Campaign Staff
Jun 25, 2024

Communications and marketing leaders must sharpen AI skills, says WE Communications' Nitin Mantri

PR veteran and judge at the PR Lions at Cannes this year, WE Communications’ Nitin Mantri speaks about the work that wowed the judges, the impact of AI, and the ongoing evolution of the PR discipline

Communications and marketing leaders must sharpen AI skills, says WE Communications' Nitin Mantri
“Around eight years ago, there was a lot of conversation around the death of the traditional PR firm,” said Nitin Mantri, regional executive MD for APAC, WE Communications and group CEO, Avian WE. However, in the intervening period, PR has reinvented itself. The change is reflected in among other things, Golin’s work for Specsavers winning the PR Grand Prix at the recently concluded Cannes Lions festival, marking the first time in the category’s history that a pureplay PR firm has won top honours. 
Asked for his reactions to the win, Mantri, an industry veteran and part of the PR Lions jury this year said, “The Grand Prix winner is a standout example of creativity tackling a serious issue. Using a famously misheard song to highlight hearing loss sparked a national conversation in an engaging and memorable way. It demonstrates how humour and ingenuity can drive awareness and inspire change. This year has been better than previous ones with pureplay PR firms performing well. I hope this trend continues, allowing not just the big groups but younger independents to shine.”
Mantri and his team also have a more personal reason to celebrate — the Harpic Loocator #BeFreeToPee campaign, for which Avian WE was the PR partner, won a Silver in Glass: the Lion for Change category at Cannes. The campaign focuses on the critical need for public restrooms for women in India. 
The PR Lions Jury members
The PR Lions Jury at Cannes
What the Cannes Lions entries say about the evolution of PR
This trend did not emerge in a vacuum and reflects the importance of PR in business and brand strategy. The remit of PR has expanded to include design and production; data analytics and insight; sustainability, and public policy. Speaking on how the entries at Cannes Lions reflect PR’s transformation, Mantri said, “They showcased a blend of creativity and strategic thinking. Many entries used AI, data analytics, and digital platforms. Measurability of campaigns has a better metric of success — tangible outcomes, audience engagement and more importantly business impact. Additionally, the entries showcased a compelling mix of humour and social causes, highlighting the correlation between commercial imperatives and purpose.” Mantri also observed an increase in cultural sensitivity, with campaigns designed to resonate with diverse audiences across different markets. 
Using and preventing the abuse of AI
Within this widening ambit of PR, AI represents an opportunity and a challenge. While it is already being deployed by PR firms, they also must guard brands against operational risks: from the inadvertent use of copyrighted material to incorrect or inappropriate messaging. Citing a survey with USC Annenberg, Mantri said, “We found that communicators were mainly concerned with factual errors and misinformation — as high as 60%, and disinformation which was close to the same level when it comes to adopting AI in PR. However, over two thirds say it will be extremely or very important to the future of PR. The first movers will have an advantage. We should embrace its use and flag the times it’s not being deployed ethically.”
AI is thus going to play a critical role in the ongoing relevance of PR. Many industry observers believe that chief marketing officers need to embrace the role of chief technology officer and chief financial officer to remain contemporary. PR too requires a similar reorientation. Mantri said, “PR people and CMOs must sharpen their AI skills. We need to be better prompt engineers, if nothing else.” He was however also keen to assert the primacy of human skills even as AI becomes omnipresent. He explained, “Human intelligence is still key. The ability to judge ideas, to read body language, recognise when strong instinct and a gut check should override algorithms — I’m not sure when AI will get there, but for the moment it is not there yet. The people who can demonstrate the power of human-AI partnerships will succeed.” 
Making sense of more complex PR mandates 
Amid these new mandates, PR agencies must still work on traditional assignments such as guarding clients from reputational damage and amplifying their role as good corporate citizens. Adding to the complexity of these mandates is the potential virality of any critique. 
The rule of thumb in dealing with backlash remains unchanged. Mantri recommended, “Be transparent, open, and hands on. Standing still isn't an option. People want companies to show that they're resetting their priorities, listening, and responding. You should not answer every troll, but you must give your perspective.” Getting a buy-in from the highest levels helps in such situations. In a recent crisis handled by WE Communications, the client’s board got involved and took prompt action on uncovering financial irregularities. Mantri said, “Our advice to the board was to highlight the steps taken to counter fraud. We communicated multiple times and gave their side of the story to the media.”
Such openness is key given the rising tide of consumer scepticism. Mantri was clear that PR firms had a critical role to play in this space. He said, “While there is more scepticism, consumers also turn to the brands that they trust to take bold action on societal issues. The terms ‘brand purpose’ or ‘purpose driven comms’ are overused. But the need for businesses to demonstrate how to leave a positive impact on the ecosystem hasn't changed. Corporate reputation and brand purpose are still a crucial piece. For companies making genuine promises and working towards those goals, having comms experts can help them navigate these complex issues.” 
Creating work that breaks the mould
Specifically, around sustainability, Mantri saw his agency playing two roles. The traditional one was amplifying work by clients. The second more advisory role was devising programs and ensuring they have the right partners in place. One of these mandates has resulted in work that Mantri is justifiably proud of: the Dettol Hygiene Olympiad for Reckitt Benckiser. In its second season last year, the Hygiene Olympiad was supported by over 100 partners some of India’s leading industry bodies, NGOs, and health service providers. The programme reached 30 million children with messages around hygiene. Mantri said, “It's not every day that a client wants to create a curriculum to spread awareness of cleanliness among children. It's not every day that the PR firm — and not the advertising or the marketing firm — comes up with the idea.” 
He is also proud of the work created around the themes of reforestation for the Forest Stewardship Council. Mantri said, “The amount of branding and creative work we've done for them is quite amazing — very different from traditional work.”

This is also where Mantri sees PR playing a more vital role in the future: “advice, counsel, and developing partnerships more than just amplifying something that has already been done.”

Campaign Asia

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