Increasingly, there is more overlap between PR and advertising, says Andy Polansky
New Delhi: For a man who leads a company that spins narratives for the world’s biggest companies, often helping them contain reputational damage, Andy Polansky is reluctant when it comes to talking about his job. As global chief executive officer of Weber Shandwick, one of the world’s largest public relations firms with more than 4,000 people on its rolls worldwide, Polansky points to the similarities between his profession, public relations, and his passion, kayaking. The man, who started his career as a journalist, says sometimes the current is behind you and wind at your back while at other times, you can be paddling very hard but don’t seem to be going anywhere. Polansky last visited India five years ago when Weber Shandwick bought out local firm Corporate Voice in which it already had a 40% stake. Seated in the cigar room of the newly-reopened Oberoi in the capital, Polansky speaks about the changing face of public relations. Edited excerpts from the interview
How important is the India market for you? What is driving growth here?
It is a very important and big growth market for us. Within Asia Pacific, this is the fastest growing market though China is the largest market in the region. We have 13 offices in the region.
We saw double-digit growth in India, this past year. I think it is just a by-product of many multinationals looking at growth opportunities here. China is still an important market, still a growth market but a lot of multinationals are looking now at India for the next wave of growth. So clearly, it is important for us to continue to develop our business here. We have a great foundation and a reputation in this market. There is a lot of opportunity for us to continue to grow.
Are some markets more stressful than others in terms of reputation management?
Overall, the world is a complicated place now if you consider geopolitical issues, economic issues, so I am not sure whether there are particular markets that are more stressful. I think it is just that firms feel they are in a pressurized environment and looking for advice on how to navigate that complexity. I don’t think there are markets that are more pressurized than others. I think it depends on the business, on clients and their go-to-market strategy, what they are trying to achieve.
You have spoken about the importance of the reputation of the CEO (chief executive officer) of a company. How important is that today? How do you manage that?
I think it is more important than ever. We have done a lot of research that suggests that there is an expectation that CEOs are role models and they take a position on key issues; I think the employees, customers and other stakeholders expect that. Over the years, we have done a lot of research on CEO activism, on how more and more consumers care about the corporation behind the brand. Certainly the CEO is the focal point for all that. People need to feel confident in the leader of the operations. More and more CEOs are realizing they need to be more present and have more public visibility.
In India, what kind of advice are your clients looking for most? Is it dealing with media, the government or other constituencies that they face?
I would say globally, and I would come back to India, about 60% of our business is marketing-oriented. So, clients are asking us for creative ideas on how to promote their product or services, how they engage with consumers in interesting ways. I think that’s more important than ever because the media world has changed. Sometimes one needs to employ different approaches even to directly engaging with customers on online platforms.
Then about 40% of our business is corporate reputation and public affairs. But in today’s environment, context is so important and the two very much come together. Our model is to have an integrated approach.
Another interesting aspect of the work, and that is definitely true in this market, is how we help public-private partnerships. So, sometimes, there may be a government initiative that requires a consumer education campaign. We often get involved in those campaigns and give strategy and execute those campaigns.
How has the PR industry changed in the last 30 years?
It’s changed dramatically. Certainly, digital has been a key driver in that transformation. So, it has completely re-oriented how we think about what we do and how we advise clients and the programme we have. We do more social media work than any agency in the world. We have over the last several years built up our capability in digital.
What has changed in our business is that it has become more specialized. So, if you look at our healthcare business, around the world we have PhDs, nutritionists… we have people who understand healthcare in great depth. The same is true in technology.
Is there more overlap between public relations and advertising?
I think it is fair to say there is more overlap. We sometimes say that it is the blurring of the swim lanes. We still partner quite a bit with advertising agencies, we’re a holding by Interpublic, so our sister company is McCann. We work closely on some campaigns with McCann Worldgroup, FCB and Lowe. But increasingly, particularly with digital, we do compete sometimes with advertising agencies. Companies that are looking for the best idea, and what’s been a game changer for us is that we are in the broader consideration set. May be 10 years ago PR would have been thought of in a particular way and we wouldn’t even have the opportunity to come in and offer ideas. And now, we very much have a seat at the table.
Can you give us an example of a client that you have helped deal with a crisis anywhere in the world?
That’s a sensitive question. Our role is to provide the advice and not talk about the role we had or the work we did. Some of the best crisis work we’ve done are things you’ve never heard about because we have been able to contain it effectively. So, these are matters of great sensitivity and are material to the companies involved. What I would say more broadly is that there have been a lot of high-profile crisis scenarios and what I find is that a lot of times, they come back to the culture of the companies. You are going to have bad actors, things are going to happen in the business, but if you have the right culture, the right values and the right purpose, then I think it is easier to navigate through the issue. It is not about what the company says but what the company does. It comes back to culture, especially if you are running a global corporation which has to be somewhat decentralized... there have to be some values at the centre that permeate the organization.