Interview With Xavier Prabhu – Founder at PRHUB. With offices located in Delhi, NCR, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai and Kochi with corporate headquarters in Bengaluru, PRHUB have a strong partner network in 100 cities across India, placing us among India’s leading national, full-services PR firms.
How did you start? Is there any story behind it?
Feel a lot of things in my life (particularly all the major decisions) have been accidental – sort of an instant decision taken on the spot with no seeming logic or context to back, including turning an entrepreneur.
The reason though was a burning desire to be successful, independent and contribute significantly which entrepreneurship allows you to. Coming from a family of a school teacher and a housewife in a small town, had little exposure till I started working in Bangalore. Triggered by the dotcom boom, took the plunge to start an online marketplace for PR out of India.
Roped in a close friend of mine into the venture and both of us ran the venture till it ran aground. The business moved nowhere because the market was not ready or mature made worse by our complete lack of experience.
The entrepreneurial stint though had an amazing effect on me as a person. From someone awkward in the company of the urban and sophisticated, from someone unsure of his knowledge and skills, transformed into a person who was confident, articulate and started enjoying public speaking.
In this period couple of new things happened. Got written about a bit in the media, started speaking at events and of course teaching.
It sort of molded me into a new person or brought what was latent inside me all these years out.
As the new venture headed south to closure, a silver lining stuck from nowhere in the form of a former client whom I had worked on in my last PR stint. He was the head of Indian subsidiary of a leading embedded company in the world and he signed me on to handle the company’s PR locally for a year. At that time had just a rented house and a PC.
Started from there and hired one person to come and work out of my home which did not work out well. Around the same time, got a call from Singapore PR firm about handling PR for the Indian leg of Asia’s largest venture capital competition.
The fee was extremely attractive and had to put together a team quickly to handle the same which I did and moved the office into a cubicle in a business center on St. Mark’s road. The event was handled satisfactorily and it gave me some confidence that this could be something to build on.
The team of 2 who helped me in the project stayed on and PRHUB became a three people firm. The second avatar of PRHUB as a full services PR firm was now taking shape.
We moved into a three bedroom spacious apartment in Lavelle road which was shared with one of my colleagues at the PR firm I worked (who had started an advertising firm along with 3 of his friends).
We gradually grew primarily doing support work for a lot of agencies up north and west who were keen on coverage in Bangalore media. With no space for growth, it was imperative that one of the firms move out of the apartment which we did in early 2003.
I advised by a close friend committed a blunder of moving into a residential complex and spent money to do up the office and invest heavily. Then started the litany of problems as we fought a pitched and often messy battle with the society which was hell bent on throwing us out and went to the extent of harassing my employees and denying them entry into the office. Faced with mounting issues, my focus on business took a backseat and lost a couple of good people in this period.
The problem became insurmountable and decided to move out negating all the investment made. Moved office to Langford road and faced the daunting task of making up the losses suffered and also rebuilding business.
Was blessed with a team of ultra-committed and enthusiastic people who joined PRHUB around that time and with them we went about adding clients, doing consistent work and PRHUB was up on its feet again. 2007 we moved into Chennai which grew but due to a mix of market factors and flawed local leadership, we had to scale it down drastically in 2016.
2010 we set up our presence in Delhi and in 2012, in Mumbai. Becoming a full services, national PR firm and among the few that were independent in the space. We also expanded our bouquet of services consistently. In 2006, we invested in an in-house design team, in 2014, invested in a complete team for social and digital and in 2016, extended that with a focused team for content.
For our size, we are among the few with such in-house scale of capabilities.
With an increase of social media influence how you see a role of PR firm in startups?
The role of PR fortunately will change and become more holistic. Social will also free us from the constraints of managing traditional media and reach out to the target audiences directly and engage them. Online portals are a big part of the media focused on the start-up ecosystem.
Together, with the growing need for consistent communication across channels, mediums and platforms, it allows PR practitioners to shape communication and engage it’s stakeholders in newer ways than before.
Having said that, social is no magic wand and there are no short term results. It is highly dynamic, cluttered and takes time and effort to build traction.
When a startup should think of PR into their marketing strategy?
First I beg to differ – PR for most start-ups is more than marketing – it is the way the corporate brand is built or certain strategic business objectives are met or supported. So, it needs to be at the macro level. I personally recommend that till the start-up reaches scale or size, one of the founders own and drive this area since it is very important to get it right.
