Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

“The function of the PR agency is to generate awareness and create goodwill”

Published in May-Jun 2022

Zohare Ali Shariff, CEO, Asiatic Public Relations Network (APR), speaks to Mariam Ali Baig about PR in Pakistan.

MARIAM ALI BAIG: How has the PR function evolved in the last five years? 
ZOHARE ALI SHARIFF: When PR initially came to Pakistan, it was a relatively unheard of discipline. In fact, until about five years ago, the ad agencies used to do practically everything; the creative, the media buying, the activation. Then, with new disciplines coming in, the functions of the ad agencies were broken down into separate fields and the ad agency essentially evolved into a creative agency. Earlier, it was mainly about getting the message across through advertising, and PR was more about who you knew rather than a function practised at the institutional or corporate level. In this respect, the credit goes to the multinational companies for introducing PR practices in Pakistan, which then filtered down to the large national companies, the NGO sector and now the smaller national companies.

MAB: What has been the impact of digital? 
ZAS: The fundamentals remain the same. The function of the PR agency is to generate awareness and create goodwill about their clients and remove misperceptions about their business or their reputation. What has changed is that with the growth of digital communications, audiences today, be they consumers, civil society organisations or the government, are better informed than they ever were. At the same time, people have become more judgemental and more critical. Social media has given them an open channel to air their opinions, with the result that the feedback is a lot more demanding. This is a new challenge for public relations because social media often has a negative side. False news can go viral very quickly and it is the responsibility of the PR agency, or the PR department within a company, to counter this. Today, PR professionals are spending a lot of time troubleshooting and fire-fighting. 

MAB: Do APR use social media as part of their armoury?
ZAS: We do. Today, in order to achieve the stated PR objectives, no one channel of communication will suffice. We have to combine all available channels, depending on what you have to say and to whom you want to say it. There are traditional media, social media, audiovisual tools, documentaries and videos. Events are also a PR channel of communication. They may target a much smaller number of people, but they are an audience who influence a lot of other people. We also send out regular press releases to about 15 or 20 newspapers. 

MAB: Do press releases work? Most newspapers are usually reluctant to publish them due to their poor content value. 
ZAS: This is where the experience and expertise of a PR agency come in. We act as a buffer. Some clients want everything to be done via a press release and this is where we come in; we tell our clients what is and what is not newsworthy. Editors will see a press release from the point of view of whether it will be of interest to their readers. However, some press releases are newsworthy. The idea is that if a company does something of benefit to society and a newspaper publishes this, it becomes a message that goes out to other companies – that they too should be taking similar initiatives. There are also digital publications, such as Pro Pakistani, Startup Pakistan, Urdu Point and Daily Pakistan; they are all important and have followings in the millions. If they publish a press release, theoretically you have the possibility of reaching out to millions of people. Furthermore, inevitably, whichever company or sector you are dealing with, the government will always be an important stakeholder and ministers, parliamentarians, policymakers and bureaucrats still read print – as do corporate leaders. Now, if you want to reach out to young people – the 15 to 30-year-olds – you have to go online, and here the mix would be 60 to 70% social and digital media and 10 to 20% may be targeted towards print and events. However, press releases are just one tool. When we decide on a tool, we have to consider the message and the audience and balance that. However, within the range of services PR offers, media outreach constitutes a small percentage of what we do. We guide clients on their CSR sustainability portfolios and how to distinguish between philanthropy and CSR. 

MAB: When it comes to CSR, how do the ad agencies and the PR agency work together? 
ZAS: The ad agency is not involved at all.

MAB: If you look at some of the multinational companies, their CSR activities are communicated through their paid advertising.
ZAS: These are essentially marketing campaigns aimed at promoting sales. The PR agency comes in to support the campaign in terms of presenting it to the same or to a wider audience as part of the company’s drive to give back to the community. This is where there could be some overlap but essentially they are marketing campaigns. A PR agency does a lot more for the company, especially strategically. For example, embedding the CSR philosophy within the organisation and then putting the message out externally. I would say that the first responsibility of any company is to have a first-class product, available at the best possible price and with the least possible impact on the environment. That, in essence, is what CSR is; it is not a beach cleaning activity – that is a photo opportunity. Part of that responsibility is the fair and ethical treatment of employees, and PR comes in here to ensure that these employees are leveraged as potential brand ambassadors. In terms of the community, our advice is to develop strategies that support the social uplift of a community.

MAB: How important are events to the PR function?  
ZAS: They are an opportunity for the company to engage with their stakeholders on a direct one-on-one basis and strengthen relations. Put a face to the company and get direct feedback in terms of their perceptions about the company. From our point of view, events have two clear aspects. One is logistics; everything should work – great ambience, great entertainment and great food – and for that part, any good event management company can manage it. The other, more important part is communicating the purpose of the event.  

MAB: What kinds of skills do you look for when you hire?
ZAS: Typically, a PR agency structure includes a media and a client services department. They are the people in direct contact with the client and are technically available 24/7 because this is the nature of our business. Then there is a support department, in which you have your strategic writers, IT, digital and outdoor experts. On the media side, we look for people with a degree in journalism and mass communication. In Pakistan, to my knowledge, no university is offering a major in PR; it is usually an elective. So we have to look for people with a social sciences background. That is the education side. We usually take in fresh MBAs or master’s students and train them about the business, although we also need people with two to three years’ experience working in a PR or ad agency or on the corporate communications side. More than that, we look for people with high energy levels; who can take stress, think on their feet, have critical thinking skills, can multitask and have good writing and communication skills. 

MAB: Has the skill set changed over the years?
ZAS: We have had to add digital skills. 

MAB: How difficult is it to find the right kind of PR person?
ZAS: Extremely difficult. The pool is small and more and more companies are looking for the same kind of HR, including the start-ups. They are hiring at much higher salaries than we and other agencies can offer. 

MAB: Don’t start-ups have financial constraints?
ZAS: A lot of them don’t at the start. They receive good money from their investors. They have a lot of money and they splash it out to get the best talent, although it may not last. The research says that in Pakistan, less than five percent of start-ups succeed. However, the point is that the resource pool is small, despite the fact that we have huge unemployment out there. 

MAB: What trends do you see developing in terms of what consumers will expect from the brands they choose to buy?
ZAS: The biggest is the ethical side. Responsibility towards people and being held accountable and greater transparency. 

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