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Evolution of PR in India and its present status

Professor Jaishri Jethwaney |

The globalization of the Indian economy in the 1990s gave its rightful place to PR in India. The emergence of multi-national corporations on the scene in the early 1990s, the opportunities of foreign direct investment increased especially with the deregulation of industries. The market became suddenly competitive and businesses felt it necessary to build their reputation in order to gain more and more access to new market and new consumers. This led to the proliferation of PR and advertising agencies in the country.

Over a century old, the profession of Public Relations has come a long way. Although every organization and all famous people use public relations to create a desired image for themselves, they often would not like others to believe that they use PR. This is so because critics see PR as an effort at half truth and concoction to organize favorable media coverage for undeserving people or causes!

Efforts at persuading others and influencing public opinion date backs to antiquity. The Greeks though did not use the word public relations or public opinion, but believed in the power of public opinion when they coined the maxim “Vox populi vox dei”- the voice of the people is the voice of God. In the US, the seeds of PR could be traced in the American Revolution, when the slogan “No taxation without representation” rent the air.

Before we look at the evolution of public relations in India, an overview about the naissance and evolution of PR per se would be a good way to start the discourse.

PR- the beginning

Edward L. Berneys considered one of the fathers of PR is believed to have contributed richly in reconciling the development of PR. His book Crystallizing Public Opinion that he wrote in 1923 laid down the principles, practice and ethics of the profession. In his view a PR practitioner was a “special pleader” with two big hurdles to overcome, viz., a) the public’s reluctance to acknowledge a dependence on people or groups, b) the establishment of the profession itself.

In the midst of the Great Economic Depression of 1930s, the governments and organizations felt the necessity for proactive information about the policies and renewed outlook. The governments needed the tool of persuasive publicity for which various kinds of media were needed to reach out to stakeholders.

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was indeed a manifestation of people’s frustration with the tyrannical Czar and their desire to be free. It is however, a different matter that the USSR turned into a regimented society, until about six decades later, when people supported by the right leadership brought about glasnost followed by the disintegration of the country in to a number of independent states.

The advent of 20th century was marked by the invention of mass communication, beginning with the printing of newspaper, followed by the invention of radio, cinema and later television. The power of the pen came to be recognized when newspapers regularly carried stories on the seamier side of things- the evils of business, the corruption in politics, the double standards in religion, exploitation of children, women and Blacks. The journalists who were writing negative stories came to be known as the “muckrakers”. Such articles had tremendous impact on the general public. The organizations and people against whom such dispatches were written, felt the need to give their points of view, thus paving the way for the birth of Public Relations.

PR in India – the pre-independence phase

India as a country has been through various upheavals, being invaded from outside from various races and countries for hundreds of years. India as an idea to India as an entity have always drawn much enthusiasm and intrigue. James Mill in his book History of British India (1817) divided the history of India into three distinct characteristics viz., Hindu, Muslim and British civilizations. Not many agree with this characterization. Some scholars have divided India to ‘ancient, classical, medieval and modern periods’. Famous historian Romilla Thapar posits that a country can’t be periodized based on rule alone. History needs  to reflect ‘significant social and economic changes which may not strictly related to change in the ruling power’. The coming of invaders from distinct religions, races and culture and settling down here had its pros and cons. There is however no denying that in the melting pot, many races, languages and cultures got assimilated making India a culturally composite nation. India is an interesting case study for communicators, given the multiplicity of religions, culture, castes, languages and ethnicity. History is replete with examples of kings going incognito to feel the pulse of the people about governance and to listen to their grievances. Ashoka, one of the greatest kings in India spread Buddhism far and wide through his emissaries. His iron pillars have stood the test of times that inscribe the obligations of the government towards its people.

The growth of PR as a profession in India has been a topic of much debate and deliberations. Many scholars have analyzed the historical evolution and growth of Public Relations in India from varied perspectives. JM Kaul, for instance, chronicles four stages of historical evolution of Public Relations, viz., early stage, the stage of conscious PR, the third stage of PR and finally Professionalism in PR. Similarly, Rahul Jain, in his paper PR Landscape, published by Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management for information only categorizes the historical progression of Public Relations in India into three broad phases – propaganda, publicity and public information and public relations in the modern post-independent India.

The process of professional public relations, it is believed started in the pre –independence era when the British Government needed to win over the support of the Indians towards World War I. It was also the time when family owned corporate houses such as Tata and Birla’s were emerging on the scene.

