While Indian politicians have known for well over a decade about the critical role that strategic PR can play in their election campaigns, the term “public relations” is almost always used by them in a pejorative sense.
No major election strategy is now complete without a comprehensive PR strategy and, behind closed doors, senior political leaders are all too aware of the tangible impact that effective public relations can play in executing successful campaigns. Yet, publicly there is very little acknowledgement for the role that PR can play.
This is because, in public discourse, public relations is still a dirty term. It is slanderous and only meant to conjure up images of shady deals involving suitcases full of cash, lies, corporate influence, and a real disconnect from the aam aadmi. The implication is that “real,” honest politicians – you know, the type working tirelessly for the janta while shunning the spotlight – do not need the help of “public relations” or communications strategists.
The most common target for this is undoubtedly Narendra Modi. When Digvijay Singh slams Modi for giving “300 million dollars to a PR Agency” or when Kapil Sibal dismisses Modi’s Gujarat development model as “nothing but public relations aimed at manipulating the mindset of people,” PR is not being merely dismissed as an ineffectual service, but rather being painted as an insidious and morally corrupt means of deceiving the public.
Rather hypocritical, too, coming from the leadership of a Party that knows all too well the benefit of having public relations expertise on their side for important political campaigns. The Congress have embedded PR support into the War Rooms of all their major recent campaigns. In 2009, they had the support of IPAN (now Hill+Knowlton Strategies) for media analysis, and, this year, they worked closely with Perfect Relations to engineer their recent success in Karnataka.
Why, then, is public relations still such a dirty term? Well, it’s partly because of the great success that Narendra Modi has had through a sustained PR campaign, orchestrated by APCO Worldwide and an internal team who deeply understand issues related to communications and reputation management. Reducing his perceived achievements to “merely” public relations is a convenient political tool.
But perhaps it’s also because the PR industry does very little to highlight their own role in affecting election results and serving as a critical strategic partner for political campaigns. Yes, part of the business is orchestrating the show from behind the scenes, but unless the industry’s leaders consistently and publicly demonstrate their important work in the political realm, we cannot expect the legitimacy of the profession to grow.
The hope is, with 2014 bringing increased political investment in PR, that public relations will finally be able to step out of the political shadows, while publicly proving its worth as an indispensable strategic partner for successful political campaigns.
Written by Kunal Pal for Image Management