Few countries have been more affected by the Covid-19 pandemic than India, which has fought hard to navigate disruption and destabilisation on a scale that is sometimes hard to fathom. That experience has had significant repercussions for the nation's top corporate communicators, entrusted with a critically important mandate while suddenly getting to grips with the vagaries of remote working.

To better investigate how the public relations playbook has been transformed by the experiences of the past two years, PRovoke Media partnered with Adfactors and APACD to convene a two-part virtual roundtable of the country's top corporate communicators.

Part two features the communications leaders below from new economy players. (Part one, focusing on traditional corporates, was posted last month.)

The closed-door discussion took place last week and featured:

  • Anjana Asrani, Associate Director of Communications, Meesho 
  • Bhavya Sharma, Associate Director - PR & Communications, Urban Company
  • Bishnupriya Narayan, AVP, Corporate Communications, Dream Sports
  • Poonam Thakur, Head of Communications, India & SE Asia, Prosus Ventures
  • Ridhi Agarwal, Head - Marketing, Communications, Design, Delhivery 
  • Sanghamitra Bhargov, AVP - Corporate Communications & Brand Marketing, Byju's
  • Sharmila Shah, Vice President, Marketing, Fractal Inc. 
  • Arun Sudhaman, editor-in-chief, PRovoke Media (moderator)
"Move that needle, steer it more towards the positive"

The discussion began by asking the assembled participants for the key communications lessons that they have learned from the pandemic era. Like part one, these were both varied and thoughtful, including global trends such as the emergence of employee engagement and the rise of more empathetic brands, along with more local factors such as the need for positivity, and the increased frequency of online trolling in a more emotive climate.

Poonam Thakur (PT): I’ll start with something that I feel was a long time coming, but the pandemic accelerated, which was making employees the centre of communications. Traditionally as an audience it had always been a must have, but a checklist kind of item you would do on all your campaigns. During the pandemic, they truly took centre stage and they became our most valuable audience. [Also], we saw social activism becoming all pervasive from large scale social justice movements to showing solidarity with the little guy, like your neighborhood worker. In all of this, employees became a community that you really want to utilize and influence to carry your brand message further. It’s not something very new but I think it’s here for keeps. Companies went out of their way to communicate with them at their convenience, at a platform of their choice. We saw a lot of employee memos come on social media, we saw a lot of CEOs and a lot of company spokespeople use their social handles to communicate internal messaging for their employees. That was also something that was meant to showcase your purpose or your brand solidarity with your employees to the larger universe.

Sanghamitra Bhargov (SB): Another very important thing that happened is the relationship with media, that sort of changed. I think all of us took a step back and thought about what is more relevant. The human interest angle took the forefront. It was about how are brands making an impact or helping everyone to brace through this situation. For us at Byju, we took note of what the media wants to talk about. What is it that will help people understand what the ground realities are and how brands are actually working towards that.

Bishnupriya Narayan (BN): Interestingly, somebody asked me recently, on a negative to positive radar where do you find yourself? And that got me thinking about some of the key communications lessons we have learnt during the pandemic era. Sometimes the needle has been extremely negative. As companies, as communications leads, even for your teams and as well in life, the biggest learning that I have had is how to move that needle, steer it more towards the positive in what you communicate and what you feel and so on and so forth.

The other thing that we’ve heard of during the pandemic is that you can’t plan. But I feel that it’s really important to have a plan, within a plan. Extensive scenario planning and ‘what if’ analysis is something that we should be honing as communications experts because your plan can fail. What do you do then? The third thing is information overload. I was trying to consume everything that was coming my way and then I realised that less is actually more. Finally, normalise and accept the fact that people are going to make emotional decisions during this time so not everything can be data-driven, there has to be a balance.

Bhavya Sharma (BS): Two things that I felt I learnt. One was — founders, in terms of how they have used social media in the past two years. A lot of them are using it effectively, some of them not using it so effectively. Going into almost troll-like messaging. So if this was more in person, if this office was still open I don’t think that would have happened. Communicators and founders would have had a much more clear connection. Maybe if emotions were running high we would have been able to smooth it out, talk it out, and that wouldn’t have flowed on social media.

