We sat down with Harish Bijoor last month at a Coffee Shop in a Bangalore Hotel, which was remarkably apt given that he has spent over 16 years of his career with Brooke Bond Lipton India and Tata Coffee. It was during his stint at the latter that Bijoor gained the reputation as something of a marketing maverick – he once printed “Tata Coorg Pure Coffee” on three million eggs and even created the world’s largest coffee mug in Bangalore.
But Bijoor’s expertise as a marketer and communicator extends far beyond the coffee bean. As the CEO of Harish Bijoor Consults and an active speaker on the event circuit, Bijoor has fashioned himself into a genuine brand thought leader – one who makes even the biggest brands sit up and take notice. Never one to hold back his views, Bijoor is characteristically forthcoming in our interview, opining on the future of PR, the rise of integrated communications, and how CSR can play a key role in brand building.
Q. Most industry insiders agree that PR has a PR problem. Does the credibility of the industry need to improve for brands to invest more in PR?
Yes, it needs improvement because PR has got a bad name over the years. It has become a niche profession rather than true-blue Public Relations. Therefore PR is denigrated to something called ‘Private Relations’ these days.
How does one manage a system, take care of it, and how does the system ensure that the client gets a particular delivery? This is the disaster of today’s PR in India. The moment one drop the two letter word called ‘PR’, it is associated with negativity.
I believe that the first aspect that needs to change in PR is the nomenclature itself. PR mustn’t be called PR anymore. I say this because sometimes the negative karma touches one with negative names and we don’t want that.
We need to bring in a more proactive terminology, but that is not enough because that’s the exterior packaging. One needs to package the content well enough to be able to say, “I am genuine Public Relations which touches the largest number of people.”
The status of PR must change. Corporates must start appreciating the fact that PR is not just it what used to be. There was something called old PR which was bad, but the latest PR which touches the largest number of people on a continuous basis is not the same.
These things are going to be pretty critical in leveraging the true potential and mechanism of PR.
Q. At PRestival last year, you have commented that PR, unlike marketing, only addresses the top of the pyramid, a statement which generated some strong reactions from the PR community. How do you think the PR industry can evolve to change this?
PR professionals need to get proactive and say, “My skills go beyond B2B and include B2C as well.”
The moment one defines themselves as a B2B person, they bother only about clients. And incidentally, the client is not a client, because that person is really an aggregator of the client, which eventually is the consumer.
If one is doing only Vodafone as a B2B client, it is a niche, and it is comfortable. One does the drill – regular meetings, research, put together something, go to the media, get some coverage etc., but they should start thinking beyond this.
Vodafone has a set of customers. They have B2B customers for a start, and each on their B2B customer is someone like the print media, television media, and digital media for instance. After that we need to say that Vodafone has some essential customers, who are B2B enterprises which interact with Vodafone on broadband services, data services, network services, about 250 large Indian clients who require large pipes through which data flows.
One needs to peel various layers to touch the real consumers, and the real consumers are people like us who use mobile phone for telecommunication. One needs to understand that the B2B client is like an onion, and they need to peel it layer by layer to reach the core. They might have thought Vodafone, or any company was the core, but it is merely the fringe, the customer lies at the core.
One needs to arrive at a conclusion of how much gumption they have to peel those layers. For that, they need a certain bandwidth of mind. At this point in time, PR professionals’ minds are limited to a very small bandwidth.
There are comfort zones which we don’t want to shake up. The common comfort zone is sitting and saying, “Print, radio, television, digital, client management, the Government and the relations I want to maintain with them”.
It is actually a triangle. A company wants to manage the Government and the media, on another side is the company itself which one must manage. So the competency is 3 fold. People are very comfort zone oriented. The leaders in the PR industry will recruit people who are good at managing these 3 comfort zones and vertical-ize that further.
For instance, an individual is a horizontal who is able to handle the client, the government and the media but now they will hire someone who is a media specialist, another person whose expertise lies in government relations and the third for client management who will be like key account manager.
One thinks they are a horizontal which they are not, they are actually a triangle. One needs to become the horizontal, and for that they need to change their entire mindset. They need to change their vision and mission statement of the PR organization all together. They need to make it more intrusive, inclusive, etc. If one becomes a horizontal from a triangle, then they will start thinking about at least bringing in people who are triangles.
Specialization is damning the industry, and to an extent it is causing niches. One talks to any PR professional and the latter says “this is it not part of my core competence.” Who defines core competence?
