Rukmini K Baxi is an independent Public Relations Consultant with several years of experience in the industry. She shares her thoughts with PR Intelligence on the challenges of an independent consulting career, PR practice in India and a host of other issues in Public Relations and Communication Management.

At a time, you worked with APCO Worldwide as a consultant in Strategic Communication and Digital. What would you say was your greatest achievement in that capacity?

APCO Worldwide facilitated an enriching experience, where I was given the opportunity to upscale my prior Public Relations skills with an impactful blend of doing cause-based work. As a Strategic Communications consultant,  I worked closely on high level corporate and government stakeholder engagements. I was a core team member on a spectrum of Litigation and Crisis Communications advisory for leading players in the global F&B, Luxury sector and philanthropic entities within the development sector.

I was blessed to be mentored by my Director, Mr. Kartik Upadhyay who was instrumental to shaping my integrated approach towards building client’s trust and service expertise, which led to positioning the client as a game changer.

An independent consulting career can be very challenging. Please share with us the key challenges you are facing and how you are surmounting them.

Passion with foresight is what drives a successful consulting career, in my view. I believe, today, an independent consulting career can be extremely gratifying for an individual who has developed a strong foundation. A professional who has weathered several storms in her career has a deeper insight and ability to turn things around in a crisis. Today, Public Relations is no longer seen in isolation.  Instead, it is perceived as an integral layer in the larger communications gamut.

 Mind-sets have evolved significantly with the onset of a digital era. Therefore, the entire approach to client servicing is envisaged to spin real time results. As PR professionals, we have come a long way from being known as ‘thankless warriors’ to those who work earnestly behind the scenes to steer conversations and debates as social influencers at the helm. As a fraternity, I feel grateful that the Public Relations industry today is well respected and its services are very much in demand.

When one takes a leap of faith to kick-start one’s own enterprise, building trust and goodwill among potential clients is the key challenge. I have been inspired by the entrepreneurial journeys of several women leaders from the Public Relations and Corporate Communications fraternity, who have demonstrated sheer grit to set up their individual enterprises while being at the peak of their career. I have been fortunate when it comes to building my good will in the industry. Peers and friends who have shown conviction in my knowledge, skills and approach to deliver with a difference, are the forces that help me to grow my client base. 

Please tell us what you do and why prospective clients should come to you.

I believe my core strengths are in building a narrative that is result-oriented and demonstrates the bigger picture. Having said this, what I bring to the table is more strategic in nature, where I design, develop and train thought Leaders, those who aspire to influence and lead change. My in-depth experience of almost 10 years has equipped me with dynamic skill-sets to work with my client as a close confidant in an effort to arrive at long term solutions.

My approach to work is ‘timeliness with an element of fun.’ When potential clients come to me, they may not even be well aware of what their key problem is. That is where I step in to deep- drill on their business expertise and streamline a variety of options they can choose from. Hand-holding and helping my clients recognize the potential in their brand architecture and customize the narratives, is among my professional expertise.

For example, our Messaging and Media Sensitization or Reputation Enhancing workshop, is designed in a manner that encapsulates an eclectic mix of visuals, that is, videos and Vlogs, texts, mock interviews, and a live newsroom experience, where they are participants and not just static spectators.

You have worked in the PR industry in India for close to a decade now. How has the industry evolved in the last five years? What changes have you observed?

Like I had mentioned earlier, today PR in India offers a whole new dimension with the onset of the digital era. Content generation is built on the premise of device compatibility.  I see this as a huge opportunity to create a story in a specific direction where our target audience is. Public Relations mandates have expanded from being mere event or press release-based to real time conversations.

While as PR professionals we have a responsibility to achieve a sustainable model, we also have a much wider reach to cater for in the last five years. PR today is a catalyst which is transforming and touching lives on a macro-level and heightening the excitement for a brand or an individual. This is a very profound growth, in my view, for the PR fraternity.

What do you think the industry will look like in the next five years?

The next five years will be the new age of deep learning technology. The PR industry will play a pivotal role in transitioning how brands communicate and creatively use Robotics, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence. Thought leaders and relevant industry bodies need to invest in knowledge penetration, skill enhancement training, scenario planning, creating a niche in order to upscale their growth trajectory and stay ahead of the curve.

How is Public Relations conceptualized in India. Is it seen merely as publicity? How has that influenced the way it is practised?

 I believe Public Relations in India is no longer perceived as a publicity technique. Instead, as I mentioned earlier, PR today in India is an integrated communications approach to establish, protect and sustain a larger brand architecture.

In my view, PR professionals today are viewed as esteemed partners who are at the fore-front of safeguarding reputations for their stakeholders. PR in India is practised as a skilled advisory service, where C-Suite level training, crisis management and creating Influencers are among the top expertise. Global brands and ambassadors are increasingly leaning towards a strategic alliance with Public Relations to progress to the next level.

The PR industry in India grew by a whopping 12 percent in 2019, according to a report by Public Relations Consultants Association of India (PRCAI). What do you think accounted for this phenomenal growth when most sectors in the country reported slow growth?