The advent of Mahatma Gandhi on the political front changed the strategy of freedom struggle in the country then on. Non –violence, Civil disobedience, Satyagraha (Insistence on truth) were the new strategies that needed mass support and understanding from the Indian perspective. Mass media, especially newspapers played a great role in disseminating information and creating a national fervor among Indians.

The British Government too, felt the need to build the public opinion and disseminate information to the public through the media on World War I. It established a Central Publicity Board under the chairmanship of Sir Stanley Reed, the editor of the Times of India, Bombay which was the first organized PR set-up in the country. Once the war ended the board was taken over by Central Bureau of Information in 1921. This bureau functioned as a link between the government and the media. One of its important functions was to scrutinize the negative and critical stories on the government appearing in the media. It also acted as a major tool of feedback for the government machinery.  For the first time an Indian, Mr. J Natarajan of the Pioneer newspaper, Lucknow was appointed as its Deputy Principal Information Officer. In 1923, the Central Bureau was re-designated as the Directorate of Public Instruction and later in 1939, it became the Directorate of Information and Broadcasting.

Origin of PR in Indian companies 

Some scholars believe that in the initial stages, PR as a management’s voice emerged more as a tool of ‘liberal’ philanthropy by the pioneering industrialists. Kaul gives the example of Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) which went into production in 1912. From the very beginning, the Tata’s were involved in community relations as they built the model town of Jamshedpur wherein they not only provided housing, water, electricity, free primary education, hospital and technical institutes, but also promoted social cultural and economic development of the community. Tata’s have been the forerunners in introducing employee welfare schemes.

India at that period of time was fragmented into hundreds of kingdoms and principalities and it was not an easy task for the crusaders of the freedom movement, viz., various political leaders and political parties, Congress being the foremost to reach out to the length and breadth of the country in making people understand and participate in the freedom struggle against the British. Persuasive communication obviously played a great role. It may or may not have been seen as PR, but undoubtedly had its roots in it.

It was during this period that Tata opened their public relations department at their head office in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1943. It also started a monthly publication next year for employee communication.

A systematic and organized practice of public relations in India some believe began with the Indian Railways.  It was found that the building of railways for the purpose of carrying raw materials from the hinterland to various ports in the country was proving to be an expensive affair and soon they realized that they had to introduce passenger traffic in order to recover the cost, which led to promotional messages for railways as a mode of commuting.

Growth of PR in the post-independent India

After achieving independence from the British yoke in August 1947, the government of India set up a full-fledged Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, a premier agency for disseminating information to people at large on various welfare programs undertaken by the government. Successive governments have been criticized for using the state machinery for propagating the ‘achievements’ of the party in power. In times of crisis, the governments both at central and state levels have used the PR machinery to salvage their reputation. The redeeming thing however in India, that makes our democracy a robust one, is that we have a free and vibrant media that works as a watchdog in public interest and has constantly questioned the successive governments on their various decisions and unearthed many a scams. The Right to Information that came into existence in 2005, besides empowering the common man has been used vigorously by the media in India in pursuance of their investigative stories.

Practice of Public Relation in Public sector

India opted for a mixed economy model after independence. Public sector however was conceived as a pro-choice of the Government. This guiding factor led to the passage of Industrial Policy Resolution of 1948 and followed by Industrial Policy Resolution of 1956. The 1948 Resolution envisaged development of core sectors through the public enterprises.

The Government implemented policies based on import substitution industrialization and advocated a mixed economy where the government controlled public sector was expected to co-exist with the private sector.

A decision at the top government level was taken around that time that all the central public sector enterprises (CPSEs) that now number about 250 would have a public relations department headed by a professional. It was also conveyed to the public sector chiefs that for informing and motivating the employees, every public sector undertaking under the Central government would bring out a house journal for employee communication.

When we look at the media scene in India from its Independence time until the 70s when many public sector companies were being set up, the television and radio were under the government control. Now with more than 350 news channels in the private sector also, Doordarshan competes with them but at the same time reflects government’s perspective rather than being an independent news broadcaster. All India Radio still has the monopoly on the news. The print media has always been independent and vibrant and continues to be so. Efforts at gagging the print media from time to time have not really succeeded.

Professionalism in PR

The 70s saw the establishment of Public Relations Society of India (PRSI) which gave huge impetus to the public relations industry, still at a nascent stage.

