Chairperson, BCW India Group at Genesis BCW and Six Degrees BCW
Those who have been following my blog know that the first few years of Genesis’ journey were about literally building the foundation for the public relations industry in the country. That meant educating companies about how they could engage with their various stakeholders (not just with the media) to better deliver on their vision and strategy. The unique thing about public relations is that it is the only marketing discipline that touches all the stakeholders of a company. Of these—the government—is a key one. We knew that for our public relations efforts to have a wider impact, we needed to help our clients communicate more effectively to and engage with the government. Understanding this need, we set up our own Public Affairs division.
A NEW ERA FOR INDIA
The year 1996 was a watershed one for Indian public affairs. With the economic reforms and opening up of the economy, several reputed multinational companies began to enter India to do business. With that, there was a need for a policy re-look, because a lot of these companies did business in areas that were new to policymakers. New technologies were being brought in, new ways of working…all this meant that there had to be a framework for legitimate engagement with the government to discuss policy.
Photo: Our Public Affairs Advisors having an internal discussion on policy issues. These brainstorming sessions bring various perspectives to the table that help define and shape strategy.
L-R: Suraj Lal, Ashok Chakrabarti, Vinay Jha, AK Sharma, Subhash Mehtani
We knew that we needed experts from both, government as well as business. So, besides our team of subject matter experts, we also set up a panel of former bureaucrats who brought with them a deep understanding of governance structures and the policy-making processes.
HELPING THE INDUSTRY MAKE BIG LEAPS
The first phase of reforms was macro in nature and needed a broader approach. For instance, in 1999, the new telecom policy had been notified. The policy set out a roadmap for mobile telephony in the country. We had at least 6-7 mobile manufacturers already in India. Together they made up only 20% of the organized sector, while the remaining was made up by the informal sector, which included smuggled goods—the ‘grey’ market. This was due to very high import duties which restricted companies from setting up their own commercially viable retail presence or after-sales support. Our team of experts collaborated with these companies to help them set up an association. Together we went to the government and convinced them that if they lowered the duties, these companies would be able to increase sales and bring revenues to the government that would offset any loss because of lowering of duties and more importantly the consumer would benefit from better quality and choice of handsets in the market. It took us some time, but we were able to eventually get it done, and look what has happened since.
As reforms have gone into the third and fourth phase—GST, for instance—there has been increasingly a need for subject matter experts who can bridge the gap between business and government. And this is how it will continue to be. The process requires us to constantly evolve our expert panel to stay ahead of clients’ needs and adapt to the changes.
Today, as the platforms for dialogue have multiplied, the message, the evidence and a multi-stakeholder campaign approach have become a prerequisite to cut through the clutter and confusion and effectively engage on policy issues. Additionally, pursuing the reform process requires far more education and awareness of initiatives and impact where a partnership approach is needed between the government and the industry. This is both at local as well as global level, where there is heightened interest in India and we have seen a need to drive a deeper and better understanding of the opportunities that India presents and the progress being made on the ground.
COLLABORATION IS KEY
The very basis of public affairs lies in collaboration. However, as the discipline evolved in India, it was apparent that it needed a formal structure for collaboration. Over coffee conversations, Ajay Khanna (Jubilant Bhartia Group), KC Ravi (Syngenta) and Harish Krishnan (Cisco) and I discussed how critical it was becoming to create an industry forum for the public affairs practitioner community to come together. This led to the formation of Public Affairs Forum of India (PAFI) in 2008. Today, at 13 years old, PAFI is not just a platform for the public affairs professionals, but a meeting point for industry and government in general. Recently, PAFI concluded the eighth edition of its annual National Forum. The theme of the event, Reviving the Economy: Reimagine, Reboot, Reform, brought views from over 50 speakers, including Union and state ministers, government officials from the center and state as well as global and multilateral organizations, CEOs, media, think tanks and legislators. The conversations spanned different industry verticals and concerns and the event became a way for industry and government to discuss how they can work together to help India move forward in the post-COVID environment.
DRIVING TRANSPARENCY AND CHANGE
Over the years, public affairs in India has evolved to go beyond helping companies engage with the government. Key trends, such as rapid changes in technology, geopolitical realignments, multi-layered media landscape and issues like climate change and migration have opened new connections and channels of communication. We have also come a long way in terms of transparency in policymaking, creating level playing fields, introducing equitable practices, and in the whole process of policy formulation itself. Conversations that used to happen behind closed doors are now happening at open forums, with not just the government and industry but also other stakeholders like the media and civil society actively participating in the process. Today, public affairs is not just about government relations but also advocacy and policy communications which require a more integrated and multi-stakeholder approach.
Photo: Our Advisors with Genesis BCW Public Affairs team
Far-left: Subhash Mehtani, S Sundareshan, Far-right: Sayan Chatterjee, Ashok Chakrabarti
When I see the kind of work being done by our Public Affairs & Advocacy team, led by Rahul Sharma, I see how much more complex it has become to do business in today’s environment. Public affairs, with an integrated approach, is the only way to help companies navigate these complexities.
The article was first published in the LinkedIn