Arun Bhagat, GMR: Our Communications role after the Maldives Airport Crisis Was To Be Upfront


Arun Bhagat, EVP – Corporate Communications, GMR Group

As Executive Vice President – Corporate Communications, GMR Group, Arun Bhagat believes that the corporate communications and lobbying functions have come together in the form of corporate affairs. This understanding is based on the acknowledgement that today’s corporate communicates to, and with, the media, government, and consumers – often simultaneously.  Particularly as part of a company dealing in a media sensitive industry such as infrastructure, Bhagat understands that the next big crisis might be just around the corner and that it is his job to be ready.

In an interview with Image Management, Bhagat explores the impact of the IPL on the GMR brand, how he dealt with the Maldives Airport Crisis, and why PR agencies may have a very limited role in the future.

Q. A recent Economic Times article stated that your involvement with the IPL has “propelled GMR into the big league.” In lieu of the national awareness increasing about the GMR brand, what PR activations have you planned around the upcoming IPL season?

The IPL Franchise is another line of business for us. They have a separate annual operating plan and targets to achieve. When we had bid for it, the purpose was to be known nationally. Since we were a south India based company, we were not very well known in North, and we had started building an airport in Delhi. Subsequently it has to be run like a business and make a return on investment. They have a separate team which hovers around their calendar.

Their theme is to be socially responsible and support events with similar theme. For instance, they are helping authorities with safe public transportation in Delhi and fostering cricket and football at the local level with some assistance from NGOs. They have conducted sport tournaments and they are taking it a notch further by associating with some cricketing academies to run tournaments, specifically for Delhi. All these activities help in increasing the number of fans and connecting with people.

Q. What do you consider before exploring event sponsorship or partnership opportunities?

The nature of our business is such that our consideration is strategic, rather than tactical. We have to deal with a lot of stakeholders, and many of them are key policy decision makers.

We try to associate with events where we would be able to put forth a point, propagate an idea and therefore have some kind of an advocacy of a cause, whether it is power sector, infrastructure financing, or infrastructure in general.

We take part in events which are popular on a national scale, such as NDTV’s Indian of the Year, CNBC TV 18’s Business Leader Awards, The Financial Express’ India’s Best Bank Awards, to get media coverage because we want our presence to be acknowledged.  Our engagement with such events is long term, usually three to five years.

Q. What was GMR’s communications strategy in the wake of the Male, Maldives airport setback?

That was one occasion, but in this business we keep getting some kind of crisis to tackle.

We have had several occasions in Delhi when the crisis quotient is high, whether it is the CAG report, or raising tariff, or the case in Maldives. In all these cases, we’ve played the role of a strategic stake holder, because we have to communicate to a various kinds of people. For example, in the case of Maldives and New Delhi, we had designed specific packages, and put together teams which could address specific stakeholders.

Even though it is their job, we are very specific about how they would talk, which paper they would present, what sort of collateral they would carry with themselves etc. In several meetings, either I was present personally or my colleagues were present, even if it meant going and meeting a government department or a regulator or the media houses.

We had put together a team of our senior people for media interactions. A team of six-seven people met each media house or publication, including the ones in the Maldives where the media is not big. Things work out fine in Delhi, but what happened in Maldives was beyond anybody’s control.

We put in a lot of effort to ensure that our message gets across because it was important to us. People don’t necessarily know the story behind the scene. When people in Delhi realized that there had been no revision in tariffs for the last 10 years, they understood we were not asking for much. After all, we are not in business for charity.

When a crisis springs up suddenly, our role is to be there upfront. In Maldives, the day the Airport got taken over, I was on every channel; we faced a tough front.

Q. How would you describe the importance of using influencers and brand evangelists as part of a communications strategy?

They help in certain cases. In my previous job, we did not use any celebrities. But subsequently, the use of a celebrity to endorse brands has been game changer. They made brands more appealing and people could relate to it. For example, office products such as laptops became consumer products.

But for B2B companies, evangelists work where as brand endorsers don’t. Evangelists work because they understand the business, are well respected in their respective industries, and can address the media.

For example, for the cases of Delhi and Maldives, we mapped television programs on this subject over the last couple of years, and spotted people who feature on television at 9 p.m. most often to give comments. We identified them, and started working with them to educate them. We didn’t want to influence what they had to say but we said “we will give you all the information, so that you are better prepared if and when you get a call to come on a television program and speak.” And that is helpful, because then nobody talks without having the knowledge of the subject. Eventually some of those people did put forth few of our points.

Q. On an industry level, do you predict any significant change in the PR budgets of corporates this year? Why?

I see a lot of convergence happening. The distinction between what was corporate affairs and corporate communication has disappeared. It has become a combined entity which we call corporate affairs, because of what happens when the government influences the media and when the media influences the government, or the other way around. We also need to consider the political class because eventually the bureaucracy plays a major role in legislation. But public opinion plays a bigger role than all these things.

Another element which is adding to all this is creation of special cells within organizations. This is happening because of proliferation of the NGO’s. These cells address the issues which NGO’s and activists are likely to bring up. This is especially true for our business since infrastructure involves dealing with land, which is scarce and the land water is getting increasingly legislated.

And one also needs to balance this with the company’s corporate social responsibility. Every interaction with politicians, the media, the bureaucracy, has to be in sync because if any of these are not in sync, then there is going to be a problem.

Having said that, if the company affairs ministry is going to mandate 2% spend on CSR, there is no discretion about the expenditure. And if one is going to spend a certain amount,they might as well be able to communicate what it is being spent on, to avoid any kind of misunderstanding or miscommunication.

The budgets will have to go up. People with only one skill set might not suffice anymore, because it is going to become a more cerebral function, and will be represented at the highest levels in the management. It won’t be just a key person in Delhi handling all the affairs; it needs to be more comprehensive, rather than concentrated, management. We Indians are not there yet but hopefully we will, like the Americans’ have lobbying in a structured manner.

Q. How do you think the relationship between corporates and PR agencies are evolving? What do you think is the future of the PR agency?

I believe agencies have a very limited role. The media does not seem to get along with agencies, and they would much rather deal with the company themselves. That could be a valid reason because, for agencies, these companies are just accounts and therefore the agency employee is not communicating the true philosophy of the company. He can only talk about what he has been told, and if a slightly twisted question is asked, he won’t know how to respond and want more time to get back to company for answers. Given the deadlines of every media house, they prefer to interact with the company directly. This phenomenon is going to continue and get more pronounced.

Media houses will need a very different kind of talent. For example, in the current scenario, there are many things a corporate house may not be able to do directly. They require an agency to do it for them. For instance, if I want information on something, I won’t get it directly. I need somebody to research that for me. Now researching information requires a different skill set and mind set. People who are into the  communication industry for glamour will not work. One needs to have more serious, low key people, who will be able to penetrate systems to get the information.

If we want to find the reason for any particular problem we are facing, we would take an agency’s help. They can analyze the problem and then sit with the management and say “This is the communication plan we have devised, this is how we need to tackle the problem.”

Everybody has an agenda but if I can’t find the information I need through my sources, it is maybe because we went there as company. PR agencies will increasingly need to have talent for this kind of role.

Companies up to certain size and volume need not have an elaborate corporate communication set up, and maybe a good agency can therefore help. But the agency will have to interact with the head of that company directly because the agencies can act as a force multiplier.

If need to reach 42 cities across the country for a road show, they can help me because they will go to all nooks and corners and gather the local media which I may not be able to do.

For the same reason there are media agencies which releases one’s content in papers. Their outreach is much better than mine, otherwise for an advertisement I can go to any office and give it myself.

Interviewed by Kunal Pal for Image Management.


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