The other [lesson] would be that a crisis doesn’t have to be a brand hit always. The pandemic was a crisis for everyone, brands evolved, and it just changed the entire paradigm of how we communicate. It didn’t need to be a brand crisis. Brands have become more empathetic to all stakeholders, especially their employees, and everyone has been trying to up their game in that manner. We are now creating a better working environment for everyone. So in that sense it has been a positive change.

Ridhi Agarwal (RA): For me, personally and professionally, adaptability, agility, speed of execution, innovation in terms of digital innovation, channels to communicate to get to your audience. I think that digital innovation went through a huge change during the pandemic. We wouldn’t be having this roundtable had it not been for that. And great focus on very clear, informative empathetic communication through your stakeholders.

Anjana Asrani (AA): It’s important to note that the minute a crisis hits or projects need to be cut down, one of the first teams that gets impacted is PR. Agency budgets need to be cut down, can we figure out how can we save costs? But what organisations don’t really understand is that the marketing team was overly dependent on the PR and communications team. The importance of earned media has become a lot more significant within organizations. The other is owned channels. It’s not just social media. Even internally, owned channels have become a lot more important to communicate with your stakeholders, partners, employees. I think that’s going to continue. I think a lot of organizations will invest a lot more in building out their owned communication channels versus just looking at third party influencers or industry voices that can vouch for you.

Sharmila Shah (SS): Actually, nothing really changed for us. We believe that if we take extremely good care of our people, our people will take extremely good care of our clients. That’s the belief system that we have at Fractal. What really changed over the last two years was it just got us closer to our people. Every piece of communication that we do, the bottom line is it’s always about them, it’s not about us. What we dialled up is that our communications were being very reassuring, very helpful, very trustworthy and comforting. We had multiple actions which were clearly infused with empathy which helped us just get us closer to our people and our clients. 

"While it’s an exhilarating experience it also increases the amount of stress"

So far, the discussion reflected that the experiences of new economy and startup communicators had not been all that different from traditional players. The need for corporate empathy, in particular, served as a common thread between both parts of the roundtable, underpinned by specific observations regarding employee advocacy, information overload, digital innovation and owned channels.

But many of the companies represented in this discussion are rather different to the legacy corporations that featured in the first part of our Roundtable series. Accordingly, the assembled communicators explored how their experiences had been shaped by the unique challenges experienced by new economy companies and startups, and how these had changed their communications approach and strategies.

RA: I think communications teams, we march at the forefront, but it all became more critical, more integrated with day to day operations during the pandemic. At the end of the day it was about driving clarity of purpose — from your own people ensuring that they are safe, taking care of their wellbeing and getting the community together at large. Definitely it’s been continuous hands on learning, accelerated during the pandemic, given the depth and breadth of problems that you are looking at.

BN: In a startup or a new economy company the most important thing is speed of execution. That’s something that doesn’t stop despite what the waves might look like: the first, second and third waves have had their own characteristics and we’ve gone from completely remote to hybrid and now in-office, but the speed of execution is something that you cannot compromise. The other thing is about culture, and this has been a great challenge, especially in a tech-focused startup. How are you going to tell people about that culture, when everybody is spread across the country, sometimes across the world? So, as a role, it has become absolutely much more strategic and core to the company.

As you know planning has had to become much more scalable and agile. When your employees have now become such a key section of people that you have to take into consideration, it has to be more consistent, inclusive, authentic and, as Rhidi mentioned, community-centric. So you have to be speaking to your communities much more and in a much more targeted, much more authentic fashion than ever before. And on a very tactical level, I’ve seen that print is never going to go away obviously, but communication has become a lot more visual, a lot more succinct to cater to diminishing attention spans.

AA: I just want to add something to what Bishnupriya just said. We should be honest — everyone was obsessed about the Times of India or print news. Thankfully, in some senses, when newspaper publishing had come to a stop, everyone’s focus had to shift to digital. People started waking up to the fact that the lifespan of an article on digital is way longer than print. It’s really nice to see how organisations are waking up to this. The company was ready to put more money behind it to promote those articles. So that’s the power of credible storytelling through ordinary PR. I think that’s something that really changed for us as a strategy.

