In the present day context a headline of this kind would indeed draw attention. Here one is referring to “corporate communication” as a tool of professional corporate image- makers and public relations professionals.

Corporate communication, is a process in an attempt to create shared understanding at the target individual and group level—formal and informal. It is through communication that the desired collaboration and co-operation among stakeholders and corporations is built. It is ideally so, but in actual experience when it comes to creating image it cuts both ways! It can build image, as well as destroy the image of the corporation desirous of building image if not handled carefully and properly. It is similar to the adage that advertising helps sell a product, but also hasten the death of a bad product at the marketplace. Communications and public relations in business, and at corporations, cannot change black into white!

Image building obsession

Building a strong image through professional corporate communication is a much sought after objective by corporations, with close co-operation between the CEO, the Public Relations Officer ( PRO), and the media journalists. In most corporations “media relations” accounts for as much a 80 percent of the external public relations work and 20 percent in other important activities for image such as corporate brochures, websites, house journals and annual reports! This has become an obsession of sorts today.

A lot of time is spent at corporations on perfecting the art and craft of planning and putting out image building news and stories to the media journalists. So much so, today a PRO is  rated as being a good PR professional only if he can get the company news, and his CEO’s photo, published prominently. If he cannot do so for any reason, he is dammed as useless! This has been the factor in the success or failure of a number of PRO’s in recent times.

The obsession is further encouraged by present day PR Agencies. In soliciting business and gaining clients. They promise to make the CEO, and the corporation, as “Hero No. 1” in the media. Some of them do it successfully with the friendly contacts they have in the media. But many of them unable to, and therefore they are quietly replaced by another PR agency. If it’s not the agency that gets changed, then often it is the PRO that is changed!

The message one is trying to put across here is that media relations and media hype (image) seems to have become the sole objective in corporate public relations today and we go all the way to try and build positive image irrespective of the actual performance and situation. Corporate communication is beyond this and media coverage and hype is just one of the tools for effective corporate image building.

Lets look at examples of what corporate communication, in the form of publicity and media hype of today’s kind, does for management people as well as corporations.

Among the examples of people, note what the hype built by PROs, PR agencies, aided by journalists, did to individuals like the “big bull” Harshad Mehta! Similarly to Rajan Pillai first and Sunil Alag later of Britannia, P S Subramanyam of UTI, Rajan Gelli of Global Trust Bank and Anand Rathi of Bombay Stock Exchange! It made them all to be “super” professionals and performers, while the things went well. But brought them down to dust in one shot when things soured – despite their actual qualities and achievements. And with what impact, as we all know today!

Publicity and hype for the sake of “image” and “fame” for individual is a disaster. Too much of a high profile and propaganda deems doom. Todays, hot shot entrepreneurs and professionals like Azim Premji, Anand Mahindra, Gautam Singhania, among others need to heed to this advice. Fortunes change, and with it image!  One needs to be careful and shun undue publicity and limelight for themselves, as also for their corporations. Let their personal actions and corporate performance speak for them unprompted.

At the corporation level, take the case of the Mafatlal Group which once ranked as fourth or fifth largest group in the country and is now a BIFR company. What a strong media image it had and you don’t even hear of the group today. What was happening in the case of ESSAR a few years back? What happened to ENRON and the Dabhol Power Company? What happened in the Coke and Pepsi pesticide crisis? One can list a host of other corporations as examples, and the list will read like that of companies in the “In Search of Excellence”, wherein some of the best companies do not seem to exist! It is always the sustained business performance that counts, and not the media hype.

PROs and media relations

In the image building and public relations ball game, CEOs and the PROs are often supported by some favorite and friendly media journalists, and at the same time also opposed by their antagonists among them. One top pharma CEO, for instance, disliked a financial newspaper journalist for his frank and honest stories and news items on the industry and in particular his company. Some of these obviously were not so palatable to him. As a result he would not meet this journalist, nor answer queries that were put to him through his PRO. Yet the CEO would oblige a couple of other newspaper and magazine journalists – his favourites – with interviews, personal comments and news items. So much so, it became a “You hate me. I hate you too” relationship with this one journalist. This went on for some quite some time, till the company’s PRO took personal initiative and managed to soften the CEO about this one journalist and the need  for being fair to him.

In a number of situations concerning corporate image another two negative factors alleged as influencing the undesired practices between corporates and media are the linking of advertising support to media coverage and publicity, and “payments “ to journalists in cash or kind! What is the truth, and the legitimacy of this view, is not too clear or known, but at needs to be given a serious look The professional view of experts is that the publicity given to a corporation should be solely based on performance and merits of its news value to the reader or viewer of the medium. No other personal or monetary or whatever else, factor should have any influence what so ever -- on either side.

Journalists in the print and electronic media today seemingly have a fixation for business news. Possibly because of the space or time required to be filled up by them in the media, or to have their name in the keyline. They go out of the way and dig out news, and then splash it all over. Sometimes in the form of investigative scoops, and other times as interesting articles or features. But unfortunately their reports and coverage in most case lack depth and understanding. This is because they are generally not qualified or knowledgeable on the subject. Their writings or reports are superficial and merely scratch the surface, and create hype! Contrary to real principles of investigative journalism and new trends started off by journalists of the like of Arun Shourie and Vinod Mehta, As a result many times, despite good intentions, the stories and news items often turn out to be embarrassing for corporations, and as well as the newspapers or magazines carrying it. This is then followed by letters to the editor, rejoinders and rebuttals, to be published. Sometimes even with the reporter sticks to his story which is based on facts obtained “from reliable sources!”

Writing on developmental and broader issues

Corporations and journalists in India particularly have a challenging job to do, and a role to play in development of business, besides merely creating hype and image for the corporations and their CEOs.

Development and growth in business today, as we know, hinges on managing change effectively. Growth on how well you are able to alter existing realities in ways that benefit you, your organization, customers, and the society around you. This growth depends on how well you are able to change the “status quo” situation in the quality of life and seek out new challenges and changes. In this the role of communications, and in particular the writings and reporting by journalists in question are very important. There is vital need for writing more and intensely on broader current issues along with business, and spectrum of e-commerce, e-learning, e-marketplace, eco-friendliness, and

e-everything. It puts on a greater responsibility for  writing and reporting in depth and accurately on serious development and management issues concerning managing of change. There is a vital need for a debate to influence corporations and media journalist on this in the  field.

With the enabling of Internet, communication and writing for most current issues need a new form and type. It requires expertise and depth matched with tremendous local and global reach. Or else the communication and writings will just get buried and go unnoticed within the text, visual and multimedia communications from all over the world. There is need for being local and original

As a communication professional, I would like to conclude that it is the responsibility of both the corporate PROs and the media journalist to “add value” to corporate communication rather than merely making it a tool for news. As it is know, a pen is mightier than the sword, but how you wield the pen is most important. There is a need for partnership between business (PROs) and media (journalists) in being able to do this. They need to focus on their individual roles better and at the same time collaborate for results and impact.. They need to be intellectual facilitators of information and not mere brokers of news. There is much scope for our looking at issues from a different perspective aided by personal experience, observation and logical reasoning, within the total corporate communications objectives and process, rather than merely trying to change black into white.