B N Kumar, popular as BNK24x7, has recently been elevated as the Chairman of Governing Council of Public Relations Council of India (PRCI) during the organisation’s 12th Global Communication Conclave held at Pune. He was earlier the national president of PRCI – the leading organisation of PR, corporate communication, media, HR, advertising professionals and mass communication teachers and students – where he led to the successful conduct of six global meets. BNK, also an executive director at Concept PR, has over decades of experience having entered his journalism classes at Osmania University, as he says, in June 1975 when Indira Gandhi declared the infamous Emergency. In this free-wheeling chat with Richa Seth, BNK discusses what unique work PRCI has been doing and how he intends to take the professional body forward.
Question: What has been the progress of PRCI over three years of your presidency?
BNK: It may sound like I am blowing my own trumpet! But as a team, we at PRCI have done quite a few novel things. We improved our presence across with several activities involving communication professionals. Apart from conducting knowledge forums in association with media organisations such as various Press Clubs, we have been able to conduct a host of activities for mass communication students at universities and colleges. To give an example, we at PRCI observe July 1, the official birthday of late Kalpana Chawla, the Indo-US astronaut, as Daughters’ Day. Over the past three years, we have been coming out with annual themes for the Day. We drew inspiration from the Prime Minister’s Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao and focused on girl security with a campaign #betisuraksha. Last year, we focused on higher education for girls – #SikshitBeti-SakshamBharat. We have been conducting online and ground events, contests to increase awareness. We are happy that the mass communication students and teachers have been showing a lot of interest in these activities.
Here, I must mention the role of PRCI’s youth wing called Young Communicators Club or YCC. The YCCs functioning at various communication colleges actively coordinate the student activities.
We have a unique Guest Faculty Pool which, I do not think, any other professional body has thought of. We pool in experienced communicational professionals and they visit various colleges as guest faculty and impart practical training to students. Encouraged by our success in Mumbai, Bengaluru and Kochi, now we plan to extend this to other parts of the country.
PRCI has now begun to observe World Communicators’ Day on October 28 – the day the world’s first press release was issued in the US in 1906. To mark the occasion, we have conducted workshops for young PR professionals on The Art of Press Release Writing across the country. What is important is that many senior journalists conducted these workshops and the PR professionals got a flavour of what the media thinks of their press releases!
Question: Please share some milestones achieved by PRCI (experiment with social/digital communication)
BNK: Yes, this is again something unique. We pick up the causes that affect a large section of the society and hammer out a campaign across the media. We started with #MissionMumbaiLocal campaign focusing on the plight of the city’s suburban train commuters. How many of us are aware that daily 10 to 15 people die on Mumbai railway tracks? And you do not have to blame misadventures by some youth doing circus on trains. This issue was hotly debated When a young man fell to death from a speeding train and a mobile video shot from inside the train went viral. Then Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu asked the Central and Western Railways to thoroughly study the crisis situation and come out with solutions. The Central Railway committee report threw up astounding details of these daily deaths, reasons and of course suggested a Rs 20,000 cr makeover plan. The report was put up on the CR website and we drew media attention to it, did a media meet with the Railway’s GM in association with Mumbai Press Club, ran a simultaneous social media blast. It could be coincidental, but the Railway has begun to implement the recommendations such as reduction of the gap between platforms and train footboards to prevent commuters slipping under the trains, improve the frequency of trains and punctuality, have new stations. One of the major reasons for the delays in train running is the fact that they get held up on platforms in the absence of parking for them. This leads to piling up of trains one behind the other. Now the railway has agreed to ease the situation by constructing stabling lines, or parking lines so that the train movement could speed up. As the report says traffic on Central Railway is rising by four percent every year mainly due to cheaper prices of housing than on the Western Railway where the traffic is falling by one percent a year. Our campaign focus was to impress upon all stakeholders to act in the interest of the common commuter and it is part of the social messaging endeavour. This campaign has bagged the PR Milestone of The Year Award. PRCI initiated the campaign and Concept PR has executed it.
