Friday, June 17, 2011

PR is much more than fixing meetings, isn't it?

It’s not quite easy to be in PR, is it? I should know a thing or two, having been in PR for a decade and more. However, being a journalist, I was able to find the balance, not going overboard with PR, neither with reporters and others. I believed in being open and straightforward (I always do); to me, credibility mattered more than anything else. If a reporter or editor were to arrive for a press meet or a one-to-one, I would be there to ensure that things went without a hiccup. Some of these things are not taught in schools or by bosses, you learn them yourself or you just have it in you. I was fortunate to have been one of the luckier ones.

Recently, I received an email from a PR agency calling me for a one-on-one meeting with the general manager of a division of Xerox. The agency had fixed the time and place. The following day, I received another email intimating me about a change in time. So, from 4pm it was 1pm. The agency did not consider it appropriate to ask me whether the time was convenient for me – it was not a press meet in which case there is no such option.

When I arrived at the venue – the Chennai Trade Centre – and found myself at the Xerox stall, nobody seemed to know there was a press ‘interaction’ scheduled, there was no one from the PR agency, no Xerox PR / corporate communications person. For a few minutes I was lost wondering what to do as the GM I had to meet was not around. Fortunately, another senior executive of Xerox who was in production marketing made me feel at ease even as he was sweating profusely (when you are in a suit and the air-conditioner is not working properly that’s what happens in Chennai), made calls to the GM and took time off to chat and give me his perspective. He turned out to be quite the perfect PR person you would find, although I’m sure he would have least expected to confront a journalist at the stall.

After I had met the GM and everything ended well, there was no call from the PR agency to check and find out whether things had gone all right. Either they had assumed everything was fine, or they didn’t really care. Back home, I sent a bit of a stinker to the agency and soon received calls from its Delhi office trying to placate me. The reason trotted out: the person in question was a new kid on the block. The following day a bouquet of flowers arrived home with a note apologising for the experience I had to undergo. It was supposed to be a friendly gesture, according to one of the agency’s partners. I took it all in good spirit, content that I had been able to drive the point home.

Only a week or so earlier, I experienced something similar when I was invited to a Ricoh do in Parrys, close to Chennai’s beginnings – Fort St George. Having arrived a few minutes earlier to the appointed time of 3.45pm, I thought I’d be nice and early for the meeting. Surprisingly, not a person at the premises seemed to know of the press do and, with hardly elbow space to move around, I came outside and soaked in the sunshine. When I called what I thought was the PR person’s number, it turned out to be the shop owner’s and he said he would be there in ten minutes. Meanwhile, the Ricoh entourage arrived and swept past me inside. Not able to take it anymore, I lost my cool. Then there were apologies and soft drinks were ordered.

In both cases, well-known companies were involved. The PR agencies were different. But the effect was more or less the same – invitations were sent, senior editors were expected, but nobody at the venue seemed to know, and there was no proper follow-up. So, where’s PR heading today? I shudder to think what would have happened had I been as casual during my PR days with a leading corporate group. A dressing-down from the chairman or director would have been certain.

It’s rather ironical that with all the sophisticated communication tools we have today, communication has become even more complex. Emails, SMSes, mobile phone calls, soft copies… yet, where is the human touch? It’s a shame. What’s worse is that it’s unlikely that agencies and managers will learn quickly from mistakes made. If they do, it’ll be a pleasant surprise.

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