Q. Do you think the rising demand for integrated communications campaigns blurs the traditional lines between Marketing and PR?
The lines will blur. Clients will want PR agencies to manage more than what they are managing today, because everybody wants a one stop shop.
In the future, PR agencies might be asked to manage events. And what are events? Events touch people. One can say to a PR agency, “Can you take B2B events which are for my distributors, and can you also touch B2C events which touch my consumers?”
The automotive companies, for instance, are looking something like this. PR is not only for print, TV, radio but it’s also to manage distributor events and consumer events. For instance, I want to get 40, 000 consumers in one place, at Bangalore Palace grounds for Toyota Corolla, my PR agency must be able to do that.
It is a huge opportunity for PR organizations, to become bigger, more relevant, and more innovative than they are. There needs to be this reinvention. If PR companies don’t wake up and do this, clients will in-source all this stuff and eventually the client might want to in-source PR as well.
In India, there are cycles. Levers,, for instance, used to in source advertising once, and then they started outsourcing it, and became Lintas. Lintas became what it has become and now Levers wants to in-source again. So, that will be the ultimate death knell for PR, if it needs to be in-sourced.
Q. Some people argue that if in house teams become strong, reliance on agencies goes down. What is your take on that?
The reliance does go, and it’s already gone down in case of many PR agencies today. One can see that the respect an external PR agency used to govern in the old days is not there anymore. Because companies think they are better than the agency. The moment a corporate entity says that their inside people are better than the outside problem, it becomes a problem.
Every company has a PR head and s/he is desperately trying to save the job, because s/he is also sitting on the other side. They think “If I don’t perform my job well, if I don’t show competency, these guys might tell me that they want only an external agency and my job is gone.” There is little bit of tension there and PR people who work within companies is becoming increasingly powerful.
Q. What role do you think CSR can have in brand building?
Brand building as per my definition, is a thought that touches peoples’ minds and lives.
So any thought is a brand, so to that extent if one looks at the fact that a particular company is focusing on a CSR activity, it is a thought. And that thought needs to be percolated into 100’s and 1000’s of peoples’ minds.
Now that is a branding task. So, PR agencies need to interact very closely with branding organizations, including the ones in the company. The role of PR has to be in close connect with the marketing department of a corporate enterprise.
It’s wrong to divorce the two because the moment one divorces the two, they are playing subterfuge. It implies that marketing has nothing to do with the CSR, which is wrong. The CSR is the umbrella under which everything is going to flourish in the future.
Also, people are getting soft now. For instance, I am a consumer drinking coffee at Lavazza. What is Lavazza giving back to society? Is it a good social person? Lavazza has to invest in becoming and showing itself to be a good social person. Starbucks has invested in CSR, globally and it showcases that beautifully through the products that come out through its chains.
It has got the ‘green language’, the ‘eco language’, and the ‘organic language’. It says, “I source from destinations which are far away, where people cannot find markets, so many children are getting educated somewhere.” Over a period of time, CSR becomes an umbilical part of the front face of marketing activity.
People are demanding and consumers are the future. Every company needs to not only to have every other function, but needs to have the heart as well. And the heart needs to be real and touch people with its work.
Q. How do you think corporates can fight the “greenwashing” allegation – the impression that their interests in CSR are self-serving and misguided?
From a brand perspective, I think, one should build umbilical connect and linkage with who they are.
Be true to what lies in the DNA. One should not go too far out and try to look like something different, because that would be like wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Consumers are savvy people; they look and see through everything in nano seconds, and they will expose everything in totality, if they suspect something. One must take small steps into this.
So brands do CSR, they should be transparent with people and share why they are doing it. They shouldn’t say “We want to do service to society”, because no one will believe that. Instead, they should go out and say, I’m doing this for so and so reason. Transparency needs to be the first adaptation, and one can gradually deepen that transparency.
There must be CSR audits on this, like, “I did this activity, what did I get? And I did this activity, what did the society get?” When a weighs what society got as opposed to themselves, and showcase it in a transparent way, it becomes a good PR-CSR mechanism.
Gone are days where consumers were morons. Today, the consumer is the most intelligent entity. So it is very important to understand that they need to be dealt with intelligently. The format of work needs to be very good.
At this point of time, brands take consumers’ intelligence for granted. They think that their actions are not going to be seen through. But consumer happens to be savviest link, and brands should wake up to that realization.
Interviewed by Kunal Pal For Image Management