The role of a public relations professional in current times is facing turbulent waters. In a digital age, pressure to provide value for clients in a crowded market has become difficult.
A publicist doesn’t have a cookie-cutter approach. At the end of the day, PR is a form of art where professionals create a narrative that isn’t just promotional but aims to go beyond that, to build brand resonance.
But for some clients, it's a numbers game as they gauge the effectiveness of their publicity based on the number of coverages.
Another reason for toxicity that has arisen is unhealthy work relationships between the clients and PR agencies, where unprofessional conduct has come to the fore.
In recent times, toxic work culture is being called out as employees aren’t ready to settle for a work environment where they aren’t valued or made to feel unsafe.
The PR ecosystem too, isn’t keeping hush about the toxicity taking place within the industry.
We reached out to agencies and clients to get into the crux of the matter to understand how the industry can be a safer space and what policies should be integrated to ensure a healthy work culture is being cultivated.
Toxicity: An exception or the norm?
Ameer Ismail, president, Lintas Live, stated that while there have been instances of toxicity in agency and client relationships, these are exceptions and not the norm.
“As PR teams need to be close to issues and also have advanced access to important information on corporate and brand developments, there needs to be a trust-based relationship between clients and their chosen agency partners”, shared Ismail.
Just like any relationship, work relationships need nurturing as well. This nurturing needs to be based on keeping mutual respect at the fore.
Ismail believed that when clients or agency teams don’t engage with each other through mutual respect, the relationship becomes completely counterproductive.
He explained, “The best work I have seen is on brands where clients encourage agency teams to feel a part of their team and where the client values and respects the agency team. While clients need to be encouraged, I also believe that agency team members need to be trained to be confident, not subservient. I find it strange that younger colleagues use the team ‘sir’ or 'ma’am' while addressing seniors or clients, these kinds of words and actions are archaic and fuel a culture of discrimination. Agency management and heads are also culpable in creating this atmosphere of toxicity by demonstrating reluctance in front facing these situations and taking immediate actions, sometimes even resigning the client.”
Puspendra Dhansoia, head of communications, Somaiya Vidyavihar, having experience of what it's like to work on the client as well as the agency front, shared, "Many times clients feel that if they have provided material to an agency that should be published verbatim. If a different version is published, the client gets frustrated, and there is an expectation mismatch. This lack of understanding happens largely in startups and also with organisations that are sales focused."
Sharing a different take on toxicity within the ecosystem, Dilip Cherian, founder, Perfect Relations, stated that when you are a PR agency you must have a clear set of deliverables that needs to be conveyed to the client.
“The problem begins when agencies exaggerate their capabilities. Very often in their intent to get a client, they make claims that they can’t live up to. This is why agencies need to be more realistic in their pitches and indicate what their strengths and capabilities are”, said Cherian.
Echoing Cherian’s point on following through with agreed-upon deliverables, Sujit Patil, vice president and head - corporate brand and communications, Godrej Industries and Associate Companies, said, “It is imperative to clearly define goals and objectives at the outset that are mutually agreed upon and jointly owned. Client-consultancy relationship is built on the principle of independent goals and interdependent working. Once the objectives are firmed up, the teams need to work in tandem to achieve them with the right processes. Only a well-oiled system works without a creaky noise!”
Even Dhansoia had a similar stance. He said, "Sometimes if a client is important for an agency, the staff sometimes agree to all the terms a client puts forward. When it comes to the deliverables the client expects the desired results proposed. But the agency isn't able to meet those demands. So agencies need to start saying 'no' if they aren't skilled in the areas the client is pitching. Moreover, they should try and provide alternatives that align with their agencies' strengths. Wrong expectations from agencies shouldn't be the norm, it can create heartburn when it comes to deliverables."
According to Aakanksha Gupta, CEO and founder, The Other Circle, the biggest issue is the like-to-like comparison to owned social media.