It will not be an exaggeration to say that the globalization of the Indian economy in the 1990s gave its rightful place to PR in India. The emergence of multi-national corporations on the scene in the early 1990s, the opportunities of foreign direct investment increased especially with the deregulation of industries. The market became suddenly competitive and businesses felt it necessary to build their reputation in order to gain more and more access to new market and new consumers. This led to the proliferation of PR and advertising agencies in the country.  As the multinational corporations wanted to gain foothold in the country, they needed professional guidance in creating a friendly environment for themselves. Soon one saw some of the global agencies like the Ogilvy & Mather opening their PR arm in the country. Hindustan Thompson’ IPAN and Taj Hotel’s Good Relations also began their offices around that time.

PR increasingly was also seen as a launch pad for brand building and crisis communication. The PR consultancies were engaged by global corporate organizations for giving them a hang of the situation, strategies for sailing through difficult times, and using advocacy for influencing legislation and responding to the criticism from adversary groups who were against ‘globalization of India’ a term often used by the ‘Swadeshi’ lobbies. Some of the   global corporates like Pepsi, Coke, MacDonald, KFC would bear this out.

While everyone uses PR in India, be it central or state governments, corporate organizations or the non-governmental sector, the tools, techniques and tactics often differ. For the private and multinational companies, advocacy and lobbying ( it may not be called so in India as Lobbying is not legal) are essential part of PR,   the public sector organizations, by and large have a standard media mix for PR activities that include press/media relations for image build up with the outside world through non-paid media, and internal communication with employees and investor relations in companies that have gone public. For achieving that the departments use various tools such as films, exhibitions, inter-personal communication, outreach, house journals, company web sites, intra communication, and open houses among others. The public sector is often criticized for not strategizing their PR communication in order to achieve the ‘desired response’. The government PR often is propagandist in nature leveraging welfare programs ( out of tax payer’s money) to gain positive public opinion for the party in power. The non-governmental sector uses PR more often for advocacy and fund raising.

A common trend noticed in the private and public sector in India has been the rechristening and re-designation of PR departments as Corporate communications departments and from PR managers to corporate communications managers.

Current State of Public Relations in India

Public relations is a thriving profession in India. There are hundreds of large and small PR consultancies in the country, employing thousands of practitioners. Most companies in private sector and almost all companies in the public sector have public relations departments.   According to a survey conducted by the Associated Chamber of commerce and Industry in India (Assocham, 2012), the PR industry in India is growing at an annual rate of 32 percent. Many believe the definition of traditional PR has undergone a change. PR in its new avatar not just encompasses media relations and employee communication, but is used increasingly for strategic communication, brand building, customer relations and crisis management. From an executive function, PR is now becoming a part of the high-level management job touching upon the core values of an organization.

PR in India is fast emerging as an institution especially with its growing acceptance as a skilled and specialized profession.

PR education in India

Public relations teaching in India is not very old, though reference of the subject being taught at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) as a part of the Journalism course can be found in a paper presented by Prof. NAK Durrani of the Department of Journalism at the AMU at a conference in Hyderabad in 1993. Following the British models of education, the journalism teaching at various universities in India, both at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels have invariably a paper on advertising and public relations. The Indian Institute of Mass Communication started its exclusive one year PGD in Advertising & Public Relations in 1981. A paper in Advertising & PR is also taught in its Journalism courses.

Mass communication education received a spurt in the 1990s in India after the economy was thrown open to international bidding. The multinational companies brought with them the PR culture in the country.This resulted in the mushrooming of PR consultancies, especially in the metros and mini-metros. Many transnational PR consultancies also opened shop in India. Advertising agencies on their part spruced up their PR departments/outfits. Suddenly the job market looked promising.

The boom in the satellite television channels created a perception of job potential in this area.

Makhan Lal Chaturvedi University of Journalism was set up to exclusively cater to mass communication teaching and training. The university undertakes various programs in the fields of Journalism, Public Relations, Library and Information Sciences and Computer applications. A number of universities even in remote Indian states also started mass communication departments. However, without an adequate infrastructure and faculty support, the mass communication departments in most of the colleges, especially in non-metro areas have not been able to manage adequately.

The last quarter of the decade of the Nineties witnessed a terrible market slump. The industry prognosis in the beginning of the decade of a boom in the advertising sector did not happen the way it was projected. However, PR has been doing fairly good business. Some of the reasons ascribed to this spurt in business as indicated above include the globalization of the market and an increasing emphasis on integrated communication for brand management. Social marketing, advocacy communication and perception management are also some the emerging fields that are increasingly being handled by public relations experts. There is a demand for youngsters who have a strong grounding in public relations.

The role of Public Relations Society of India (PRSI) in promoting PR education

The PRSI had set up the India Foundation for PR Research (IFPR) in early 1980s which brought out some volumes of PR case studies and Monographs, but became dysfunctional after two of its pioneering members who did immense work namely Mr. Ajit Gopal and Mr. Anil Basu (From Indian airlines and Goodyear Tyers) expired.

