Currently in her role as the Vice- President of Corporate Communications at Avantha, Shravani Dang strategically and operationally leads the function across 14 entities, group companies and their business verticals and non-group entities.
Spending several years in the communication industry has enabled her to hone this function into a force multiplier to deliver effective, actionable and culturally appropriate global communication solutions
In her exclusive interview with Image Management, she reflects on this experience to remind everyone what shows the industry’s progress and some of its everlasting problems with evolving solutions, such as measurement and the notion about Public affairs. She also shares her thoughts on a brand’s criterion before choosing to sponsor and the lack of quality of communication education in India including her alma mater IIMC (Indian Institute of Mass Communication).
Q. The Avantha brand gets a lot of mileage from your sponsorship of the Avantha Masters. What do you look for before exploring sponsorship or partnership opportunities?
The most important thing is to find emotional and cultural connect. We also consider what one offers us as opposed to what we offer to them.
Often when someone sponsors something, they gain lesser from that exchange than the other. For instance, if I attend a seminar as a speaker, the seminar gains by Avantha’s brand name, whether it is actually my personal standing in the market or in organizations, because both come together. In such a case, that seminar gains more than me, which is an imbalance, and we like to avoid it.
Whatever we sponsor should be big enough to give us the branding attributes we seek, and matches our status and stature.
Another factor is their governance and their ethics. We don’t want to start sponsoring just anything, because it means that we are attaching our brand to somebody else’s brand and the latter might go belly up later.
Q. At Avantha, what are some tools or methods you use to calculate the success of your PR and communications campaigns? Have these methods/standard of success changed over your tenure in communications?
Earlier, it used to be share of voice, advertising value etc. but now it is about impact. Recently, I was at a panel discussion and we looked at how to measure PR campaigns by new metrics, some people call it ROI. The entire industry is grappling with the question “What is the right method?”
But no one size fits all. For instance, when I first joined Avantha, which is mostly about traditional manufacturing, we went by the method of AV’s and share of voice. Now, as we move to higher levels, and run global campaigns, we look at more impact based metrics.
I think this shift is positive because it shows our achievement. The old method is not wrong, but one has to go from one method to another for the audience of that evaluation to be able to understand and grow with it. Certain industries such as IT, Financial Services, FMCG, and Pharmaceutical are ahead of the game because they deal with communications all the time, they are external facing.
But we are not because we are more B2B. We have to first show the values that one gets by unpaid communications, and then compare it with paid means. That’s when I get the people sitting on the fence to notice the impact.
But I am going to measure it myself, before they even ask for it. My department will measure itself with impact, because everything we do has some kind of impact, the way one does business and the way one is perceived.
Q. How would you describe Avantha social media strategy, given it is a B2B engagement? What role do you think it plays in promoting the Avantha brand?
We have a digital footprint in place and we have been testing it, because it is new for everybody. Marketing professionals might be ahead of the game because they sell products, but we are selling the organization, as it were.
We have a share of voice in social media’s face and we are putting in place a strategic way to utilize it. There are different ways of doing it. For instance, when something new happens, we certainly don’t want to say, “this is what has appeared in the media and this is the link”.
We want to make it meaningful and reach out to everybody, in terms of what we do in business and our emotional values, while retaining our reputation.
Q. Many in the industry say that communications education in India has not evolved to stay in touch with global trends and best practices. Do you think leading communications colleges (including your alma mater IIMC) are doing enough to produce industry-ready professionals?
I don’t think any education is giving market ready students. I don’t think communication is taken seriously in academics. Huge amount of research is required for communication, including impact of culture, new media, films, comic books etc., but nobody is doing anything about this. There is still scope of good work in some topics, and we need our universities and our colleges to take it seriously.
Everybody says that communication is a key skill, but even our politicians don’t understand it, they need media training. All they have figured out is that it is important to be there and to be seen, but they are missing the act at large.
The last few lines of a press release I saw recently read like sermons. The entire education industry needs to know that every professional needs soft skills. Even IT companies demand basic communication skills from an employee, and there is no one to teach that. It is not about writing an email, it is about presentation, articulation and how one scripts what they have to say to stay ahead in the game.
In my school days, we used to have debates and elocutions, so we knew how to talk and speak but now it’s not there anymore. I was invited to a school in UK to see a debate, and 10 year old kids were debating on global warming. The children even had to cater to questions that the audience was posing. They were quipped to withstand that level of interaction. One can’t imagine 10 year old Indian children to debate like this. The Indian system of education needs to know that there is a whole gamut of being able to speak and we need to work on it.
We need representatives in the international arena who can go and speak well. Some of our business leaders and politicians are good at it but that accounts a very small fraction and that is where we are losing out.
Q. Public Affairs and lobbying are widely misunderstood in India. How can the industry dispel the notion that public affairs equals a suitcase full of money?
It is the same as “wine and dine with journalists to get your story done” notion about PR. Majority Indian companies will always expect that to happen, though there is now a shift in understanding. We have moved from what was perceived as liaison earlier to corporate affairs, which includes influencing and lobbying. And few have accepted that sometimes it works, but sometimes it does not.
In UK, one has to have a license to be a lobbyist. Let us also have norms, regulatory bodies, and not make the shady image of meeting stealthily in dark corners with bags full of money.
We must shatter the women and wine notion of influencing. And because lots of women are doing corporate affairs now, hopefully that image will diminish. Although it’s a matter of time because Indian companies with global aspirations realize that they need people for this work. In the European Union and the US, one needs people for this work and it is happening. Why don’t we use the best practices in India, and make it as professional as we can. It will happen eventually but not at the same pace across all industries.
Q. How do you think PR can evolve into a boardroom function? Do you see it as an imminent next step, a long term eventuality, or neither?
I believe that one should be on the board only if they can add value. If board members cannot move a company to do well at the markets and stock markets, then they shouldn’t be there. One has to get certain things on the table to be a board member. They have to understand the business, be able to contribute, and take the responsibilities that come with being a board member. I have heard a lot of people saying that HR should be on the board.
What is more important than a board level position is to have a seat at the table, and the ability to leverage it for the benefit of the company. Work with every CEO and make sure that they are able to present themselves internationally at different forums, media, etc. and leverage the reputation of their organization for its welfare.
When senior people go to speak somewhere, everyone is on the lookout for content. Nobody cares whether their accent or their English is right or wrong. What matters is their thought, their mind and the content. This benefits their reputation and the company’s image.
Do communications professionals have a seat on the table? I think they are getting there. I have a seat on the table at Avantha Group. I work with the chairman and the CEO there and with the other group functions. I think that is partly because Avantha is ahead of its times.
Mr Thapar is a man with big thoughts. He is changing the face of the organization from domestic to one which has footprints all over the world, and escalating it from being international to being global. He has his ambitions in place and he knows which functions are critical, and why they are or are not critical. I don’t know if other companies realize the importance of communication but certain industries such as IT and financial services definitely do.
Interviewed by Kunal Pal for Image Management