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'Many clients are now aware of the importance of PR.'.

Babar Ayaz, CEO, The Mediators, talks to Slogan's Hafiz Inam in this exclusive interview.

What is the status of the PR industry in Pakistan?

I think it is growing. And may be at a faster rate than the GDP growth rate. When I started, there were no PR companies in the country. Mine was the first. Then, after a few years, Syed Jawaid Iqbal's CMC started and then Xenith and APR came. For a long time there were four big names in the industry. But now I see there are many companies that have been started by young people and they have diversified. Some of them are briefcase companies. But there is business that is why these people are doing it. Earlier, there was little consciousness about the importance of PR. Now all major companies have their own PR consulting companies and have strong internal communications departments. I think the industry has grown quite a bit.

What are the functions of a PR agency?

The major function of a PR company is to help the client to communicate with its stakeholders and help them build their image as a responsible company. At the same time PR takes away some space from advertising. Obviously advertising is a bigger industry but PR is like a third person endorsement. There are a number of areas in which PR can work. These days, digital PR is very common. Issue management is quite a specialized job because I do not think most of the new companies can do it in a professional manner. There is financial PR which very few people understand. And brand PR is there. All these revolve around media relations and internal communication. It is not only just building an image but communicating and delivering the right message to the relevant stakeholders and draw a strategy for the client to meet their business and basically marketing objectives. The PR policy has to be integrated and you cannot run it in separate silos.

Have certain clients come out of the mindset that PR and advertising overlap each other? If they have a good PR agency, they can ask them to perform PR duties as well to support their brands?

I think there is confusion at times. The advertising people want to keep the whole pie to themselves. They say they can get a press release printed or interview done for the press by using the clout of advertising but that is not PR. Whenever they are in complicated positions because clients realize that these people cannot serve. Then they come to us because there are very few people who know what crisis management is all about. We are the only ones who train people in crisis management skills. Clients realize that advertising companies cannot do it. Sometimes even advertising companies refer work to us.

How are multinationals waking up to the importance of PR in the promotion of their brands or even in corporate promotion?

I think most multinationals use PR one way or the other. We are doing it for Unilever. If there is more corporate sector-related, sensitive work where confidentiality is involved, they come to us. For heavy duty celebrity-related work, they go to somebody else. This kind of glitzy work is also done by many PR companies. Many clients are now aware of the importance of PR. Look at all the banks. They either have their own PR department or they use agencies from outside. Similarly, insurance companies have strong PR departments.

Some people are of the opinion that PR only comes in handy when there is some kind of crisis confronting them. Is that true?

If you already have a bad image or no image, some people want to lie low. If you have not invested in building the positive image of the company then at the time of a crisis everybody would be after you. If you have done the job, people will see you from the perspective that this company is, for instance, good in CSR. You can call an economic reporter covering everything that comes under his beat. This is not as easy as political reporting where people are dying to get their statements out. Here you need to project the facts and also know that business.

We were the first ones who started training journalists about various businesses, telling them how things happen and their standard of reporting improved.

There used to be a company called UTP, then it became BP and now it is UEP. The president of UTP was John E. Kennedy. He complained to me about the rubbish the newspapers were printing. I said they did not understand the process of oil exploration so we held a one day seminar. Then people started understanding. Otherwise there was a general myth that Pakistan has a lot of oil and the multinationals did not want to take it out. The myth exploded because people understood the difference. When a crisis occurs and people understand you, react in a better way. You have to be very active, rather pro-active.

Many clients expect the PR agency to have a magic wand and simply control the media. How realistic is that?

I do not believe in controlling the media. I am a journalist and I do not believe in this nonsense. I have never promised anything when clients have asked if I could have a news stopped. I just said sorry, I am not in that business. I would say that I could get a version in but I would not have any news stopped because I believe in the freedom of the press. We should understand that PR is not killing the news. It is just getting the right perception through and creating the right atmosphere. I always say that we are there to help and facilitate better communication between the stakeholders and our clients.

How important are media relations for any PR agency?

It is very important to have the right contacts and people should trust you. If I take a news release to the DAWN editor, he should trust me. If you have good relations with the journalists you can always guide and help them to do the story. The only bribe you can give to journalists is exclusive stories. When they get their byline printed they are very happy. When you ring up a journalist and say why don't you do a story on this or this, this should be an exclusive thing. That is where my journalism part is helpful.

Is PR an unnecessary evil or can it be used productively?

It is not evil. You can use it both positively and negatively. It all depends how you use PR and for what purpose you use the various tools. Strategy is important. But a press conference, digital media or a seminar are tools and are a part of the tactics. There is also a problem in Pakistan that people confuse tactics with strategy.

Is PR education currently being given at our business schools enough and equips people for market needs?

Honestly speaking I do not think so. Recently the IBA has set up a shool of Excellence in Journalism. It is being run by a journalist and they are doing some courses. As far as the mass communication departments are concerned, I have seen very few good people coming out of them either as journalists or PR professionals. If you want to be a journalist, you should have command over at least one language. Most people who come from these departments cannot write a press release either in English or Urdu. They cannot even translate. How can you then expect them to communicate properly, meet the client, write minutes of meetings, etc?

Should advertising budgets be bifurcated to accommodate PR?

Yes they should have a budget for PR and some companies do have such budgets. It is essential for companies to have media monitoring and see what is happening in their line of business. That is not just collecting press clippings from various newspapers but also analyzing them.
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Date:May 31, 2017
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