 PR as a career choice

Since the early 1990s, there has been a sudden focus on PR as a career choice among young aspirants. This is mainly ascribed to two factors:

  1. The proliferation of public relations outfits all over the country in the wake of the opening of the economy to transnational companies and the changing media scene in the country.
  2. In the last few years, there has also been emphasis on vocational courses at university level.
  3. Both the electronic and print media have been producing programs and bringing out career guidance supplement for youngsters almost every week. Mass communication courses have been in focus in these programs and supplements.

(After the tremendous success of a career program: Hum Honge kamyab (Title based   on Martin Luther’s famous song ‘We shall overcome’, which ran for years and had hundreds of episodes, PR was noticed as a promising profession among the younger lot in some the episodes. There have been a number of programs after that. Newspapers like The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The India Express and The Pioneer, bring out Career pages for the weekend reading and PR education and careers in Pr have found place in may such supplements. The FM radio, which mainly caters to the youth in a number of metros too, has career guidance programs.

 The Rush

According to a conservative estimate, about 5000 students go through PR courses at various levels and of different duration in India every year. How many really get into the PR profession, there is no empirical data available. Unlike other well established professions like medicine, law accountancy, mass communication disciplines like Journalism, advertising and PR haven’t still acquired the status of a distinct discipline for which any formal training is considered necessary at the induction level. Professionals don’t need any accreditation to join the profession. Many youngsters get into these professions without undergoing a formal training. One has also seen lateral entry in to public relations from administration, engineering and similar disciplines, especially in public sector organizations. Public Relations Society of India (PRSI) has been advocating with the concerned ministry to consider accreditation for the profession, but without much success until now.

Professional bodies in PR

There are two major professional PR association In India viz., The Public Relations society of India (PRSI) and Public Relations Consultants association of India (PCRAI). In early 1980’s the public sector organization set yet another PR association by the name Public sector PR Forum (PSPRF) but became dysfunctional after a few years. Efforts are underway to revive it.

PRSI was established in 1958 to “to promote the recognition of public relations as a profession and to formulate and interpret to the public the objectives and the potentialities of public relations as a strategic management function”. The membership of the society is open to any person and also to any firm, body corporate or association of persons. Students are also encouraged to take membership. PRSI has 30 chapters and a   membership of 3000 practitioners/ organizations.

PRSI is recognized as the national PR organization by the International Public Relations Association, and is one of the founder members of the Global Alliance of Public Relations and Communications Management.

Various regional Chapters of PRSI regularly organize seminars, lectures and discussions on various facets of public relations. The national chapter organizes a seminar every year on a topical issue that attracts a large congregation of PR practitioners. The national chapter has established outreach with academia and provided in the past forum to students of mass communication to congregate and understand the various trends in PR and its nuances.

Public Relations Consultants Association of India (PCRAI) a trade organization represents public relations consultancy firms in India. formed in 2001, its mission is to “consistently establish benchmarking standards, knowledge, ethics and expertise and to encourage and promote the progression of Public relations Industry in India, while endorsing the effectiveness of professional and ethical services”. PCRAI is affiliated with International Consultancy Communication Organization (ICCO) which is an international association for all national communication consultancy organizations headquartered in UK.

If one looks at the composition of PRSI and PCRAI, one finds that the former has mostly PR practitioners from public sector undertakings, government departments and some from small ad agencies who often are empanelled for advertising work in various public sector entities. The PCRAI on the other hand has representation mostly from the private sector PR practitioners and PR firms.

PR associations, especially in the West are very active when it comes to safeguarding the interest and reputation of the profession, but when comes to Indian outfits, one has not really seen much initiative in this regard. It is expected that PRSI and PCRAI to work closely with the academia and industry to build a body of knowledge through case studies, research projects in collaboration with the academia and set benchmarks for improving the state of the profession.

Prof. Jaishri Jethwaney did her masters in Political Science from Delhi University and Doctorate in Media and Elections from School of International Studies, Jawahar Lal Nehru University. She did PGDs in Advertising & Public Relations and Journalism in India and attended the International Training Institute at New South Wales for a fellowship in Public Relations.

Beginning a career in brand management, she worked for about a decade in corporate communication and PR. She joined the Institute as Associate Professor in 1989 and became Professor in 1995. She is the Program Director for the PGD in Advertising & PR. She takes courses in the areas of Corporate communication, Public relations, Social marketing and Advertising.

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