In terms of new age and legacy companies, having been on both sides, I think somebody brought this point up earlier about how new age companies move really fast. In one of the companies that I had worked with previously, they were looking at executing a CSR campaign around the pandemic where they wanted to give back to the community. Honestly, until today, I haven’t seen that campaign come to life. But on the other side, at Meesho which is a new company, everything works so fast and decisions are made in a much faster way. I think everyone is responsible for the roles that they are holding within the company and they are expected to deliver. That is the huge difference between a legacy company and a new age company that I have seen through the pandemic as well.

BS: Measurability has always been a bit of a black box. In the past two years however we've made the transition to digital and online publications. It has helped us to show our ROI better in some ways. It’s still not crystal clear, it’s still not perfect, but I think it’s getting there. In a few years most of us will be in a better position to fight for our teams stronger and harder.

In a traditional setup the team size is usually bigger. You throw more people at the problem. In a startup you keep the team lean and you expect one person to be able to work three people’s jobs. For example if I talk about myself, I stumbled into PR, I was a quantum marketing person, pure marketing person, from PR to now ESG and CSR. So now already I know four or five functions and I am heading those functions. In a typical setup those would be four different heads. Over here it’s all clubbed into one. That also helps with the speed of execution. If you have one final person, one final stakeholder taking all the decisions and getting things over the line. While it’s an exhilarating experience it also increases the amount of stress on a person.

SS: I think the reliance on understanding the current state of your target audience, media people, media clients is much more. What is the current pulse like? One part is the data and the other part is emotion. We always said that communications is best understood when it’s kept simple. But it is most effective today when your communication, whatever you’ve sent, is understood by your target audience, so it hits the right emotion that they are into.

PT: I’ll start with the obvious one, which was a greater onus on a comprehensive media strategy. I know we kept talking about this for a greater part of a decade, but like my friends here have said, this is when it really came into its own. With the right kind of marketing mix, being able to define those metrics and showcase the value of both owned and social channels. I think that also brought in a lot of strategic depth to the job.

The comms job is 24/7. The comms person is the point of contact for everyone from facing an employee issue to facing a social media crisis to anything related to a new policy or even stuff that you wouldn’t assume falls under the communication portfolio. With the pandemic, given that everyone was working virtually and there were all kinds of new scenarios coming up for which you didn’t have a handbook, was there some kind of framework or a process that was put into place? Because, at the best of times at a startup, getting that process institutionalised is so tough and one would argue that it’s equally difficult to get that going at a large scale company with multiple global themes and geos.  But we did that very successfully, especially when it came to even CSR and ESG responses. We built frameworks around that.

RA: The beauty of being at a startup is there is nothing standard. It has to work. The learning has to work.

AA: The one thing that I’ve seen in startups is, we’re not as policy-driven as a legacy company. It doesn’t really matter whether we have a process in place. As far as there is an approach and it’s an executable approach everyone’s happy about it. Success is very subjective, but if the outcome is impactful enough then I think everyone’s onboard to ensure that you have all of the resources that you need. That’s one good thing that I’ve seen in startups.

"From a C-suite perspective, it looks more like an activity and not a necessity"

It was no coincidence, surely, that so many responses revolved around how communicators can best measure the success of their efforts. While this focus may not have been a direct result of the pandemic, it seems clear that our new economy communicators bring a more data-savvy approach to their work. Thus, Shah asked her colleagues how they measure the value of public relations, whether in-house or agency activities, drawing forth some interesting responses.

PT: I think it’s always a bit of a mix. You need to have measurable KPIs because, for the longest time, that’s been the black box of PR metrics and measurement. I have never championed the advertising value metric, which is essentially the older way of doing it. The broader point is, strategically, there are some messages that you do want to own, even from a marketing or a marcomms or communications lens. What are those messages that you want to put out and how far have you succeeded in owning that narrative? That brings us back to how owning the narrative became so important, especially during the pandemic when you had limited interest from the media and you had content fatigue. And then you still have to measure how much you moved the needle within your different constituencies and audiences. Those might be different metrics in terms of how the employee perception shifted or how the brand perception shifted or how the end customer views what the company stands for.