Gupta explained, “Clients tend to believe that digital PR works the same as social media does, in the sense that every word out there can be controlled or be promotional. We must remember that PR is ultimately based on third-party credibility, hence there is an opinion part and a factual part to the story. The second issue I feel is that a lot of clients do not take digital PR seriously, they feel links are ‘easy’ to come by vs print media. But each has its own place, while I daresay that digital PR does offer more targeting and a higher reach.”
The demand for deliverables
“I want the creative, and I want it yesterday, there is no agency professional who has not experienced these kinds of unreasonable demands from clients. In some cases, these questions become more apparent (and rightfully so) in social media where calendared content needs to be embellished with contextual posts”, shared Ismail.
Amitabh Saksena, founder and managing director, Actimedia PR and Digital, shared, "Respect will come when ‘clients’ understand what PR can do for their brand. Furthermore, there is a lack of experience as many of those who find themselves forced into the role of 'clients' may come without any adequate understanding of the entire gamut of marketing and communications, making things more difficult.”
Where should one draw the line and call out toxicity?
“Zero–tolerance means zero tolerance”, remarked Tarunjeet Rattan, managing partner, Nucleus PR.
Rattan advised, “The chain of command established needs to work effectively to put a stop to this toxicity from day one and the initial incident. This also means the PR workforce needs to be sensitised regularly on what is toxicity and how to recognise bad behaviour along with the escalation process.”
Cherian noted that one should draw the line and call out toxicity when clients’ payments have not come through after the deliverables of agreed-upon results.
Social media: An armour to call out injustice
Rattan remarked, “A lot of the new age PR entrepreneurs across the whole Indian PR industry were crying hoarse over bad behaviour by this very ecosystem for quite some time. Yet, it took a journalist-turned-PR to get another journalist's attention. Most took to LinkedIn and Twitter to ensure peers and juniors were aware of how toxicity transpires in the industry, how to recognise toxicity, why it is not all right and how to handle it. Yet, till the media turned pro didn’t speak about it, these were largely ignored save for a few.”
Sharing how social media helped to bring the issues of the industry into the limelight, Ismail said, “The spate of recent comments on some social media platforms come on the back of real incidents where unprofessional conduct and rude behaviour have triggered commentary and put the spotlight back on this issue.”
Suggestions to safeguard client-agency relationships
Rattan believes that change will occur only when PR agencies have zero tolerance for toxic people who create a negative work culture in the industry.
She shared, “This is not a battle that can be won alone by one agency or only the PR industry. The entire ecosystem including the corporate/brand on one end and the media on the other also have to support this zero tolerance for it to work. Though it will only work effectively once media and brands adopt this attitude. And it's going to be tough in India considering how everyone else thinks their opinion is more important than the actual person doing the job. Till that attitude changes, these policies will just be that- policies. And every PR agency fighting this battle will be doing it alone. That’s the crux of the matter.”
Saksena suggested that as soon as one signs on a client, if agencies can spend some time on client education – how agencies work, what their challenges are, and their boundaries, then perhaps slowly we can all get on the same page.
“It is up to us as agencies to stand up for ourselves, and our teams, show value and demand respectful relationships. Fundamentally, results don’t have to come at the cost of respect”, commented Saksena.
Gupta felt that both agencies and clients need to set their expectations accordingly. He shared, “Agencies need to educate and stand for what they believe in, while clients need to trust that they have hired experts and let them do their job/hire an expert who can be a good bridge.”
To ensure improved relationships between a PR agency and a client, Dhansoia proposed that an agency shouldn't be treated as a vendor but should be a collaborator. "Clients need to treat their PR agencies as partners and work together for a common goal of building the brand", he commented.
Summing it up, Patil said, “PR consultancies shouldn’t be treated as dispatch vendors. This is an archaic approach. The world has changed. Start treating the consultancy folks as partners and align them with your organisational vision, goals and values – then see the ownership and inspiration to put forward their best foot for any media blitz to soar. I truly believe that if you treat them like arms and legs, they might not get their hearts and brains on the account. Be it clients or consultants - If one experiences toxicity, they must start afresh with a listening ear and tune in to the frequency of empathy.”