202. Why organised PR for politicians is a non-starter
Other than a handful of politicians including the controversial Chief Minister of Gujarat most politicians wouldn’t even know that PR firms exist. When I say politicians I’m referring to about 10,000 individuals belonging to the two leading parties in each Indian constituency, which is a whopping 4896 in number and that doubled because I said two leading parties. Yes the total number of MLAs and MPs in India is 4896 and they happen to be the electoral college for the President’s election in India.
Of these 10,000 candidates in every nook and corner in the country other than the handful in the urban areas and those in the rural areas with urban or international education which maybe about a 100, most won’t know that there exists a business of reputation management in a structured professional way. Take the state of Gujarat for example which has 182 members in the assembly and survey each of the members. I am sure not more than 9 which is 5% would have heard of Mutual PR or APCO Worldwide. (These are not made up stats but dipsticks conducted while I was working in the state). Having worked first hand with the administration in the state for over a year in 2007-08 it took us time to convince the bureaucrats that the firm I was employed with was a global strategic communications firm and not a visa processing unit. And of the 2 or 3 who got it there was further convincing to be done that we charge by the hour and our fees our calculated in dollars.
It was good to read Anant Rangswami’s big idea in Firstpost. While the opportunity exists the potential can only be tapped after a decade when a new breed of young, educated politicians takes centre stage and a new offering from PR firms emerges or a new type of PR firm gets created, just for this purpose.. I can list six reasons why this is a non starter in current times.
a) Politicians have never believed that someone else can craft the message for them other than their private secretaries and bureaucrats attached to the office they hold.
b) A new set of firms or a new practice needs to emerge which only sells political communication. Regular PR firms that specialise in consumer, corporate and healthcare will not be able to crack this.
c) Political communications requires being on the ground and until a force of professionals willing to build their career in smaller towns and state capitals opens up this will only remain a big idea.
d) Politicians are not used to paying for what they can see – products that are tangible. Such men and women can never be convinced to pay for an intangible service – consulting and that will be a major hurdle to cross. Awareness is the key.
e) Politicians will expect the firm they hire to kill negative stories which is never the job of a PR firm and they will all get sacked the moment the first negative story emerges. Educating the politician is not impossible but not easy either.
f) Most importantly unlike in the US where these services separate offerings from ideology in India a firm will get linked to a particular party and that baggage will be too difficult to shed.
These and more reasons will keep that opportunity on hold at least till 2014 which will be a watershed year for Indian politics given the current situation the country is in.
And for the record it was never the Gujarat Government or Narendra Modi that hired its PR firms. The task was mandated to one of the Big Four auditing firms that works with the Government in 2007 which spent a year convincing the senior IAS officers of the need to have one.
Perhaps, it will take politicians to be involved in a major event like the Gujarat CM was involved in to want to hire a PR firm. Until then let’s keep hoping and working the math.
PS – I was APCO’s first employee based in Mumbai and the only full time employee to have lived and worked in Gandhinagar to kick-start the Gujarat mandate between 2007 and 2008