AA: How you are measuring impact is very subjective. Everyone had traditionally branded Meesho as a social commerce company, but now the businesses have moved more into a B2C model. So I think the biggest PR problem that we are trying to solve here is how can we get journalists to start referring to us as an e-commerce company. If I am able to make that shift happen through all media at the end of the year, that is the amount of impact that I’m driving. When journalists are writing about the e-commerce sector are they thinking about Meesho? Like Poonam said, I don’t have to participate in a story, but am I getting mentioned? That becomes an impact measurement for me. It goes back to what the organisation wants to achieve at the end of the day.

Arun Sudhaman (AS): I think most people in the discussion will be aware measurement is so important, but it is sometimes overlooked. One of the reasons for that is actually because of the questions you’ve been asking, Sharmila. Because it measures output rather than outcome. Being able to link output to desired outcomes, specifically behaviour change, remains an ongoing challenge. The industry as a whole has found that a very difficult nut to crack.

SS: Those tactical KPIs are good in terms of cost/benefit. But if you really look at it from a C-suite perspective, it looks more like an activity and not a necessity, and that’s the difference.

PT: If only we could take credit for all the stories that didn’t appear. If there was a way to measure the impact of that, all the stories that you manage. All the negative stories that do not appear, all the potential crises that have not have hit the headlines. That’s just so much a big part of our job and again, somehow not quantified and it doesn’t reflect in the year-end evaluations.

"The function is no longer passive"

The measurement debate is always topical, but — like many other factors — it has become even more so during the pandemic, because of the critical role that communicators are being seen to play in terms of their company's fortunes. The pandemic has heightened expectations in terms of corporate behaviour and messaging, forcing companies — belatedly or not — to elevate the corporate communications function in terms of its strategic value. And this, unsurprisingly, has real implications for the people charged with leading those functions, who are keenly aware of the need to capitalise on a pivotal opportunity. 

SS: How does the PR or communications function bring that radically consistent communication across an organisational level? You are basically institutionalising communication at an organisational level. That every person is a spark of your brand, is something that I see brands moving towards. How do you bring that across the organisation to your people? There is a day to day engagement that happens at the project level, on a day to day operational level. How does that employee or that person carry your brand to the client, is something that I think brands should achieve. It’s a very, very difficult ask but that’s the shift that we should be focusing on.

RA: It’s not about at functional level but really at the organisational level. How do we drive a greater impact at the organisational level?

PT: I’ve seen a lot of places where PR or comms already had the board seat. I won’t call it ornamental, but in a lot of places it was restricted to having an opinion when solicited. I think what changed during the pandemic was that PR or communications actually got in at the strategy level. After the first wave, your business had to go on as usual, you had to communicate with employees, you had to communicate with customers. At every level, in all of those conversations the value and the counsel of the communications person was being sought. Now that we have demonstrated that value, and the cost that it comes at, I don’t think people will go back to the status quo of not having or not inviting that counsel. But the onus is also on us to continue to innovate and value what we are saying, the ideas that we are bringing to the table, the impact that we are able to showcase.

BS: What has also happened is blurred lines. It’s not a pure PR person or pure PR function or an integrated communications person. Social media can no longer work without PR or PR cannot work without social media and if you are assessing the impact of PR we are also looking at social listening tools. So the ability to distinguish the two is starting to blur and gradually the teams will have to function as one unit. Of course, it might be slightly more sales driven than the traditional PR role but that’s where we are starting to see those blurred lines, and the roles and responsibilities are merging. Because now you are looking at the entire spectrum of things and not just one piece. Which is why the function is no longer passive, it’s an active function and it has a voice on the table which probably did not exist as strongly as before.

BN: There is no job description as such anymore. The whole concept of traditional communications has gone out of the window and each one of us is doing two, three, maybe four roles at the same time. The thing that I feel will really mark the success of a professional post-pandemic going forward, and hopefully we are post-pandemic now, is does the person have it in them to do a bigger job than what you had started off doing? Equally, can you also do a lesser job? Could you actually get down to media tracking? The time to call rank has actually gone, so you have to be able to do all of the jobs at the same time, functionally as well as operationally.

