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Public Relations and Corporate Communications India Summit

Speech of J. V. Vil'anilam

Inaugural Address by Professor Dr. J. V. Vil'anilam, Former Vice Chancellor, Kerala University and author of Public Relations in India.

If PR has to function effectively in India as a solid management function… has to stop being an ad hoc gimmick and start being a truth-based component of all managerial activities, deeply concerned about the entire country's contemporary socioeconomic, political and cultural development problems and work towards the fulfilment of the basic needs of the large majority of the Indian population. PR in India, therefore, must be viewed not simply as a management tool but as a social function

I do not have to stress before a learned audience like you that PR skills include communication in all its forms---oral, written, broadcast or telecast, visual and digital. Creativity is at the base of successful PR, we know. There are departments and schools of communication working in many of our universities. Besides there are public and private training institutes such as the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), Indian School of Public Relations (ISPR), the PRSI, PRCI, etc. Still there is a shortage of PR professionals, I am told. Therefore there is no doubt that PR has a bright future and talented PR professionals will thrive in many fields in India which has embarked many development projects from the 1950s onwards and there is no doubt that India is on the path of rapid development.

May I submit that PR in India is comparatively a new discipline although PR as a concept is not new either in India or elsewhere in the world. If we look at the history of management, we find that the first organized attempts at winning individual or group consent were made in 400 B.C. when Cyrus, King of Persia recognized the need for human relations. Emperor As'oka of India in the third century B.C., recognized the value of declaring imperial decisions for the information of the literate public through edicts and pillars, besides oral announcements for the illiterate masses. But throughout the period between early 20th century and now, management and administration have undergone many changes especially in our era of globalization that started around the 1990s.

I must confess that my talk originates from my conviction that public relations has to give special consideration to the practice of informing the different publics of private and public sector undertakings about the political, socioeconomic and cultural changes that are taking place and changes that ought to take place in each country or region or locality. Globalization does not mean the effacement of all national, regional and local priorities through the operation of some universal engine of socioeconomic and cultural levelling, which is impossible in this era of general resistance to colonization and foreign domination of all kinds.

There is no universal principle of management or theory of development fit for all countries and
climes. Each country has its own priorities, which if ignored by management experts and global
thinkers, will lead to accumulation of political power and pelf in special economic zone. Fundamental changes in national human condition become conspicuous by their absence. Change is the law of life and it should embrace all aspects of life. Unfortunately, change is dead slow in the Indian situation. Decision-makers and those who are destined to follow the good or bad consequences of their decisions are ignoring the essential changes needed in the Indian society.

The era of colonialism and concentration of central authority is over and free people have to bestow more attention on national, regional and local priorities. Water shortage, nuclear radiation hazards, chemical hazards, environmental pollution and global warming are the new bêtes-noire for several developing nations, but the dire consequences of these global phenomena are going to affect the millions that reside in ill-built homes in the coastal areas and run-down sections; their condition is likely to be worsened by economic quakes and tsunamis. Therefore, more care and attention have to be given to the vulnerable and the weak among us. Unfortunately for us in India, a huge section of our population is reeling under severe socioeconomic deficits and drawbacks. There are well-known economists who have discovered that an income of Rs. 26/- per day in rural areas and Rs. 32/- per day in urban areas will be sufficient for being qualified as Above Poverty Line! Are they serious about their statistics, I wonder, especially because of the inflation, huge unemployment, rising prices and inadequate infrastructure one can see in the country?

Establishing global shopping centres and IT zones will certainly improve the economic condition of the already safe and economically sound people of the world. Unfortunately, the condition of the miserable half of the world's population who earn less than a US dollar a day will only worsen if certain fundamental safety measures are not taken.

If PR has to function effectively as a solid management discipline aimed to promote the efficiency of production and distribution of goods and services essential for the betterment of the disadvantaged who have borne the brunt and burden of hard life during the past three hundred years' economic and S & T progress, it has to give more attention to the priorities of individual nations.

A Peep into PR History

It will be like carrying coal to Neiveli if I venture to define PR or examine the history of PR before this august audience of PR practitioners. But still I do not mind cutting a sorry figure by pleading that you give special attention to the definitions of PR given by Edward L. Bernays (d. 1985), the most famous author of two seminal works on PR, namely Crystallizing Public Opinion (1952) and The Engineering of Consent (1955).

Allow me to stay with Bernays and his ideas for a moment before we proceed any further. Although some consider Ivy L. Lee as the father of PR, many consider Bernays more qualified for that title because of his books and his concepts. A graduate of Cornell University, New York, Bernays, like his illustrious uncle, the world-renowned psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, had a keen sense of the human mind. For example, he said in 1952 that making use of the processes of "information, persuasion and adjustment" was the essence of public relations. Information Technology or IT is the contemporary buzz word. IT Parks and IT Centres, Cyber Parks and Cyber Technology are proliferating in every major and minor cities and towns of India. No doubt, information is power, but information about accumulation of riches is more prevalent in the world than that about the people who are not deriving the economic benefits of information-based activities in many areas vital to the changes needed in bringing about betterment to the general well- being of the world.

