By Jaideep Shergill, CEO,Hanmer MSL India : It came as no surprise when the news came through that Vaishnavi Corporate Communications, the public relations firm that was founded and headed by Niira Radia, would be shut down within a day. This served as an important reminder to all of us in the industry that an agency should never be centered on an individual.
Radia was embroiled in a political scandal after tapes aired by the media seemed to indicate that she acted as a power broker during the formation of the last ministry. In a complex web of political machinations, A Raja, whom she pushed for as telecoms minister, was accused of illegally giving away spectrum at throwaway prices. The loss to the exchequer was estimated at Rs 1.76 lakh crore, or $39 billion.
The controversy did not just damage Radia’s reputation; the credibility of the PR industry took a severe blow and many started to associate the business with spin doctoring, fixing and image polishing. As a ‘Business India’ article said, “…it’s difficult to repair your own image, let alone fix your client’s when your credibility… is at stake.”
The Vaishnavi imbroglio is not characteristic of the entire industry. It was an aberration, and holds several lessons for us all. The primary lesson is this: The industry should be by the professionals and of the professionals. While there’s no guarantee that a CEO who’s distinct from the founder will always be upright, someone answerable to a board would therefore be accountable and far more circumspect on ethical questions than a business owner who’s not answerable to anybody.
The Vaishnavi saga may seem like a setback but the PR industry can turn it into an opportunity. This is the time for agencies to come together and frame a code of conduct. Radia’s business seemed to steer towards lobbying rather than sticking to communications. For all of us in the communications industry, I believe that there is a need to unite and formulate a dos and don’ts policy framework. Just as the doping problem initially rocked athletics but eventually led to credible safeguards and cleaner competition, Radiagate can signal the PR industry’s new beginning in India.
On the best practices front, some believe that the firm shut down because Tata did not renew their account. This illustrates why PR firms should go beyond depending heavily on one or two clients. Diversifying into other services and ensuring you have several clients across different industries hedges against economic turbulence and account exits.
The silver lining is that the industry’s setback does not seem to have turned potential hires away. One of my younger colleagues told me that when Radiagate first came to light while she was in communications school, no one changed their minds about joining PR. “After all, I signed up too, didn’t I?” she smiled.