Then we launched #saveparsikhills campaign drawing attention to the reckless plundering of the once picturesque Parsik Hills in Navi Mumbai. Our campaign, launched on the Environment Day led a to a huge media outcry. Four NGOs supported the cause and addressed the media. During the hearing of a PIL at the National Green Tribunal, key stakeholders like CIDCO, the Maharastra Pollution Control Board, Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation have all filed individual affidavits that they will not permit the quarrying unless the central environment department clears. The NGT too passed an order this effect. Now quarrying of Parsik Hills has stopped.
Remember the Kamala Mill fire? Looking at the absence of fire and accident prevention measures, we ran a campaign – #vrplayingwithfire. If you see, the safety arrangements at many multiplexes are scary. You take minimum 15 to 20 minutes to get out of a movie hall after the show, thanks to narrow passages. We raised questions on these and I am happy that the media too picked up the cause. Our campaign formed part of the New Year eve stories mentioning the cancellation of parties in the wake of the Kamala Mill compound fire.
Question: What is your next campaign and when do you plan to launch it?
BNK: You will hear about next blast very soon.
Question: Your views on the evolution of PR industry with the digital disruption?
BNK: PR industry in India continues to evolve. I started my PR career with Dhirubhai Ambani’s Reliance way back in 1985. As they say, much water flowed into the sea after that. We used to go to media offices to physically deliver invitations and Press Releases. We didn’t have the luxury of even faxes and the Internet came much later. Yes, digital disruption is impacting all kinds of communication including PR. Today, there is no alternative but to go with digital disruption. While the younger generation quickly adapts itself to the technology and various tools, the generation my era and even the next one is forced to quickly unlearn what they have studied and go for new learning. Those who resist, are obviously swept aside.
Question: So, do you think that the PR industry is now evolving fast? Or its miles to go…
BNK: I firmly believe that as an industry we have come a long way. Many PR agencies are now winning global awards, pitching our talent with our global peers. Some agencies and consultants are doing work – be it crisis communication, financial communication or even product launches and sports communication. It is also notable that the regional PR, along with the regional media boom, has begun to flourish. This is exactly why we at PRCI also recognise the regional PR talent during our annual awards.
As Big B says in KBC shows, Koi Bhi Sawaal Chota Nahin Hota (No question is small), I keep stressing during my media training sessions for corporates that Koi Bhi Media Chota Nahin Hota (No media is small). Regional media and regional PR are as important as the so-called mainstream ones.
Question: PRCI runs an e-mag and comes out with a magazine as well? What’s special about them?
BNK: You have got to see them to believe. PRapport – that is PR and Rapport put together – is our unique e-mag that updates developments on a real-time basis. We are now in the process of broad-basing it as an industry mag. You will be happy to know that PRapport already enjoys 50,000 plus page views from across India, US, UK, France, Russia, UAE, Singapore, Ukrain, Canada and Portugal. And the data is not forged!
As regards our in-house journal, it is called CHANAKYA and it is produced with a degree of professional touch. With my experience as a newspaper and magazine journalist, I contribute my mite to it. During the recent Pune event, we brought out a special number of CHANAKYA focusing on the Conclave theme Transformation or Perish with contributions from a cross-section of experts. The magazine is highly popular among the PR community.
Question: How do you think the young talent should be mentored and groomed?
BNK: Grooming and mentoring should be part of any organisation. There is no point in blaming the youngsters if they do not perform well. It is the bounden duty of the seniors to show them the right way – starting from writing press releases to talking to the right media persons and even strategic planning. In fact, our national president S Narendra, who was media adviser to several PMs, has suggested that we should conduct internships to make mass communication students industry ready. There are over a hundred colleges which teach mass communication in and around Mumbai. Ditto in Bangalore. I really doubt if all the 3,000 odd students coming of these colleges in each of the two cities are able to find jobs. Now, we at PRCI have decided to conduct internship training with the help of our faculty pool.
