Spearheading Yahoo!’s Communications Efforts in India and South-East Asia, Arunav Sinha understands the challenges the internet giant faces from a PR perspective. In the context of a rapidly evolving tech landscape, the Yahoo! brand has needed to evolve, while staying true to its core brand values. The general tech narrative might look to cast Yahoo! as an ex-giant on the decline, but Sinha feels this is only because of the strong passions and love that the Yahoo! brand evokes. It is his job, then, to continue communicating Yahoo!’s brand values, while encouraging consumers to experience their products.
In our exclusive interview, Sinha talks about what Yahoo! is trying to achieve from a communications perspective and why the Indian PR market is unique.
Q. What would you describe as the main aim of Yahoo India’s PR strategy for 2013?
The strategy emanates from Yahoo’s aspiration to makes the world’s daily habits inspiring and entertaining.
Our daily habits have changed from what they were ten years ago. Now days we wake up in the morning, look at the mails, news, preferably on an iPad and quickly check some videos, do some search, look at weather, finance quotes, etc. During the course of the day, we do a numerous things using digital platform.
Yahoo! intends to make some of these experiences much more inspiring and entertaining because we have properties across world’s daily habits, so our communication strategy also emanates from this. It is about focusing and highlighting such experiences, and the impact web products have on its users.
The strategy is really about products and our technological strengths, because a lot of these experiences cannot be delivered if one’s tech credentials are not strong.
In India, we have two companies -one for local product, sales and marketing and the other one is the R&D operation. Thus, in addition to consumer, trade and product communication, we also have strong talent led messaging.
Q. If we were to zoom out and look at what Yahoo is trying to achieve globally, there has been a shift in terms of focus over the last few years. How has the way Yahoo communicates evolved to fit a new vision?
Yes, it will be fair to say that we went through a fair amount of change but one thing which remained constant is the worldwide love and respect for our brand. People like and trust Yahoo!, as if it were an individual. Our brand is really a ‘hang out’ brand for people.
We have expanded and sharpened our focus when it comes to communication from PR perspective. Earlier, we spent energies across various initiatives, but now we are focused on doing less but deep. We call it ‘PR with a purpose’. Now our PR is focused entirely around users and products. We try to explore how can we tell our stories to users and how the product has made a difference to users? Another crucial role for PR is reputation management of our products. Since we run some of the most popular properties on internet, we are also target for attacks. During such times, the key is to communicate in a timely fashion to users.
On talent front, we have very strong developer engagement programs like Open Hack. PR team plays a crucial role in positioning these initiatives among the target groups.
As of now, we would like products to be our centre piece, fulcrum of our energy. Whether it is new product launches, or product enhancement, the majority of our PR investments would be in communicating the product experiences to our consumers.
Q. Given the uniqueness of the Indian market, how do you think your PR efforts in India are different?
There are definitely differences. While there are global themes we run with, we also have few specific programs to address local circumstances. I advocate this and educate my counterparts in other parts of the world, especially those in emerging markets.
For example, even if one gets a story in all editions of the largest circulated newspaper in India, it will still reach a small fraction of total newspaper reading population. The fragmented media base in India is something that one has to consider while devising PR strategy.
The fact that lots of bureaus have independent charters is the reason why the same newspaper may not look the same across the country. And therefore different bureaus have to be engaged separately. The fragmentation is further amplified by language media force.
Indian media is worthy of credit for looking to hear unique perspectives from companies and organizations, unlike in western countries where media in many ways has turned slightly opinionated about things. It doesn’t mean that there is no debate. The media likes to hear one’s perspective and have an interesting discussion. PR in India has the unique opportunity to educate users and industry at large, via media. For instance the culture of bylines has very little appetite in many other parts of the world, but it’s quite prevalent in India. Key is that companies use bylines to educate and share forward thinking with public at large, and not hard sell the company through it.
It is an opportunity for companies which are right on the edge of internet or technology revolution. The media sees these companies as a source for developing their own thinking about the space.
