Lessons in Lobbying with PR Pundit Dilip Cherian5 min read
Grey haired and mellow in a plain white kurta-pyjama, Dilip Cherian sits in front of me savouring a simple breakfast of idli and sambhar. Behind the unassuming appearance is a sharp thinker who, in 2010, was called one of India’s ‘Favourite Lobby Horses’ by Outlook. As the Co-founder of Perfect Relations, South East Asia’s largest image management and communication firm, Cherian’s job is to make companies, products and people look good. His competency is rewarded when he is unanimously looked at as the ‘Image Guru’ of India.
“Many people are with a mindset today that running a business is quite easy, in reality it is not”, he points out shrewdly during the course of this interview with TMJ. Dilip Cherian was in Manipal as a guest speaker at Article-19, Communication fest of Manipal Institute of Communication.
Tell us about your transformation as an Economic consultant in the Ministry of Industry to Editor of Business India and subsequently building Perfect Relations.
Business India, one of the leading business magazines of India at that time, was looking for someone who is skilled and understanding, someone who had studied economics and who could write for them. When I joined the magazine it was small but it was a time when business in India was getting an identity of its own. So, the change of mind from an economic consultant to a journalist was mainly driven by an understanding that the Government of India is going to be only a regulator not the initiator. The bureau I was in, now called the Direct Commission, was initially a regulator. Gradually I became an Editor.
The Ambani’s wanted to start a business newspaper of their own and they approached me. It was difficult as it took two years to set up the business properly. Having done magazine and newspaper gave me the experience and encouragement to start something different. I teamed up with the partner who was also the co- founder of Perfect Relations as we had potential plans to try something new in the society. Setting up Perfect Relations was very much serendipitous.
How do you juggle being a communication consultant, political campaign advisor, lobbyist and journalist?
It’s like managing your briefcase knowing what you want to keep, what you want to take out and the combination you need to carry; it’s not like I use everything at the same time. Say in the case of corporate communication, which is a serious part of work and environment and on the other hand political lobbying, which is about understanding the work in a particular environment. A mediocre understanding of your enemy, your opposition, who you are speaking to and what is in it for them are a few things you need to keep in mind when you are practicing lobbying. So the environment, the enemy and the encouragement gives you the skill of political lobbying. It’s all about having people with skills around you, who will complement what you do. This in turn will enhance your performance. The third requirement is having a reputation for being competent. It is one of the essential qualities needed to carry on with any work. One without the other is useless.
But lobbying had been equated to bribery by the media following a slew of scams like Wal-mart and 2G. To what extent do you think this statement is justified?
I think there are two kinds of lobbying. Lobbying which is overt and lobbying which is covert. Lobbying which is covert is the dire one and unfortunately India and Indian market always had covert lobbying. Perfect Relations has always believed in overt market. Everybody knows what we do and they can see it, so there is a sense of complete transparency about the work done. On the other hand, the scams you have mentioned are the after-effect of covert lobbying. The public and the Government giving it a bad name by stating it as bribery is nothing but the reflection of public sentiments and government consciousness.
How do you think the PR scenario in our country has changed over the last three decades?
I think it has changed enormously in terms of the interface between the client and the target. Planning with a much higher level of expectation than before and because of the need for speed, it cannot be handled by an individual or a small company. For example, if Google or Shoppers Stop wants to do something, they would want to move beyond big cities like Mumbai and Delhi and approach other possibilities like Kochi, Guwahati, Dehradun, etc. Their campaign is on a much higher level as well. So you had to have expanded offices in at least ten to twelve cities of the country. Skillfully choose your targets and understand that the environment is changing rapidly as far as customer expectations are concerned.
Negative publicity changes how a customer perceives a company or their product. How difficult is it to retain the initial positive reputation?
Very frankly it is very difficult to handle the situation because crisis in communication consultancy’s are very big. I don’t even have a proper answer to that. We have clients everywhere in telecommunication, shipping, internet, etc. Every single crisis is managed by a set of people, who are allotted the work of handling crisis management of the company. So whether it is a company facing product failure or official problems, all are handled by our special team.
What can we see Dilip Cherian, the person and Perfect Relations, the company do in the near future?
First, I want to understand and help the company in changing the thinking towards more overt lobbying and for government committees to see what the the government thinks of it. Second, is looking at digital space and the third, is providing skills for people who are doing post-graduation in communication skills.
If we talk about recent activities I have been asked to join the government committee with Sam Pitroda for the improvement of Doordarshan, make it a more international channel. I will be joining one of the subgroups to help them improve Doordarshan’s activities.
Sub-edited by: Nishara K.P