Wednesday, November 05, 2008

PR, media, corporates and communications: Sandeep Bamzai’s analysis

Here is Sandeep Bamzai’s guest column in

The wheel always comes full circle. No, this isn't a philosophical observation, but more of a reality check which embodies the old adage that there are no permanent enemies over the long term. Well, the Tatas have shown that through their public relations firm – Vaishnavi headed by Nira Radia.

Some years ago, all hell broke loose between Bennett and the Tatas over a morphed image of Ratan Tata in The Economic Times. The schism was significant and the Tatas pulled out all advertising from all Bennett & Coleman publications. Vaishnavi was at the forefront of this exercise and though many attempts were made to bridge the chasm, the divide grew wider. Bennett also blacklisted coverage of Tata events, results and other sundry happenings.

Meanwhile, Hindustan Times benefited from this rift as it got an even larger share of Tata advertising, including a big ticket deal for the HT Leadership Summit. But recently, one saw a major change, which meant that the rapprochement was complete. With the Tatas shifting the Nano to Gujarat, Tata Sons chairman Ratan Tata was interviewed by only three media outfits – Times Now, ET and TOI. Nobody else got a look in. The interviews were truly exclusive to the Times Group. This signaled a major change in Tata policy and I guess back channel diplomacy had paid off. But equally significantly, even as the champagne toast was being given to the shift from Singur in West Bengal to Narendra Modi's Gujarat, HT wrote an extremely damaging piece on its edit page against Ratan Tata and the Tata's conduct in Singur.

Yes, the wheel had come full circle. HT, which had been falling over itself to please the Tatas, had launched a broadside. The leader written by Prem Shankar Jha was extremely hard-hitting. Titled – 'Whose brakes failed?' – Jha's piece on October 5 was a scathing indictment of the way Tatas had managed things in Singur. But more importantly, on the whole the Tatas had managed the environment rather well. Jha aksed whether the Tatas were really the wounded victims that they made themselves out to be and Mamta Banerjee the villain that the world had made her out to be. Coincidence? I doubt very much.

This was, in a manner of speaking, a big victory for Nira Radia herself. Some eight years ago, like a bolt from the blue, she was handed over all public relations functions of all Tata group companies. Harried by the Ajit Kerkar-Indian Hotels fiasco, followed by the Dilip Pendse-Tata Finance scandal, R K Krishna Kumar convinced Ratan Tata to create and in a way incubate a centralised PR outfit for the group. And it seems to have worked over the last few years.

Managing the environment is a euphemism associated with the unified Reliance Industries. Jokes about R positive and R negative have been doing the rounds for years in Delhi's political and bureaucratic underbelly. Reliance in its split wide open avatar has never used external PR outfits. The 'environment was always managed' by internal resources. Against this backdrop comes the shocker that Reliance Industries with all its heavyweights in the capital has chosen Nira Radia promoted Neucom Consulting as its communication consultancy and single point of contact to deal with all requests and queries. Now this was a coup for Radia. One of the biggest clues of this impending announcement came when at the height of Singur drama. Reliance Industries Limited Chairman Mukesh Ambani came out in support of the Tatas.

So, we now have a situation where two of India's largest private sector industrial groups are using a common communications consultancy, though Neucom is obviously at arm's length distance from Vaishnavi, even if the promoter is common to both. This was unthinkable till a few years back. Will communications consultancy include the corridors of power or will it be limited to media and environment management. More than that, what remains to be seen is whether the stories against RIL Retail will stop in ET?

Anyway, the wheel has come full circle. And yes, here and now.


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