Q. What are the most common mistakes PR firms make while pitching?
Q. The recent episode about “telecommuting” has drawn a lot of attention to Yahoo globally and a significant portion of the reaction has been negative. Have you seen a reaction from Indian journalists about it and how did you respond?
All this also reflects people’s love for the brand. People can like or hate a brand, the worst is when people are indifferent to a brand. Fortunately, our brand is watched and noticed by the media at large.
This is a global policy, and our CEO has clarified that this is right for Yahoo! at this point of time. It was not a generic comment on how the industry should look at it. Our stance was not different from our global stance. This brings us to a very important point especially for industry folks. One can’t have different international and local stance; it has to be consistent.
We operate in an environment where everything gets reported everywhere. So, if one has a different stance in France and a different stance in Australia, they are most likely to get into trouble unless they have a good explanation for it. For several multinationals like us, we stick with the global stance and that is what we did in this case.
Q. Tech journalists globally are known for strong allegiances and opinions. This means that many tend to highlight the narrative that Yahoo as an ex-powerhouse on the decline. How do you combat this view?
It is a reflection of their expectation from the brand. Whenever media is critical of you, it is very easy for companies to call them cynical. But they are an equal partner. Tech journalists and tech industry at large are opinionated, and that is probably correct when you are challenging technological boundaries. Tech companies are always looking to change the world, and so is Yahoo! and it has rub off on journalism as well. People from the tech industry also have to follow the same unsaid rule about the industry. But often when they say things like that, we also see it as their love and expectation from the brand. It encourages us to start working towards changing that perception.
We change that perception by powerful products, amazing consumer stories and by making these journalists experience some of our latest innovations. It is a lot about helping them experience our products. While they may have a certain perception about a brand at certain times, they aren’t completely hostile about any particular brand. They are equally receptive if one has a genuine innovation to show. For example, when we recently launched the Flickr application for IOS, Forbes rated it as the best photo mobile app in the world, and global media at large was effusive in praise.
When they personally experience that moment and that spark, they write positive pieces. The good thing is that they all want us to succeed, and any kind of feedback that we get through their stories is a source of encouragement, motivation and improvement for us.
Q. What is your take on the use of celebrities to build brands? Do you think it is a trend in decline?
Looking at the figures that the celebrities are getting paid, I don’t see it as a decline. India has very few celebrities, as compared to Europe, US and South East Asian countries like Japan and Philippines etc. If one counts super celebrities in India, they are no more than 25. The use of celebrity to promote the brand is not declining but brands have become more thoughtful about how they want to use celebrities.
Brands are becoming increasingly intelligent about how they want to use celebrities. The brands are now looking at an engagement with celebrities which is not confined to appearance for the brand, but also involves producing meaningful content around the brand. It is about engaging them for ground activation, getting actual users to meet them and feel great about it. Brands need to look at whether there is a genuine fit with the celebrity.
For example, last year, P&G, one of our clients launched something called ‘Style Factor’ on Yahoo! India. It’s a celebrity led fashion, beauty, and personal grooming content site built with subtle product placements. The way the product was weaved within the overall product message, and yet had editorial integrity is something that brands are moving towards.
Q. On an industry level, do you see digital retainers rising to compete with traditional PR retainers?
I will cite Yahoo’s example. Yahoo’s core audience is on the internet. There are about 100 million web users in India and if one has to expand this base and bring in new users, one needs to invest beyond the internet, like in print and on TV, etc. It is not just a PR challenge; rather an overall marketing challenge and all the digital companies are investing in both traditional as well as digital media.
The current focus for all the companies is to expand their market because it is a very miniscule market, as compared to some other emerging countries.
A lot of investment is still in traditional media. With internet seeing the rise of superior content, social media, video, communities, there is fair amount of opportunity for PR professionals in the digital space itself. This also brings its own set of challenges because one now needs to respond in real time, else brand’s reputation can take a big hit. Keeping that in mind, all communication professionals have to be prepared to respond in real time, our teams should have that capability and the entire system has to be geared towards managing the challenges of the digital space.
Q. Why do most PR firms lose their existing business?
Interviewed by Kunal Pal for Image Management