Akansha Pradhan, Piramal Enterprises: Doing PR for a CSR Campaign Can Backfire

Image Management sat down with Akansha Pradhan, Head, Corporate Communications at Piramal Enterprises in Mumbai last month to explore her role within Piramal and how PR can support the CSR activities of corporates. As a professional who has held key roles in communications teams (that included stints with both Tata and Reliance), Pradhan is part of a breed of communicators who understands that PR strategy is more important than simply putting a spokesperson in front of a journalist. Although, as an ex journalist, she did joke that it was much easier to be asking questions from behind the camera than in front of it!

Q.  What do you believe PR’s role is in creating and executing CSR or Sustainability initiatives?

At my previous job in TATA, the philosophy was to not do any PR around CSR. But everyone saw what happened in Singur. People had no idea of the kind of benefits the community would have had if TATA would have come there. TATA are not there to wreck lives, they will make communities. But people were not aware and they were swayed. We went back with an understanding that by not talking about CSR, we were losing out more than we were gaining. Now TATA’s strategy has changed and they have CSR conclaves.

When it comes to Piramal, we have neither spoken about CSR, nor have we run a campaign as such. People have found out about a lot of initiatives like Sarvajal which is one of the most talked about campaigns. It is about bringing clean drinking water to urban slum dwellers and the rural population. We have not actively pitched itto the media because we have let people find about it.

The Piramal foundation was started in 2006, and Sarvajal started in 2009, and now that we have enough momentum, we need partners. For that, one can tell the marketing team promoters or start pitching. The PR rule is very simple, one can tell the promoters and media to come and see the plants and see how it works. When one creates enough positive energy around it, one sees that partners come by themselves. One doesn’t need a marketing and sales force. Charitable organizations and foundations don’t have that kind of money.

It is important to be honest about one’s work. Journalists will see through the lies. If one makes a commitment of doing something or demonstrating X things, they should show that work and not hide it. There have been such cases. For instance a high profile mining company did a very nice PR campaign on social media and it came back to bite them. Because they were essentially trying to greenwash, so that people don’t see all the negativity, which is wrong. It is important to do PR for CSR, but only when they know it is for the right reasons. And we do it to get partners, to engage with government, to engage new partners, to get new corporates interested and to get volunteers.

Q. A lot people view CSR through a lens of suspicion and accusations of “greenwashing” are common. Do you think it’s important to convey the intentions of CSR via PR?

One must have the right intentions. If one has not started with the right intentions,then it is going to come around. One will find out that either the communities, or the government, or the employees are upset with them. The employees are going to question the organization and one will not have a very motivated employee base. If one tells their employees that “we are going to help and get people clean drinking water”, but everyone knows it is because we are ruining the environment, it is not good for anybody.  One should not do PR unless they have the right reasons.

Good PR campaigns, including Piramal’s, work only due to integrity of thought, speech and action. If one doesn’t believe that they are actually making a difference, they should not do it. And that’s true for everything, not just CSR. Even if one talks about acquiring a company or talking about new revenue streams and doesn’t believe in it or that they did it for the right reasons, they shouldn’t talk about it at all because it is wrong.

And people like me won’t be able to help them out because we won’t believe in it. I am one of those few people, who have worked with TATA and Reliance, so I genuinely need to believe that you are making a difference.

Q. What major trends do you predict for PR in 2013?

The trends honestly have been the same.  It started off in actually 2010 when we started off with “social media will come”.  It is 2013 and we are still waiting for the social media to come, as such. It is present and is far more developed than earlier, but Indian companies are still not able to use social media well enough. Social media is definitely going to take more time.

Consumer facing brands have understood the power of social media and they are consequently doing better. Corporates don’t require a lot of social media right now, because they don’t know what they want to communicate to the end customer. Organizations like Mahindra and Piramal are always on Facebook and we have a social media space, but it is more important for consumer facing brands.

Another trend which is picking up because of Instagram and Pinterest is visual graphics, and all of us have started including it. Whenever we send out a press release, we also send out either a CD or a web link to a video or a presentation etc. If one visual or one graph can convey the message, it is much more effective. 

A lot of international companies outside India have started doing info-graphic story boards. Especially for complex data, such as in technology or in healthcare. For instance when one is talking about CDMA technology, one will talk about the provider or the tariff plans. Build a story board, put that together, make one info-graphic and send it out. Even The Economic Times now has one last page that has little data sheets. Visual elements have started making a difference, so one needs to invest in data.

Another trend is companies making indexes. Indexes just throws out data and that becomes PRable material. Visually represented data works the best for us.

Q. What has been your favorite PR campaign by Piramal?

When I joined, we were still Piramal Healthcare. Now we have moved to Piramal Enterprises and I am a Piramal Group Employee. The best campaign we did was transition in the minds of journalists.

In 2010, the business was sold to Abbott but people still think of Piramal as a healthcare company, as a pharmaceutical company, which is not true. It is a diversified conglomerate. It has real estate, defense, financial services, NBFC, and also it has a PE firm. There are multiple moving parts in the company. So it is important for the journalist to now understand what they are covering.

We had a lot of pharmaceutical journalists come up and they would not understand why are we investing or why are we talking about financial services. We have started a yearlong campaign for which we sat down, understood our own business, and worked on messaging and understanding what journalists need to know about our company. Are they tracking a pharmaceutical company or a defense company or a real estate company? The entire campaign was to write the messages, followed by a press conference and multiple numbers of meetings, to explain to everyone what the strategy is and what is going forward. Because the biggest question was, “what are you doing with your money now that Abbott is gone?” We have strategy now; we have four verticals within that and we are investing further.

Journalists have responded a lot. The kind of questions addressed to us have improved. They want to know what we are doing in the future and how we are sharing our strategy.

Our media strategy has worked for us. We were tracking and comparing pure media ad values. The media attraction we generated recently, by acquiring of DRG (Decision Resources Group), a U.K based company versus the media that we generated in 2010, when Abbott Sale happened has been 7 times more.

Strategy is more important than simply putting the spokesperson in front of a journalist. If the spokesperson does not know what he needs to communicate and the journalist does not understand the company, he is going to come back with the same questions. We are doing similar thing for our Piramal foundation. One will see our CSR messaging happening in a while.

Q. What is your PR strategy for 2013?

Now that the conglomerate image is more or less settled, we are going to talk about a way forward. We have acquired a few companies and made verticals.  We will now talk about their performance. 

The foundation is one area that we have never spoken about, because we allow people to come and scrutinize. But now we need partners. We need people to understand our business so that we can grow it.

We don’t believe that we can solve every problem ourselves. We don’t need money, but we need people to support us. To engage partners, we have decided that the best way would be through PR and through proper media outreach. We have various projects scattered across Rajasthan, Gujarat, Assam etc. We will build one single image for Piramal Foundation because we don’t want people to know us because of one initiative, all our initiatives are great. That will be one big campaign that will unfold in the next fiscal year.  

Interviewed by Kunal Pal for Image Management


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