PR by Accident

Post by Surekha Pillai on her journey to become a PR Consultant.

I wanted to be a truck when I grew up. I believed kids grew up to be objects of their desire. When I outgrew that phase, not without heartbreak, I set my heart on becoming a doctor. Children back then had dreams of either becoming a doctor or an engineer. I was not quite sure what an engineer did whereas a doctor’s job seemed easier and more fun, so I settled on doctor.

My father, however, nurtured a secret dream of me clearing the IAS exams and becoming a district collector. He even tried bribing our village goddess with the promise of a golden spear ‘vel’ if I became one. That dream remained unfulfilled as well.

When we eventually moved to Delhi, there was a sudden explosion of career options for me. At one point I thought it would be cool to become a vegetable vendor as I dreamt of selling ladies fingers next to the fair and handsome Kashmiri boy who sold tomatoes at the vegetable mandi in my neighbourhood.

Eventually when it was time to pick a career, I chose advertising because my boyfriend then had dreams of getting into the field. I managed a diploma in PR, advertising and journalism from YMCA to impress him. I interned with an agency called React Advertising and realized a month later I was nowhere near good. At a copy writer’s test, I was asked to complete the sentence ‘a bird in hand…’ which I did with ‘ worth a hundred in the neighbour’s bed’ and considered that to be my best joke ever.

I then tried my hand at ticketing as an option with the pursuit lasting exactly a day. A family friend arranged a job for me at Amadeus India and asked me to report to work the following Monday. I was also told that my salary had been settled at a princely amount of Rs 5000 per month. It was a huge sum 17 years back. Sweets were distributed and temples visited, all my relatives in Nagercoil, Tirunelveli and Chennai duly informed about the windfall and on the D-day I landed at Amadeus and was met by the head of the office. Ten minutes after talking to me, he did not seem impressed with me and decided I was not right for the job. I was sent back home with the advice of pursuing a career in mass communications as I held a diploma in the stream. On hindsight that was perhaps the best career advice I had received, but the excruciating bus ride back home was my longest journey ever. I was back home scouting for more opportunities.

One day I was flipping through the Tata Press Yellow Pages when I saw an entry for ‘Good Relations’. Following are the tweets on what followed that made BlogAdda suggest I write this guest post:

I learnt the basics in PR or any professional environment for that matter, from Banerjee. The agency had two interns when it started. With me was Vandana, who had joined the agency after a glowing interview with Banerjee where he quizzed her on the most significant event that concerned women during that time. Vandana spoke about a sex scandal whereas Banerjee really had Kiran Bedi winning the Magsaysay award in mind. So I had a suitable partner at work.

Our orientation began with Banerjee calling us into his cabin and asking what we would do first at a client meeting. I proudly answered ‘shake hands’, Vandana suggested ‘Ask him how are you?’. Banerjee rolled his eyes and roared – ‘Exchange business cards!!’. One of my oft-repeated media training tips to clients over the years has been to always exchange business cards with the journalists to ensure no mistakes are made while reporting names and designations. Each time I thought of Banerjee.

Over the next few months business boomed, more people joined the agency. I continued to learn many things about PR, the toughest of which was the often inexplicable rudeness of journalists. I remember going to a leading news daily once and handing over a press release to a senior journalist. As I walked out of his cabin, I heard a sheet of paper being torn. I looked back to see it was indeed my press release. Sometimes, journalists, during press release follow-ups, would irritably bang the phone on me and I would continue talking into the phone to avoid embarrassment in front of my colleagues seated with me who perhaps were talking into dead phones as well. It was not all bad – we also made a few media friends.

The work atmosphere was such fun that surprisingly I do not remember being stressed much. We made our weekly visits to the local discotheque (media nights that allowed us free entry), drafted press releases about one another (‘Vandana becomes a billionaire’ which included quotes from all of us), had parties inside the office (the only boss and firm that allowed drinking in the office premises) and generally had great fun.

While most of the learning came from Banerjee and the extremely charming and efficient second-in-command Gauri, some also came in the form of on-ground experience.

One of our clients was a company that was planning to launch a new brand of menswear. The company was set-up through a tripartite arrangement between a firm in Delhi (headed by a rich man who ran a saree house in Karol Bagh), a firm in Singapore and a reputed fashion house in Italy. The partnership and launch of the brand was announced with much fanfare. It was the first mega event of my PR career. The Taj swimming pool was emptied and a ramp constructed across the pool for a fashion show to showcase the collection. The media were all there – electronic media, fashion journalists, photographers, columnists… all present in full swing. The breathtaking show was a grand success.

