In profile: Fareshteh Aslam.
The article was first published in March-April 2014
Profiling Fareshteh Aslam is not an easy task given her prolific achievements. This is complicated by her reticence to talk about herself. Aslam is a rare person in many ways. She is poised, refined, understated and incredibly classy, but it is this lack of vanity that is most refreshing in an industry where people would like nothing better than to spend a few hours telling you how great they really are. Refreshing, yes, but it doesn’t make my job any easier.
Given that her career has run the gamut from journalist to brand communicator to PR person (she has recently taken the reins as Country Head of Lowe’s new PR firm, GolinHarris), there is obviously lots to talk about, but Aslam remarks in her typical style, “Why would anyone be interested in what I do? I am a journalist, I write about people, I’m not used to others writing about me.”
Self-effacement aside, Aslam is very influential. Not only is she very passionate about both her old ‘beats’: cricket and fashion (Facebook and Twitter feeds tell all!), but her opinion still holds great sway in both spheres. Add to this 10 years at the helm of brand communications at Unilever Pakistan and the fact that Aslam is one-half of a Pakistani power couple (she is married to editor and playwright, Imran Aslam) and what you have is a media powerhouse. Incidentally, these qualifications also make her the perfect person to run a PR agency and she is aware enough to be able to see that, minus the bit about the power couple.
“When Unilever asked Lowe to bring GolinHarris to Pakistan, I remember laughingly telling my people at Unilever that Lowe was looking for someone to head the agency and I had the perfect profile for the job. The idea took off from there and we mutually agreed that this move would be best for everyone.”
The easy move from Unilever to GolinHarris underscores a recurring theme in Aslam’s career; what she calls “seamless transitions” from one job to another, without too much thought and planning put into the next potential move.
The journey started at the Star (the Dawn Media Group’s now defunct evening newspaper) in 1987 when Aslam, a fresh MBA, became the first woman sports reporter. Rubbing shoulders with heavyweights like Saneeya Hussain, Kaleem Omar, Sherry Rehman and Zohra Yusuf was “fantastic because I was a young reporter surrounded by all these journalistic giants.” It was also here that Aslam met her future husband, Imran, who was then the editor of the Star.
“I was covering the 1987 World Cup and we were doing a full supplement for the Star. Saneeya wanted me to interview Viv Richards while I was trying to persuade her to let me interview Clyde Walcott, one of the three big W’s of West Indies cricket. She said, ‘Ok, fine, do your Walcott but get me Richards as well.’ And then suddenly I heard a voice behind me say, ‘Walcott is good, let her do it.’ It was Imran; Saneeya introduced us and I thought, ‘great, I have a friend somewhere high up in Star’.”
The friendship took off from there and resulted in marriage many years later.
Despite being exposed to and learning from the best, life at DAWN was not all peachy for Aslam and the crusty old male reporters at the Sports Desk “just hated me” because she was always “pushing audacious stories down their throats.”
The most audacious story by far was the ‘match fixing’ scandal which Aslam pursued with great persistence at a time when no one was willing to believe her; “they would say ‘yeh toh ho hee nahin sakta’.” Not only was Aslam a risk taker for what she knew and believed in, she was also an excellent writer. Many of her cricket articles are still available online and demonstrate her command of the language and the game.
In 1991, when The News was established by the Jang Group, Aslam moved there to edit the three-page sports section on a daily basis. During her foray at The News she also tried her hand at being a TV anchor, hosting a show for Ten Sports. I remember watching the show and being impressed by her looks and eloquence but the entire experience was short lived (just six weeks) because “it was not a medium I could take to” she says.
Roughly five years later, when The News on Sunday was launched, she started editing Instep, an in-paper magazine on film, music and fashion. Just as she was indulging her lifelong passion for fashion, along came the Lux Style Awards (LSA).
“One thing happened after another,” she explains, “LSA was launched in 2002 and I wrote a critique on it [in Instep]; the brand manager [at Unilever] loved it and said, ‘this is exactly the way forward’ and made me an offer to manage LSA.”
Aslam’s account of why she was appointed Awards Manager of the LSA is typically modest but thanks to the internet, the following statement about why Unilever entrusted her with the responsibility still exists:
“We have chosen Fareshteh for her impeccable integrity. Her reputation as an unbiased journalist, who has the ability to work with everyone in the industry, made her an automatic choice for the responsibility of ensuring the Awards are properly managed.”
Aslam was such a success with the LSA that Unilever eventually wanted her to replicate the same effect on other brands, and in doing so, she transitioned into a media and corporate communications role at the company for 10 years, until her recent move to GolinHarris, which in effect, is an extension of her role at Unilever.
“PR [in Pakistan] is all about getting your photo in the paper. The way I know it, it is about building your brand and telling a story in a way that is engaging for consumers. To me the LSA is a complete PR activity because it tells the brand’s story in a way that affects the people of Pakistan and those who read about Pakistan. I am endeavouring to work that formula for all the other brands here. For the moment we have Unilever to work with but that is a lot of work with 21 brands.”
It’s interesting to note that a series of ordinary events and seamless transitions have culminated in an extraordinary way in Aslam’s life. Not only is she influential (Andleeb Rana Farhan, Editor, Xpozé calls her a “fashion guru with a lot of influence on fashion”), she is also quite famous and it’s fairly common to see her gracing the fashion pages wearing outfits that range from classic to adventurous (“I love fashion and I love trying new things”).
However, despite photographic evidence to the contrary, Aslam refuses to be labelled as a ‘social person’ and explains that most of the socialising is work-related.
“I enjoy meeting new people but I don’t have the time for it right now; I wake up at 6:30 every morning and I work all day so I am ready for bed by 9:30.”
This schedule conflicts vastly from that of her husband Imran who is a “night person; we live in totally different time zones.” There are other conflicts too, “We are very different in many ways, he is eternally optimistic while I am realistic about what is happening in Pakistan. Inevitably our biggest fights are about this,” she says.
However (and this is incredibly candid coming from someone who is usually quite reserved), “I could never see myself married to someone who is not so dynamic and controversial in his views. And of course he knows so much about so much that it is always a pleasure to be around him.”
In conversing with Aslam, which is about as easy and seamless a task as her career itself, you get the sense that success and influence have not fundamentally changed her and she really is as “normal” as she claims to be. So it’s really not surprising at all that when I ask her what she does for fun, she responds:
“I love my work, it is fun. You get lucky when you enjoy what you do.”