Let me clarify, like I have done multiple times before in various platforms, mere coverage or being splashed out is not the best PR for a start-up. Over the hill coverage and premature exposure has also been a spoiler for many start-ups. Coming to when, I suggest that it be as early as possible once the start-up has some budgets to invest in a professional or partner.
Is it important for founders to take their personal branding along with their startup?
Yes and no. It is inevitable that the personal brand of the founders rubs onto the start-ups they are behind and it is important/ideal for it to be the case. But as the start-up matures, scales, it may not be a viable strategy and one needs to start looking at delinking both carefully and gradually.
It is a tough choice but one that needs to be made at the right time for the right reasons. Let us be honest – Steve Jobs or his ilk are rare and such stories are rare either.
“Every publicity is a good publicity” how to define it in current digital age?
Yes and no. to a large extent, all visibility is good for a start-up. Where it does not work and backfires is when the bad publicity is in the core or sensitive or statutory areas.
Culture in the case of Uber, fraud in the case of Theranos or the open and bitter personal feud between the co-founders of Shopclues , these are not at all advisable.
This is where start-ups need mature, sane and balanced counsel from its internal communications lead or the PR partner it is working with. These are also difficult to recover from – we know for sure that Theranos will bleed to closure by end of 2017 if reports are to be believed and after its good run, we are not hearing much of Shopclues.
Uber is too big and backed by large investors who will now steer the ship out of trouble. It will take hits along but not as fatal as Theranos, hopefully. Digital age or any age, feel, some basics are worth sticking to.
What are you excited about right now in terms of PR industry trends?
It is becoming more idea-driven and there is a strong pressure to experiment or try our new models or ways of working. Social and digital has become par for the course with most agencies either investing in in-house capabilities or forging deep partnerships in these areas.
Like we have done and proved successfully, integrated communication is high value when done well and it can be very cost-effective as well not just for large start-ups but even the new or smaller ones.
We would all be forced to understand our client’s customers more deeply than before and look at ways of engaging them directly than dependent entirely on intermediaries like the media. But the media is not going anywhere and is still influential and important.
The skills the professionals needs to have is also changing drastically which is good.
How to deal with media crisis any generic tips you would like to give to entrepreneurs?
Keep clam, assess the scenario holistically and then stick to a strategy evolved. Tune as the situation develops and newer factors come into play.
Keep the number of heads as tight as possible but not one. Let the start-up be run as usual in the time this core team does the fire fighting. You don’t need a large crowd to gather for a firefighting effort to be successful. You just need skilled team of fire fighters who know how to put it out.
They need to have the space and wherewithal to do their job well and quickly. If you have a PR partner, get them in early, confide and have them run with you as part of the core team.
How has reputation management changed in digital age?
Certain things that one could do and get away with (covering up, pretending all is fine, being able to muzzle internal or external voices, being able to control it from spreading etc.) is becoming more difficult.
The regulatory environment is also changing with whistleblowers getting protection and encouraged. There is also wider spread of activism – everyone with a view and sizeable social following is an activist today for something or other.
All of this make reputation management, more complex, dynamic and challenging. While the transparency this encourages is good the flip side is that vested interests can misuse these to harass or achieve their objectives through this.
Do you think it’s important to hire an outsourcing PR firm why?
I would not say important but it would be better and ideal in a certain context for certain reasons. They bring experience of having handled start-ups before they know what works and does not, they could provide the counsel start-ups definitely need.
If a partner they could become the extended team of the start-up allowing it to be nimble and still being able to get the best value out. We partner most of our start-up clients and closely work with their Founding team and senior management in shaping their communication and beyond.
Top three advices you would like to give young entrepreneurs starting up their first business?
PR is a tool and means. Not the end and something standalone – it needs to be backed by something real and tangible happening with the venture.
While it is true that all of us live and die by the quarter or by the next funding round, don’t let that skew your objectives to entirely short-term; try and balance it as much as possible
Engage the PR firm like a partner or your extended team
Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish – pay value and push equally or more to get value in return.
If you would go back I time when you were just getting started what business advice would you give to yourself?
Be focused, delegate faster/better and take more risks. Being risk averse as an entrepreneur having taken the fundamental risk of turning one, though ironical, is something that I did go through.
Can you name the few books which entrepreneurs must read for mastering PR?
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference” by Malcolm Gladwell
“Crystallizing Public Opinion” by Edward L. Bernays
“The new rules of marketing and PR” by David Meerman Scott
Propaganda by Edward Bernays
Fall of advertising and rise of PR by Al and Laura Ries