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Mind benders

A public relations professional shapes opinion through creative means, finds Sanchita Guha.

education Updated: Nov 04, 2009 16:43 IST
Sanchita Guha

The Americans did not exactly invent public relations, but President Thomas Jefferson did use the term for the first time in 1807. It was also an American, the Austrian-born Edward Bernays, nephew of the famous brain-picker Sigmund Freud, who is billed as the ‘father of modern PR’.

Towards the end of World War I, Bernays was part of a committee that worked on moulding public opinion in favour of America joining the war. As he got into the act, Bernays developed a favourite technique: to influence a group, first influence the few people who hold sway over that group. That strategy has proved to be an enduring one. Spin, the sly cousin of the more noble-sounding public relations, uses it to the hilt.

For the corporate world, Bernays’s definition is a perfect fit: “Public relations is the art and science of managing communication between an organisation and its key constituents to build, manage, and sustain its positive image.” This is what modern PR professionals do, and the ‘constituents’ are clients, media, focus groups etc.

As competition in business gets tougher, PR has had to become more creative. Now it is not just a question of how to shape opinion, but also how to stand out in a crowd where everyone tries to shape opinion. It can be stressful, but executives like Ananya Chakraborti rise to the occasion.

“Every day, I learn more — about wine, for example, for a wine promotion, about spas, about design software. Every day is a new challenge,” says Chakraborti, manager, PR and marketing communication, at Hilton New Delhi Janakpuri.

An inclination towards interacting with people is a very important trait. As is the ability to enjoy the constant brain-racking. “We have to keep coming out with new ideas on how we can create a buzz,” says Chakraborti.

She likes writing, and her job lets her explore that. “We have an in-house magazine, press releases, then you design something — a flyer, newsletter, invite. Once we did an invite in a wine glass,” she says, citing the creative satisfaction that PR can offer.

While Chakraborti, who was a sociology student, charted her own course, several institutes now promise to train you as a PR professional. Unfortunately, few deliver on that promise. “Most institutes give students a diploma, but not practical knowledge,” says OP Verma, a former PTI chief of bureau who now teaches PR in DU colleges as well as Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. “The course puts them in a job, but then they learn by trial and error after a lot of thrashing (from bosses).”

“Competence happens along the way,” agrees Sangeeta Kuriakos, CEO of Clea Public Relations, a top agency. Kuriakos, a veteran of 14 years, lists patience and perseverance among the most important qualities for PR execs. “Of course, your communication skills and confidence take you further up the ladder,” she adds.

PR students with the best odds of succeeding are those who know how to organise news meets, make different press releases and cultivate media relations. All these come under portfolio production and Verma suggests that is what a student should look for in a course.

Public relations is defined as the art of communication. For an individual, it means highlighting his/her qualities and achievements and making the right contacts to further his/her career. For a company, it means positioning itself right in the market, establishing a relationship with the media, building goodwill and remaining in the news through events/activities. A PR professional is expected to know the most effective and concise ways to achieve these goals. With increased competition in almost all sectors, the challenge is to make one’s message distinct from everyone else’s

Clock Work
The hours are not fixed, especially if one works with a PR agency. It is not unusual to have to work 14-hour days. But in a good phase, it could go like this:

9 am: Reach office and check the day’s plan
10 am: Discuss promotions with the team
Noon: Work on releases to be sent out
1.30 pm: Break for lunch
2.30 pm: Brainstorm or meet/call media
4.30 pm: Fine-tune event details
6.30 pm: Leave work

The Payoff
In the communications industry, PR is one of the best paying fields. A top ad agency may offer Rs 8,000 a month to start with, whereas a top PR agency would offer Rs 15,000 or so to a beginner. Working as a PR person for a hotel is one of the best learning experiences and ensures a steady income and some perks, but to make big money, one needs to be independent after building enough contacts. A PR professional who leaves a job to open his/her agency can take a lot of top clients away with him/her, and in such cases, the fees can run into lakhs

A natural inclination to mix with people
. Good grooming and language skills
. The ability and interest to stay updated on current events
. Patience and perseverance, as rewards will not be instant
. A talent for picking up arty ideas, software applications

How do i get there?
Several institutes offer courses on public relations specifically or at least teach it as a paper within a journalism course. The Chronicle School of Media and Communication, Noida, is one of the few institutes to combine classroom teaching with practical lessons in portfolio production. Five colleges under Delhi University offer BA (Hons) in journalism that has a paper on public relations

Institutes & urls
. Delhi College of Arts & Commerce
. Kalindi College
. Kamla Nehru College
. Lady Shri Ram College for Women
. Maharaja Agrasen College
. Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi
. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan
. Chronicle School of Media and Communication, Noida
. New Delhi YMCA

Pros & Cons
Creative satisfaction
. Exposure to various fields
. Self-development by learning different skills
. Work hours could be very long. Sometimes one has to be up all night for a big event
. Building a base is slow, hard work
. Attrition levels are high

Great pr is anticipating needs

A veteran speaks about the field

What changes in the PR industry have you seen over the years?
Most corporate firms are now more aware of what PR can do for them. They understand the role of PR in the overall marketing mix.

The difference between a good PR person and a great one?
A great one anticipates his/her clients’ expectations, is tenacious as hell and understands what the media can finally deliver.

What do you need for a start-up?
The question is, how hard are you willing to work? Consumer PR means long hours and no time off! But the effort is worth it, as PR pays very well. A mom-and-pop PR agency with no multiple city network needs just a laptop and BlackBerry! The bigger you want to be, the higher the investment.

What is the edge that PR has?
In the communication business, PR pays the best. But working at an ad firm or at a company that holds celebrity events may be seen as more glamorous.

Sangeeta Kuriakos, CEO, Clea Public Relations Interviewed by Sanchita Guha