Question: Do you think there is a need for the senior leaders to unlearn and relearn some of the new age skills – pitching to the new age media etc.
BNK: Yes, it is important. If one has not started this process, it is high time for the generation born in the sixties and seventies to quickly embrace technology. I have come across many people who either do not know how to even send even basic e-mails or are apprehensive about the technology.Many organisations have already done away with messenger boys or peons. Soon, secretaries too will be part of history. So, either you go with the stream or get swept aside. The world is not going to stop for you. At the risk of sounding like a preacher, I must say that we should use our brick-and-mortar experience with the fast-changing technology to address the GenX, GenY and even GenZ.
Question: What is the role that PRCI will play in building our community?
BNK: As I explained, we are going beyond the pink-shirt, party-happy phenomenon to an era of knowledge sharing and enriching the experiences. Let me give some breaking news here. PRCI and MIT Pune have recently signed a MoU to work on an advanced PG diploma course in communication. We will work on the syllabus and faculty with 100% focus on practical training. Thus, academics and industry will work together for mutual benefit.
We are happy that our media friends have been helping us in bringing both the communities together. Senior journalists do participate in our debates and conclaves. For instance, we have had a very interesting debate on Media-Social Media-Instant Media during the PRCI’s 12th Global Communication Concave at Pune last month. Several senior journalists presented their respected perspective. You will hear about more of such activities soon.
Question: How is the PR industry growing especially in the disruptive communications environment (automation through AI, fake news etc.).
BNK: We dealt with this subject at our Pune conclave. We were really fortunate to have had the participation from the IIT Kanpur Alumni Association’s Pune Chapter in the technology sessions. We were given to understand as to how Artificial Intelligence will play an increasingly key role in our day-to-day lives. As I said earlier, we have to embrace technology in an intelligent way. But I strongly feel that personal relations and communication will have their own place despite AI. Data collection and analysis could be done through AI, but unique strategy planning and execution will have to be done with personal touch and care. Technology cannot substitute human care.
Fake news? Guess, we will have to live with it and learn the ways to separate the wheat from the chaff. Many of us blindly forward messages without checking their veracity. It doesn’t take long to verify before forwarding fake messages. Once upon a time, we had rumours. Now we have fake news. We also come across a new phenomenon of reporting, quoting unconfirmed rumours! How can it be a rumour if it is confirmed?
Question: What are the future plans of PRCI?
BNK: As I said, we are working on several plans. We will have increased involvement with mass communication academicians, students apart from the professionals and even corporates. We are also closely working with some other industry bodies, NGOs and so on. We have already initiated a joint platform called PRact with Indian PR Forum. Through PRact, we did couple of workshops, including the one on press release writing, for the young professionals. We ran a workshop on disruption for which we had TV anchor Rajdeep Sardesai doing a telecon.
Question: PRCI has launched a global platform?
BNK: Yes, we have initiated the World Communicators’ Council or WCC to bring global professionals on a common platform. Under WCC umbrella, we already launched PR Councils in UAE and Sri Lanka. Soon, we will have WCC units in the UK, Australia and the US. The basic idea of WCC is to exchange experiences and enhance our knowledge levels.
Question: We heard about Green Certificates that PRCI issues. Tell us more.
BNK: We have done away with bouquets at our events. Instead, we get tree planting done in the name of the dignitaries and give them a Green Certificate honouring their presence. During the last year’s Conclave at Bangalore, we tied with Say Trees to plant rainforest saplings on the outskirts of the city. This year, at Pune, we are planting diabetes saplings in the name of over 50 experts from across the fields who addressed our delegates. As you know, nobody carries bouquets home and they are wasted. Our idea is to use that money for tree plantation. Though very small, it’s our humble contribution to the environment.