Roma Balwani, Mahindra: The Next Frontier for PR is Visual and Creative Communications

Roma Balwani, Chief Group Communications Officer, Mahindra Group

The day before we sat down with Roma Balwani, she assumed a new position at Mahindra – that of the Chief Group Communications Officer. The move is much more than just a change in designation; it is another tangible acknowledgment by the Mahindra Group of the path breaking work she has done on their behalf. One of the country’s most influential communications professionals, Balwani is also one of the most passionate and candid – driven by a deep understanding of where the industry is at this time, and where it needs to be in the future.

Q.   Do you think PR agencies are doing enough to train talent internally? What would you like to see change in this regard?

I haven’t seen a well thought out training program within the PR organizations I’ve dealt with, only because I think they have a huge turnover of manpower. Perhaps internally their HR processes don’t define training as a key focus area, but at the same time they have to realize that to nurture talent they have to train talent. That is one way in which they can retain talent. They are under pressure in terms of retaining talent because people are rapidly moving from the PR agency to the corporate side. This is happening because they feel that the value that they would bring and its appreciations at a corporate level is very different from what they would get at a PR agency.

Corporate PR departments might not have the time to nurture and train talent. We have robust training programs which train the individual as a generalist. One needs a generalist in a corporate PR format who understands marketing, HR, internal communication, and strategy, even at a junior level. And he or she should be able to deal with the dynamics of an organization. They get trained through the standard induction process which generally continues for up to  a year. There is no equivalent mechanism in the PR agencies. They should train them not just as PR professionals, but on all aspects of management. If they don’t have a sense of these functions, they are not able offer an effective PR proposal or orchestrate PR for a corporate in the way that a corporate wants it. So, training is not merely about media handling, PR or content writing, it goes much beyond that.

I look for a person who has functional knowledge, some expertise in sales and marketing, and on ground experience. That would include channel sales and advertising.  I sometimes look for a person who knows content and HR, and then I may bring him in for internal communication. He may not have done internal communication at all, but I see the potential. Agencies are not investing time in tapping into the potential of candidates. I feel they should do a boot camp with them and let them come up to speed. Agencies should always invest in employees because there are chances that they may stay in your organization, longer than you expected. They also feel committed, so this is a two-way street. That commitment comes from the fact that you have invested so much effort integrating them into the culture of the organization. The culture of PR agencies needs to change. There is a huge cultural issue in the way they nurture talent inside.

HR practices also have to be more robust and engage with the kind of professionals joining the agency. Agencies also need to understand that their workforce is going to be different from the younger generation, which has different requirements. So, they have to analyze that fact and train them accordingly. They are very smart, extremely savvy, and they know what they want. They are exposed to the new developments far more than we were at their age. This environment also teaches them and gives them the right training. PR agencies don’t invest enough in that process. HR sees it from their point of view and training doesn’t get the kind of importance it deserves. The third aspect is culture and if you can get all these three together in the right way, you have a chance of retaining talent.

Q.   From an industry perspective, do you think Indian corporates put enough of an emphasis on internal communications?

Both large and small organizations feel the need for effective internal communications. They are getting more transparent and professional because they want to look up to the big companies. They are looking at CSR, sustainability and internal communication because they realize that if their employees cannot be their brand ambassadors, they are not able to reach out to their customers in an effective manner.

HR is essential, it is a bed rock but then one has to go beyond that. Our Rise campaign was basically an HR transformation process. We cascaded it down from the senior management level where the CEO is like the project manager, the HR head is next in line, the strategy head becomes the other cog in the wheel, and then I take it external. But before I take it external, I need to know what is happening internally and what I can speak about. If the employees speak about it, then it adds to the credibility when the message goes external.

We created a cultural moment for the first time in India. We got a boutique brand and communications firm called Strawberry Frog to give us an understanding of how this is done in a global organization..  Scott Goodson from this firm, said movement marketing isn’t only external, it doesn’t only mean advertising and slick campaigns. It also means how you deliver internally which influences how your employees perceive you.

Mahindra has a defined scoring system which determines how our employees engage with the organization. This articulates Rise internally and it took us three years to achieve that. We created an army of Rise-aters, which were young talent, nurtured and trained for internal communication so that they can be the energizing factor.

We have optimized every digital medium internally far before a lot of other companies.  It is not only for marketing and sales but also for internal communications. I recently launched Pinterest internally to engage and see some visual manifestations of our communications on this new social media tool. The employee feels engaged with the organization and it could be on various topics, nothing to do with their work. They realize that they are important to the organization, and that their voices are being heard. So I think internal communication plays a very vital role in the 360 degree communication pattern that one would devise for an organization.

Q.  What is your outlook on the gap between the PR retainers and advertising retainers?

There is merit in the fact that PR spends will not be as big as advertising spends. Media buying is expensive and it depends on the kind of businesses you are in, such as, consumer organizations, FMCG, manufacturing, etc. The advertising budget will go either low or high depending on the type of company.. A B2B may have a different set of rules for advertising and may be doing something very specific that will not cost too much. While something like our XUV 5OO sport utility vehicle needs to be out there, there can also be a corporate campaign that we need to do. It is like comparing apples with oranges.

That doesn’t mean that companies today are not investing in PR. They are investing because they would like to see returns on the perception or image of the organization. They will not hesitate but one can’t compare the scale of the operations, because they will be very different for advertising compared to PR spends.

Q.  Is the gap between advertising and PR budgets worrying or do you think it is a distraction?

I think PR budgets would have increased depending on the business requirements over the years. Earlier, PR itself as role definition was far different than what it is today. The erstwhile PR practitioner was just a person who would handle media and a little bit of government liaison, all rolled into one.  Today we are into business communication and an organization realizes the worth of business communication. It realizes that it is touching all the stakeholders of the organization.

