By Sonia Mathur, India Correspondent
Public relations is the way organisations, companies and individuals communicate with the public and media. It is an essential tool for governments and for private firms to get their messages across to the populace.
It is also an essential resource for media organisations to gain information. Media, of course could mean newspapers, radio, TV and these days social media.
India is the second most populated country in the world and media is a huge and an ever growing sector.
There are around 100 million Facebook users in India and more than 30 million Twitter users. Google+ is the second most popular social network for Indians and second only to the US in terms of its global popularity.
More than 70,000 newspapers are printed in India, around 90% are published in Hindi and other regional languages. There are more than 800 private satellite TV channels, and more than hundred news channels broadcasting in English and various regional languages.
I used to work for one of the first 24hour news channels in India – Star News, more than a decade ago when I lived and worked in India.
When I started working as a journalist in India, it was a very different media scene. Getting a story or finding people or getting quotes from them wasn’t as simple as going on the internet to look for the relevant information. The lack of dedicated press or media officers was more of an issue.
Most of the private and public sector had a nonchalant attitude towards the media. In the public sector it was usually civil servants who dealt with public relations.
In smaller private firms the owner or MD dealt with PR and in larger ones it was the responsibility of the sales teams, sometimes even HR departments.
There were so few PR specialists that you could count them on one hand.
In effect, getting a comment or a reaction from a company for a business journalist was a bigger nightmare than getting the original story.
With the burgeoning of media and especially news outlets, companies in India realised the advantage of a press team.
They realised they can get their message across more effectively without having to rely on people doing this as a secondary part of their main job.
Paul Holmes, publisher and CEO of The Holmes Group, has been writing about public relations for more than 25 years.
In his 2007 report on The State of the Public Relations Industry, he talks about how the western growth of PR plateaued to a stable range of 9% to 11% per year, while India and China were growing at four times the Western pace.
“The greatest future in growth is expected to come in China and India, with good prospects for growth in Eastern Europe (particularly those countries recently admitted to the European Union) and in the Middle East (albeit from a very small base).”
Soon after the publication of the above report, the world was hit by a recession and it had an impact on the still nascent PR sector in India.
But instead of a totally negative impact, the recession changed the face of how public relations was working in India. It led to the rise of ‘Regional PR’; and the companies who were once upon a time hooked on national dailies started seeking a presence in regional media.
Regional public relations changed the focus of agencies away from nationally relevant stories to cities and towns. Tailoring their messages to specific areas and being able to gauge the reaction more accurately.
This was also the time India got digital. Suddenly social network users emerged who were able to not only tap into global messages of companies and the government, but also regional ones.
The public relations sector responded well to this new media. With some politicians and government officials (read PR advisers) using social networking sites as ways to gauge reaction to policies before they were announced.
There are, as I’ve said, hundreds of regional dailies and news channels. Naturally then, India and similar paced economies have become favoured destinations for global PR firms keen to extract their share of growth from this market.
The late realisation by many global majors that India has an equal or superior potential than China, has left quite a few panting in the race for market-share.
Some of the biggest names in global PR now have offices in India. Some have even collaborated with existing Indian companies.
Prema Sagar is the Principal and Founder of Genesis Burson-Marsteller or Genesis BM. She told me how the collaboration between one of India’s first PR agencies (Genesis) and one of the world’s biggest PR names (Burson-Marstellar) happened.
Prema Sagar said: “Sometime in 2004, I got a phone call from Harold Burson, the founding chairman of Burson-Marsteller. He spoke to me about how much he had heard about the work we had been doing in India from some of the global clients that we had been working on.
“He then went on to ask if we wanted to become BM’s exclusive India associate. Bill Rylance, BM’s then president and CEO for Asia Pacific, came down to meet us and sign the deal. The conversation that stemmed from that led to us being completely acquired by BM in 2005.”
And despite their being a few well-known foreign names in the sector, according to Prema there’s still room for more: “India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It is a hotbed for innovation and a test market for new ideas for the emerging economies.
“All global companies have India on their footprint map, and there is a lot more to do, given the extent and diversity of people and situations in the country.
“With so much happening on the business and development front, the public relations and communications industry is also following the growth trends of the overall industry in India.
“While businesses are enhancing communications with more digital and content in the mix, the interesting trend for the industry is the increasing focus government and non-government development organisations are placing in improving their communications. That is where the growth is going to come from.”
Indian PR firms have in the last decade or so improved and increased their reach, clientele and profits, companies such as Avian Media. It was founded in 2004 and started expanding soon after. It has grown from two employees to more than 100 and from one client to 50 in the last decade or so.
Nitin Mantri is Avian Media’s CEO and the president of PRCAI (Public Relations Consultant Association of India). He said: “There’s always scope for sharing expertise and it is certainly a sector where foreign companies could look to invest in. Even though many of the big global names are already here.
“The barriers to entry are low. It’s not a capital intensive set up, initially at least. It’s all about hiring the right team and people, as with any other business. But anyone looking to set up here will need to understand the Indian market.
“India is a huge and diverse country. I like to compare it to Europe. Lots of different languages, state governments run by different political parties and each state having its own unique set of issues.
“Each state has its own peculiarities. So for any company looking to establish a business here, they’ll need local knowledge and local people.”
Nitin has worked in London and talks about how the media and media relations in the West are a lot more mature. He thinks that level of maturity is still not there in India, “but it is something that comes with time and experience.”
He also feels there’s more scope for advancement in training and upskilling new PR professionals. He added: “There are courses available, but there’s certainly scope for more.”
The public relations sector in India is booming and Welsh businesses could seek to have investment or collaborations within the industry. They could even explore the possibilities of working with local colleges to provide courses or setting up their own training schemes.
Sonia Mathur is a broadcast journalist at BBC Radio Wales, having previously worked as a television producer and associate editor for News International in India. She has a Masters in Economics from Delhi University.