PR Has Transitioned From A Broadcast Model To An Engagement Model: Sujit Patil

In our exclusive series, ‘PR Powerhouse', Sujit M. Patil, Head of Corporate Brand & Communications at Godrej Industries Limited and Associate Companies discusses emerging trends such as Online Reputation Management (ORM) and the shift from Return on Investment (ROI) to Return on Objectives (ROO)

In this compelling interview for our exclusive series, 'PR Powerhouse', Sujit M. Patil, Head of Corporate Brand & Communications at Godrej Industries Limited and Associate Companies, provides insights into the transformative journey of Public Relations (PR) and Corporate Communications in the digital era. With a seasoned perspective, Patil discusses the accelerated evolution of PR into a strategic, engagement-oriented function. The interview delves into emerging trends as Patil discusses Online Reputation Management (ORM) and the shift from Return on Investment (ROI) to Return on Objectives (ROO).  

How has the role of PR and Corporate Communications evolved in the age of digital media and social networking?

PR has evolved much faster in the past five years when compared to the previous several decades. PR has made its transition from a broadcast model to an engagement model. It is now seen as a strategic function. The power of influencers is on the rise and managing them has become an additional task. Today, a story can go global in seconds. With most now having the ability to broadcast text, photos, videos, and infographics with a click of a button, the focus on online reputation management has sharpened. Transparency is the norm today, and releasing the right amount of information with minimal aberrations is something that most PR practitioners are grappling with. With social media, segment-wise conversation has become a possibility. Today, PR practitioners are expected to cover a story as it evolves and create genuine dialogues around it in real-time. We are seeing a rise in demand for authentic narratives, regulations in influencer engagement and the calling out of opportunistic content. Today, we are also discussing AI’s role in PR, which is quickly becoming a reality. The question is, how many PR consultancies and in-house departments have really adapted to these changes?

What emerging trends do you foresee in the PR industry, particularly in terms of crisis management and reputation repair?

One trend that I see on the rise is that of Online Reputation Management (ORM). I would say it is time to "shut the microphone and put on the headphones”. In today’s world, it is about listening and responding as appropriate. Brands are even more vulnerable to getting badgered online. ORM is about balancing narratives in social spaces, neutralising misleading trends and ensuring that people respect and support you online. Creating an online “digital safety net” would be on the minds of a reputation manager. The objective would be to have so much positivity online that any sporadic negative could be irrelevant. Unless the brand is really at fault. Brands are today expected to drive authentic insights and data-driven narratives. Any greenwashing is being called out. So, the trend of being honest and a good corporate citizen will become prevalent.

In today's fast-paced digital landscape, how important is real-time engagement and storytelling for effective corporate communication?

In times when news flies faster and negative news flies faster, engaging with audiences with the correct narratives is of great importance. The time from an incident taking place to it becoming a full-blown crisis has shortened. It has become critical to constantly listen, use ORM tools and respond appropriately to any potential adverse situation. Telling stories in real time can enhance engagement and the outcomes could be better. This will certainly increase the effectiveness of corporate communications.

How do you measure the ROI (Return on Investment) of PR and corporate communication efforts in an increasingly data-driven marketing world?

I think there needs to be a shift in the way we need to shift our terminology from ROI to ROO (Return on Objectives).

I strongly believe that communications measurement is a three-step process – communication outputs (Efficiency parameters such as how many media on the ground, number of clips, tonality etc.), communication outcomes (brand scores, disposition scores, top mind recall etc.) and lastly business outcomes (Increase in sales, increase in footfalls, industry rankings, employer branding / best place to work rankings etc.). Most often, communicators end their measurement at the communication output step and that needs to change.

Crisp objectives are a strong foundation for any PR success story. A good approach for this could be to set clear PR objectives aligned to the corporate goals. These could be in addition to the regular qualitative and quantitative goals. Worked out in conjunction with the business leaders, they become co-owned and get tracked regularly. Understanding the overall corporate / business goals and figuring out how PR can help fulfil them also puts PR in the strategic zone. The focus then shifts towards outcomes and not outputs of the PR team. The good part is that there are techniques available to evaluate PR with respect to corporate / brand goals with respect to shifts in perception, reputation, brand tracks, leads, and employer brand scores, just to mention a few.

PR impacts multiple levers – corporate reputation, employee retention, crisis mitigation, sales, product brands, stock price, stakeholder engagement and many more. We as a PR community (and even Marketing, Finance, Strategy, Sales, HR, and other functions) know with conviction that PR works. The importance of a good communications department or a PR campaign can be best understood by simply imagining what things would be like in its absence.

I believe large organisations are microcosms of a complex world full of diversity. With multiple stakeholders across multiple businesses and geographies; within and outside the organisation enabled by a global information landscape, the PR measurement conundrum can be complicated. Trying to quantify could be even more. Can one quantify the cost of reputation saved due to effective PR? Can we assign a monetary value to it or the frequent crises a PR team mitigates silently and claim it as the ROI? So, think ROO.

Could you provide some insights into the integration of PR and marketing to create cohesive and impactful brand narratives?

Traditional media relations can no longer be solely depended upon to make a campaign successful. The past few years have seen a significant dilution in traditional newsrooms and a shift towards new media. Going forward, PR professionals will find themselves increasingly doing work that transcends the traditionally rigid boundaries of paid, owned or earned media (POEM). It will entail a seamless integration between marketing, branding, advertising, and PR. It is a no-brainer that effective storytelling happens at the intersection of all these. Using POEMS also indicates that the organisation is placing greater emphasis on the consumer rather than disconnected individual modes which may not be effective on their own. As I reflect, I find that the most effective campaigns that I have worked on have had well-integrated elements of POEMS in them.

As sustainability and corporate social responsibility gain prominence, how can PR executives effectively communicate a company's commitment to these values?

There is empirical proof that there is a strong linkage between ESG and the financial performance of an enterprise. A lower ESG score (meaning a lack of focus on ESG dimensions) can lead to issues on multiple fronts. Investors may avoid investing, raising the enterprise cost of capital. Employees may be hard to find, and attrition could be higher, leading to increased costs of hiring and retaining talent. Regulatory costs may go up due to environmental issues, reducing the support needed to operate. Customers may boycott products. Practically the entire stakeholder network could be affected in some way or the other.

PR has a strong role to play in this realm. Responsible communications can be a strong paradigm in the field of public relations and corporate communications. It would be the best tool to attract consumers who are increasingly passionate about environmental and social aspects. The impact of consistent responsible communications can lead to loyal, long-term customers. These very customers can play the role of advocates in the eventuality of an adverse incident.

Corporate scrutiny has gone up significantly. Businesses are expected to be transparent and aligned with their purpose. The vulnerability of getting called out for even small slips in corporate behaviour is high. With social media, the potential of an incident becoming a crisis also skyrockets. I feel that the only trustworthy solution is to have a responsible communications strategy.

What challenges do you anticipate in managing PR for global brands with diverse cultural audiences, and how do you address them?

Managing PR for global brands is certainly a complex task. Four major aspects not to be forgotten are the cultural differences in each geography the brand is present, the consumption trends, demography, and the legal and regulatory framework. One needs to be agile enough to balance the elements of standardisation and adaptation. Respecting social diversity, avoiding regional stereotypes, and being sensitive to local idiosyncrasies is critical.