A marketing team may have double the number of people dealing with different facets of advertising and marketing, but PR, corporate communications play an equally important role in an organization when they are doing strategic communication.

If they believe that only media relations is their main activity then that’s a different way of doing business. Today we are at a point where we are saying that in the next 10 years we will be one of the top 50 top most admired brands in the world. How do we achieve that goal? It is a collective kind of proposition, both internally and externally.

I’ll give you a small example. There was a Sulafest in Nasik recently and after the Sulafest, at 12:30 am, a couple was driving out and the lady fell ill in front of our Nasik factory gate. Now somebody could have just shrugged it off, but our watchman didn’t do that. He observed, came out, at 12:30 am on a deserted road in an industrial area and gave water to the lady, got chairs, made the couple sit down, and offered assistance if they needed anything.  The gentleman with her was touched and he tweeted to our Group chairman, Mr. Anand Mahindra and said, your company is special.

That watchman didn’t have to come out and help. It was a small gesture but we are enabling people to rise in communities around us. Mr. Mahindra made the effort to send him a lovely personal message thanking him for what he did and asked me to share this story.  This is what the organization’s DNA is all about. How does a company perceive its own employees? How does it deal with external people? All this is relevant and it’s all about creating a positive perception about the company.

It’s not all business. There are softer issues as well. When one builds a brand, one builds it with a 360 degree integrated communication template. We have mastered that and it is our strength.

Q.   What has been your favorite PR campaign at Mahindra?

When I came in, I created the profile of this role in this organization. They respected that, there was a need to have a strategic blueprint. I actually created that blueprint for business communication. That was the first milestone where we had an empty canvass and I created that profile. For me it was very satisfying that I created that, and that template is still working today and it is also evolving.

We have an annual conference where Mr. Mahindra gives us the strategy blueprint for the organization; it’s called the ‘Bluechip Conference’ where senior executives come together with their cerebral identities to generate the best possible growth strategy.

For me, that was where I got my Eureka moment and said “this is what it is!” This is the message I need to focus on. At that time it was globalization and a focus on financial returns. I called this as giving a “gilt edge” to the organization. G is for globalization, I is for innovation, L is for leadership, T is for the technology led organization that we have, and then we said we must add one dimension of customer centricity, so now I call it GILT C. So that’s out internal communication template that doesn’t change, but the yearly execution evolves.

The execution model is definitely relevant to the time and the businesses one is in.  I don’t think any organization has given the same opportunity to a PR professional as the one I received.

The second aspect is about how I deployed this strategy. When I got the Rise campaign, it was all about a rallying cry and philosophy.  Going out to the media and telling them about this philosophy was a big challenge.  So I orchestrated the whole media plan or PR plan in a very meticulous way. I said I will define what the media wants out of it, and that whole orchestrated media plan which I rolled out was the success story of Rise.

I had taken this activity to the board level so that they understood the impact and outcome of this effort. The PR campaign that I defined, was successful, in fact it was one of the best PR campaigns, not only for me as an individual and my team, but for the organization as well. It has also been validated externally and recognized globally which is why I was pulled out last year and given an individual recognition at the Holmes SABRE Awards. I realized the impact when I went there and saw the kind of people who were receiving awards. I thought “I sit here representing the “Mahindra Group”, an Indian company which today is being recognized on a global forum for having orchestrated a PR campaign”. The campaign was very transparent and business-like but at the same time it has also built the Mahindra brand. The CEO and senior management has been committed to it, and they all understand its value.

Q.  How would you describe Mahindra’s 2013 communication strategy?

We are slowly moving into what we feel is the next frontier namely – visual and creative communication. We feel that business communication will exist but to enrich it, and globalize it and get Mahindra to be one of the most admired global brands, there is a need for creative and visual communication.

This will help to create aconnect with potential customers in India or elsewhere around the world. They could be using our bikes, or SUVs. They could also be living in our green buildings in India, or holidaying at a ‘Club Mahindra’ resort. So we have this whole world of consumers, a new set of consumers and it’s a young world for us here in India. in other parts of the world there is an ageing population. To reach out to all of them, we are trying to leverage visual communication, both internally and externally.

In fact for the first time I’ve hired an internal videographer. I feel that it is important to communicate visually and one needs to use this medium effectively. I have what is known as” The Mahindra News “channel internally, which is relatively unstructured. I’m creating what is known as passion within the organization. To stimulate that passion, one needs to communicate at levels which are very different from what an orchestrated communication pattern would be. I’ve always broken the norms of communication in that sense.

One has to be transparent with business communication. It’s not only about networking with media and getting stories. One has to give them a value proposition, because otherwise no matter what you do, it is not going to work.  Mahindra’s communication has been so credible because first we communicate internally, then leverage integrated communication, and finally communicate externally.

And the media fraternity respects it. The universal feedback is that ’Mahindra’s communication policies are robust, open and transparent. They say we can get any information at any point of time, 24/7.

Last year, I had a PR conference, where my team evaluated their passion profile. I did a small training module and I took them through a questionnaire. I said “I want to know what your passion profile is. If I don’t know that, then you will not be able to communicate, it has to come from within”, and they were surprised. They thought they were in a regimented PR conference, and that they will be talking about all the elements of PR. Suddenly here is a lady who is telling them “No, let’s drop everything; I want to know about your passion profile.”

It has been articulated in the company’s philosophy of enabling people to rise. That philosophy is part of my work and the idea now is to leverage the digital space and leverage it effectively. Traditional media has a big role,and  we respect them, and they continue to be robust. Our whole business strategy is articulated by them. We are just trying to take it to the next level of creative and visual communication. The story telling, the content and the narrative remain very critical for us.

Interviewed by Kunal Pal for Image Management

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