCAI and Group CEO of Avian WE. “Yet that timing has now accelerated; what would have taken three years has happened in six months.” In fact, PR firms have adapted with alacrity to the new digital normal. “We are working twice as hard for less money,” says Dilip Cherian, co-founder of Perfect Relations, South Asia’s largest image management and public affairs consultancy, which has 190 employees across multiple offices.

Firms that are able to weather the storm in 2020 are the ones who were already attuned to this trend. Four years ago, Sawhney and his partner Sonalee Kumar had formed divisions like TCC Social, to handle social media communication and marketing, and TCC Digitech, to design websites and support them through online advertising and search engine optimisation. As businesses scrambled to move from physical to online, these areas saw a huge spurt in activity. Sawhney mentions interior designer Susanne Khan who closed her vast retail space in Mumbai during this time. “Not only are we developing a website, we are also helping her come up with a strategy on what she can retail online, such as larger offerings of lower-priced items,” he says.

Pitches are evolving too, to include Instagram and Facebook Lives, Twitter, podcasts, and YouTube multi-media content. As PR Pundit’s Jain says, “All marketing spend is moving to digital.”

Blurring lines

Communicating virtually has other benefits too. Such as accessibility. According to Mantri, when smartphone app Truecaller held an online press briefing in India to launch a new version, the global product head ‘showed’ up, which wouldn’t have happened if it were an in-person event. “There are advantages to being online, as you get a wider spectrum of people,” he says.

Agility and content innovation have also become paramount for agencies. Peepul, for example, derives 25% of its business from celebrity sourcing and styling, and used to have a room full of clothes in their offices to source clothes. “Celebrity dressing for appearances moved to dressing up for a Zoom meeting or a talk, and given how important that was to our business, we decided to set up an automated online virtual sourcing showroom,” says Srimoyi Bhattacharya of Delhi-based Peepul Consulting. The platform will debut on September 1, on Shopify, and be accessible by stylists, influencers and celebrities.

Pareina Thapar of Delhi-based Longform, who counts Sabyasachi, Rahul Mishra and the hospitality group Olive as clients, “was in a panic in April” but says that her teams are even more busy now. That same month, inspired by the charitable efforts of her clients, she launched Longform Welfare Communications as a pro bono PR service. She helped set up the India Design Fund alongside architect Ashiesh Shah and a few others, partnering with the NGO, United Way (they raised nearly ₹1 crore to help workers in the construction and design industries) and also advised the Kareena Kapoor-fronted fashion fundraiser, Baradari India, to support weavers, which has raised about ₹50 lakh to date.

Thapar points out that as “roles are evolving, the lines are blurring between publicist and brand consultant and marketing”. There’s a growing convergence of brand positioning, purpose-driven messaging, advertising and sales. “What’s happening in lifestyle is that we are playing a role in shaping the brand, it’s not that the product is given to you and you go market it,” she says.

(Clockwise from top row) Archana Jain of PR Pundit; Nitin Mantri, President of PRCAI and Group CEO of Avian WE; Srimoyi Bhattacharya of Peepul Consulting; Pareina Thapar of Longform; Sonalee Kumar and Arjun Sawhney of The Communications Council (TCC); Sunita Suresh of Red Consulting; and Anindita Kannan, an independent brand consultant.

Changing, challenging, questioning

Upskilling has been key in the last few months. “Publicists are trying to understand the digital space — update themselves, learn the metrics of how an Instagram Reels or YouTube functions,” says Anindita Kannan, an independent brand consultant based in Bengaluru. But what’s really changing the scene, she feels, is how clients are a lot more focussed about what they want. “Earlier, they didn’t always have a clear objective. Now they are breaking it down for PR agencies, specifying that a campaign’s objective is to ‘help us boost our SEOs’ or ‘get new audience’.” They are also questioning everything. “If a client has to give an interview, they want to know why they should do it, if the readers of a particular magazine or newspaper are their right audience. So it is about quality and not quantity [of coverage],” she says, adding that clients are also a lot more open to new mediums like podcasts and live sessions.

An integration of skill sets is also happening. “Pre-Covid clients would have to hire a PR, a digital agency, a creative agency… now most PR agencies are trying to have this knowledge in-house, by hiring experienced people or updating themselves,” says Sunita Suresh, of Chennai-based Red Consulting, adding that many clients who once considered public relations a luxury are now reaching out. “We’ve begun working with hyperlocal brands during lockdown [Tirumala Milk, Fipola, Shiva Texyarn] who suddenly found that they needed to make their presence felt to stay relevant.”

Looking ahead

Another benefit of digital is that outcomes are easier to measure than more traditional media. Measuring engagement, reach, click through rates, and even direct sales based on a campaign are quantifiable. “A big part of the business is brand building and positioning but another big part of it is being a sales accelerator for our clients,” says Bhattacharya. “This is where the future of PR lies.”

Today it is vital for brands to convey a sense of purpose, which is another reason why, despite a slow economy, agencies say they are attracting new clients. “We are seeing activity pick up from both multi-nationals and Indian clients,” Mantri says. These include fashion, beauty, lifestyle and also education, healthcare and technology. “Every day we get a new enquiry, whether it is a small company or a huge conglomerate,” says Sawhney of TCC, while Kumar, his partner adds: “The workload has trebled, we have no time left and are stretched thin.” While revenues have yet to stabilise and return to pre-Covid levels, firms seem to be using this time to enhance skills and adapt. As Cherian concludes, “It is like being sent back to school while you are at work.”

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