Vinita Dawra Nangia of Saturday Times found it befitting of full-page coverage, which made me almost faint with joy. All the channel stories ran into several minutes. The client was so delighted with the work that he asked us to make three copies of the electronic media coverage of the show – one for each partner. Mr D, our client, informed us that he would personally showcase our work to his partners in Italy during a forthcoming visit. The copies were made and dispatched to the partner in Singapore and to the client. Two days later, our videographer huffed and puffed into the office asking to see the tapes. Out of the three copies made, there was one tape of a wedding. His clients, the newly-wed couple, were apparently fuming at the fashion show tape. More importantly, Mr D was already in Italy.

I made quick calls to Singapore and the Delhi office. As luck would have it, they both had the right tapes. Mr D got back to India and we were summoned for a meeting. I was sent to ‘handle’ the situation mainly because I was the one responsible for it. I remember my legs turning into jelly as I walked into Mr D’s plush office with him seated on his huge throne. He looked at my ashen face and said, “Ye bahut galat baat hai, Surekha. Maine to udhar video bhi chalaya phir kuch bolke samhaalna pada. Ab aage se aise mat karna” (“This is very wrong, Surekha. I even played the tape and somehow managed to handle the situation. Don’t repeat this in the future” ). It was over just like that. That was my first encounter with a kind client. For every ten ‘difficult’ clients I handled, a client like Mr D helped keep my love for the PR profession alive.

There were others too, like the time I went to meet an American CEO for lunch at a five star hotel where I managed to use my fork and knife to make a piece of chicken jump out of my plate. Time froze. My face went red. He leaned towards me smiling and with a wink whispered,” one saw that..pretend nothing happened and keep eating.” It was a new business meeting and eventually we did win that account and went on to produce some magnificent results for them.

It has been over fifteen years since. The foundation laid at Enterprise PR and working with my colleagues and clients there served me well in handling a range of challenging assignments, difficult clients and unreasonable journalists in the years that followed. During this period, I have also met some wonderfully appreciative clients, as well as down-to-earth, friendly, no-nonsense journalists. Often I go back to the day when I was browsing the Tata Press Yellow Pages and marvel at how some moments trigger a chain of incidents that change your life forever. Despite all the heart burn PR has given me, if given a chance to go back 17 years, I would flip those yellow pages all over again.

Surekha Pillai is currently an independent communications consultant. More about where she went from Enterprise PR here. You can also read her wonderful article on twitter called ‘Confessions of a twitterholic‘.

22 Replies to “PR by Accident”

  1. Great capture, I must say. It really has been a while since I read an experience written in this style of writing (pardon me for not having the correct word to describe it). And one spanning across 17 years at that, can definitely be called a treat.

  2. I felt like reading a story. Wonderfully written and thanks to Blog adda for getting such wonderful talented people on board. Looking forward to more.

  3. Papers being torn: reminds me of the time I met the editor of a major newspaper to ask if I could do a column for him. I took along several clippings of previous columns and gave it to him to look at. He deliberately, almost ostentatiously, leaned down and stuck it near the bottom of a huge pile of papers on a shelf next to him. “I’ll read them and get back to you”, he said. Needless to say he never did. Though the odd thing is he now likes my stuff (he’s at another paper now).

    thanks for an engaging look at a profession I know next to nothing about.

  4. Very interesting. Loved the way you have written it. The line ‘Sweets were distributed and temples visited, all my relatives in Nagercoil, Tirunelveli and Chennai duly informed about the windfall’ cracked me up. Keep up!

  5. Somewhat we have same story, though I hv lot to achieve in life, its just been 6yrs in PR, felt nice after reading it, thanks 🙂

  6. Very interesting indeed. I almost felt as if I could hear you speak all this during an animated conversation.

  7. An outstanding blog…Shaking hand with you…You have the critical ability to communicate…keep it up

  8. bhaskar – thank you so much!

    rama – delighted to read that. my favourite line each time i saw a powerpoint for a new business pitch is ‘where is the story?’

    satish – i like that..small but happy. thanks 🙂

    rajen, nandita – thank you!

    sadhogopal – glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

    vishakha – hey, are you the vishakha? the one i worked with at ipan? if yes, not surprised you heard me speak 🙂

    raam – the interesting thing about PR is that it takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master. ive loved the comments from those in the industry. this post was mostly for them.

    pankaj – :)) thanks.

    dilip – wow, you have commented! thank you for reading the post and sharing your story. means much 🙂 it’s also interesting how fame has the unique capability of stretching itself over the biggest of flaws, no?

    shantanu – ha! you picked my favourite line 🙂

    nalini – kind of you – thank you!

    uttam – thanks 🙂

    shruti – haha now you know how i worked! thanks 🙂

  9. Good to read what you wanted to be. I have always envied the way you express yourself.The same feelings came to fore again.

  10. pretty rad, it was un-put-downable , with such writing, i wonder, how the guy tore the release 😀

  11. Its easily a chapter out of a PR fella’s life! I can so relate it that it almost made me nostalgic on how I got into and still am at it 7 yrs down the line 🙂

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