SS: What we’re really looking at is a chief storyteller who understands the brand. That’s where the lines are blurring, rather than calling it communications or PR. You get the brand, you get the story that you want to drive and we are just using different tools to then drive the distribution of the story out there with different segments of audiences.

AA: Maybe we should push for a designation change. It also depends on how important PR is for the organisation. There are different organisations that are at different life stages. For some, PR is super important, for others marketing is going to be super important. You will have to evaluate how you are going to contribute to the brand of the company depending on where they see PR. Second, I think each of us need to take on the onus of being chief storytellers for your own teams, for your own selves, because that’s when the importance of the impact of communication will actually be valued more. I have made this mistake in the past, I have made communications look like a hygiene initiative, I’ve made it look like a chore. OK, the company has an announcement, let’s do it. But I’ve never really gone back to tell the company or the C-suite about the impact that was created. So I think the onus is on us.

"I want agencies to use their brains"

Perhaps the most provocative aspect of part one concerned the views of communications leaders towards agencies, with some bemoaning flaws in the model. The in-house communicators in this session offered a more sympathetic take, with many noting that expectations can only be informed by the investment of time and resources into the client-agency relationship. Even so, as expectations of corporate communicators rise, it seems clear that agencies also need to be aware of similarly heightened requirements. 

PT: As clients you want the world. You don’t have a limited set of expectations from agencies, but I think it’s reasonable to accept that the client-agency relationship starts with clients treating agencies more as arms and legs. Of course, they want the big idea and the strategy but when it comes to the grunt work that typically falls on the agency. During the pandemic, there was shortage of resources. So, what happened is that the grunt work moved to the client side. It gave agencies an opportunity to showcase their strategic chops. The other big value add was that agencies were able to transfer and translate their learnings across a varied set of clients. The agencies that did that proactively talked about what their other clients were doing, how some of those things could be adapted for your business. I think agencies brought in a lot of value just because they have so much more of an external outlook than we have in-house.

SS: It has to be very, very tight collaboration between the client and the agency partner. I think agencies are still at the operating mode, rather than the strategy mode. They are good at getting news tracking. It is always the client who has to create stories and they are good at taking their stories and going and pitching to the media to get that coverage. They really need to move to strategy. If I’ve been asked how can marketing influence revenue growth, I want my partner to have exactly the same objective. That’s the shift I want. Second, has to be going beyond traditional PR. The social media team is so disconnected. I don’t blame them, but that is something that has to change. There are good things I’m seeing out there and hopefully it’s not just a partner thing, but client and partner have to make that shift.

BN: While we continue to be hybrid, audiences will remain fragmented and they have a lot more options to choose from and authenticity will still drive consumer and market sentiment. So an agency partner who is able to recognise these trends and scale to those emerging needs and provide multifaceted teams is what the challenge is going to be for the future I believe.

AA: Unfortunately we leave all the groundwork for the agency to do, but I think it’s also important for us to enable the agency. It’s very hard for them to be sitting outside of the organisation and understand exactly what’s happening on the inside. So how much are we enabling them to actually become partners versus just looking at them as an execution arm is also a question that we need to ask ourselves. If we are able to address, I think this whole agency-client relationship will get fixed to some degree.

BS: In the last two years, even the media itself has seen huge churn. That’s also hampering, in some ways, the relationships that agency partners will have within the media industry. And that’s increasing the stress at their level and therefore further stress at our level, because we don’t know who will be the right journalist now to go to. There is so much transition and lack of clarity, especially with traditional media. Unfortunately I think the agency role has been relegated to being arms and legs and not strategy. If agencies want to continue surviving and retaining their clients, they will have to make that switch to strategy and not just do dissemination of news pieces. I also want them to use their brains, if I may use this phrase, when news needs to be made big and when not. They need to elevate their team from just hitting three million impressions. Their insight needs to be much bigger than that.

RA: I see the role of PR emerging from being stand alone to being more part of a 360 degree marketing mix. Agencies that bring more than just PR to the table, but bring multiple capabilities, will be the way to go. What clients will continuously look for is partners that bring more capabilities to the table, are able to diversify and support as strategic partners. That would definitely be a shift.