Poor communication and poor goal setting, especially for brands seeking to demonstrate enterprise value, attract investors or buyers, or recruit talents in a fiercely competitive market, are what led to several companies’ inability to achieve desired business outcomes. These are areas where the Public Relations industry fared better.

This industry grew exponentially in 2019. Information & Communication Technology sector contributed over 20 percent to the overall revenues that accrued to the PR Industry. In fact, the PR industry has demonstrated a sharp growth curve since 2016 with 19 percent, 18 percent in 2017, and 13 percent in 2018 respectively. The financial services, FMCG, travel, government and the swift moving consumer tech industries have also been significant contributors to this growth.

Public Relations Consultants Association of India (PRCAI) estimates that the Public Relations industry will be valued INR 2,100 Cr by 2020, indicating a double digit growth as per the industry’s current market size. In India the Regional Language Connect is a massive boon for the PR industry.

The PRCAI report also revealed that, for the first time, revenue from non-media relations PR services went as high as 53 percent, overtaking media relations which stood at 41 percent. What, in your opinion, moved the needle in favour of non-media relations services?

India has witnessed a rapid boom in tech-startups, new-age financial companies and Fintech players. This has presented lots of opportunities to Public Relations as these firms jostle for PR services in a bid to distinguish and establish themselves as credible brands with great futures.

With a global digital wave that is here to stay beyond the next decade, the need of the hour is up-skilling and multi-skilling. I believe that campaign-led approaches with a full proof strategy, reputation management, employee engagement and C-Suite level training, has moved the needle in favour of non-media relations.

A good example is the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation’s campaign which showcased how PR can rescue a brand in crisis even without the use of media relations.

To ease the fender-to-bumper roads of the city, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited announced a new metro line called Mumbai Life Line 3. This initiative sparked many questions from credible voices and influencers since it required felling trees, displacing people, and generating massive pollution. What transpired was a negative impression of the move.

The rail corporation came up with a campaign to assuage the feelings of the people. The campaign used a mix of advertisement, digital programmess and community engagement tactics to connect with five million citizens of the metropolis who were affected by the planned metro line. And the result was outstanding. By engaging with the community, the company educated them on the facts of life and how the new line would benefit them.  The campaign made such a big impression that a High Court order which stopped the rail corporation from cutting trees to lay down tracks was revoked.

Another great example is the #TouchofCare campaign by Vicks, which depicts the story of a transgender woman, Gauri, who has a clear goal to endorse itself as a brand that believes in the vital gestures of touch and care. In 48 hours, with no paid media support, or promoted views, PR alone generated over 4 million views of the video.A compelling story weaved into a four minute video achieved over 10 million clicks on You Tube.

Having said that, Media Relations is a rare skill-set which a PR professional uses to build brands in peaceful and crisis situations. Brands today are not immune to crisis and need not steer away from conveying a poignant message on a public issue.

Which non-media relations services are gaining traction and why?

Reputation Management and Public Affairs are gaining rapid traction. The reason is the need for a ‘people-connect’ approach via positive or futuristic message delivery. A dynamic brand or leader always resonates better, especially when a new phenomenon is trending. Therefore, PR is essential to strike a balance between the reality or factual representation and a blurred vision.

A segment of our target audience prefers the touch and feel of a newspaper even in the era of ‘Tectonics’. They form a certain section of the public opinion and the recall value which could define a brand’s identity. The art of strong media relations is also based on connecting with people. As a PR professional, how seamlessly one is able to adapt and blend with changing times, yet retaining and optimizing on their ‘human-connect’ qualities  is what propels success.

India has the second highest number of Internet users in the world after China. It had 451 million monthly active users as at the end of 2019, according to a report by Internet and Mobile Association of India. How has this influenced PR practice in the country?

As I have mentioned earlier, with the robust IOT penetration (especially at the regional level in Tier 2 & 3 markets) and new-age media, PR practice in India is an integrated boutique service. A diverse country like India, with its multi-cultural, regional, linguistic identity is the perfect playground for the Public Relations industry to flourish as an economic boost to our democracy.

The PR industry in India has impeccably embraced ongoing trends such as visual and creative communication, data-driven campaigns and executive brand building which involved engaging with multiple stakeholders across different levels to sustain respect and understanding. It has also embraced CSR, Social Media Management and most importantly the ‘Regional Connect’ initiatives.

Finally, PR is a very stressful job. What do you do to cope with stress?

It’s interesting and intriguing for me to hear that PR is a stressful job. I joined this profession almost 10 years ago without a formal degree in PR and when there was no generally accepted definition of the field. PR, in my view, is as demanding as any new age profession today. Yes, the attrition rate could be comparatively higher in our industry and that is where the insecurity seeps in. But, I believe this industry has opened the window for many success stories of communication specialists and orators on global platforms.

My spiritual inclination and deep faith in Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism strengthens me on difficult days. It is a beautiful philosophy of life, an inward approach to doing one’s human revolution and leading by example. I am also extremely fortunate to find a steady pillar in my  family.