Persuasion is most essential to get things done and adjustment which essentially means adjusting to the inevitable and changing circumstances without being rigid. In 1955, Bernays made a further change in his conceptual framework for PR, when he said that PR was a process that gave ethics and human behaviour the utmost importance in human relations. May I advance the hypothesis that Bernays' latter definition of PR is more appropriate to India and other developing countries in the 21 st century because it stresses ethics and proper behaviour in the realm of management. Social goals of PR ought to receive more importance than anything else in India.

In his earlier definition, Bernays looked at the immediate gains an organization would derive from information, persuasion and adjustment. Psychologists consider information, patronage
and persuasion powerful tools with which one can lead or influence others and get things done. Persuasion and patronage can be achieved through mild exhortation, intense pleading, attractive remuneration or other compensations, and even through punitive measures. But to get things done by others in a democratic manner, persuading people through convincing arguments may achieve lasting results. Punitive measures can only lead to the creation of bad blood between management and non-management personnel.

The term adjustment needs a little more discussion. It should not be seen as a weak-kneed response to demands for change. Adjustment to new circumstances is inevitable. Denying adjustment is denying reality. Adjustment on both sides becomes essential most of the time. Mistakes may be made on both sides. They can be overcome through adjustment. Both sides have to make adjustments in order to reach the common goals of profit-making for the welfare of all.

Sometimes antagonism between labour and management leads to vindictive and destructive
behaviour among managers and non-managers. It will be wise for all to recognize that managers and workers are basically the same---all are beings under a common sun, moon and set of stars! Without such a realization, situations similar to the one in the Manesar plant of Maruti may arise in many parts of India. I repeat that Bernays' 1955 definition of PR is more relevant to us because in it he stresses that PR is a process that gives ethical advice based on research findings for helping clients to achieve their social goals.

PR must come naturally to all civilized humans. But as said before, national priorities are there for us to take care of. My attention goes to some of them. I have tried to list them for easy discussion, but I know that my list is not complete, and each organization can decide what is important for the area where it functions.

A newspaper report on the Congress President Ms Sonia Gandhi's visit to Mangalore on 18 th October refers to her speech defending her decision to allow 51% FDI in the retail market for the following reasons. The Congress leaders including Ms Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and Shri Rahul Gandhi repeated the same ideas on Sunday, 4th November at Ramlila Grounds. All of them highlighted three concepts:

  1. "…51% FDI in multi-brand retail is beneficial as it would provide a direct link between the farmer and the market;
  2. Consumers could get commodities at lower prices;
  3. The government's liberal economic policies would create more jobs.

The same ideas were reaffirmed in the special meeting of the Congress Party held in Surajkund, a suburb of Delhi, a week later.

Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail business is therefore a very important agenda for our government. As PR persons, we should be aware of the arguments and examine them from the political, socioeconomic and cultural angles. PR cannot ignore the issue. Opinions will differ depending on the business each one of us is associated with. All I am saying is that we must take a positive attitude to it Debating it is not a negative act. If it will not adversely affect a large number of people in our country, let us welcome it. In any case, the Honourable Supreme Court of India has opined that Parliament is the supreme authority to approve or disapprove matters relating to FDI in multi-brand retail (See newspapers of November 5, 2012).

The Congress and the BJP governments in various states are promising lakhs and lakhs of jobs for the unemployed, whether through FDI or MGNREGS. Let us be optimistic. Let us also hope that there will be plenty of jobs available for people in the lower and middle levels in the in the coming years. .

A Dozen Points to Ponder: PR & NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT

Information Technology (IT) is good. But don't we have priorities arising out of major existential problems in our country that can be solved with the help of non-IT-exposed and even illiterate

people who form almost half of our population. Since IT jobs require higher education and half the population of the country is still illiterate and uneducated, IT jobs are out of bounds for them. Many millions of people have to acquire gainful employment and steady income that will raise their purchasing capacity. It will be good for the economy if more people earn and purchase goods, even if they do not have education. At the same time, literacy promotion projects and educational expansion must be open to the currently illiterate and uneducated; but their immediate need is gainful employment.

  1. We need many thousands of people to dig and deepen dried-up ponds, streams and rivers. We have to build new roads, bridges and buildings; and many thousand more to keep the
    waterways, roads and buildings clean; educational institutions that work only during day time now must work at night up to 10 p.m. for the working population. Why waste the facilities of existing buildings by opening them only during daytime?

  2. We have to construct at least one primary school in every one of our 600,000 villages, one middle school and one high school with workshops, swimming pools, games and sports fields and all other facilities---- the number of such facilities depending on the population in each target village;

  3. Build more hospitals, primary health centres, law courts and public parks, recreation grounds, community halls and other facilities including public comfort stations (i.e., urinals, latrines, and bathrooms), most of all drainage systems and piped drinking water;

  4. All this will engage many millions of currently unemployed persons who are not educated
    at present. This will also solve many environmental problems, including diseases such as
    dengue, dysentery and typhoid. By controlling the mosquito menace, diseases such as dengue, chikin guniya, malaria, elephantiasis, etc. can be controlled, if not totally eliminated;

  5. PR is connected with public health and disease control, because we need a healthy community to manage things. Diseases do not make a distinction or discrimination between the rich and the poor, the employed and the unemployed, the manager and the managed. Each public and private corporation can enter more seriously into the business of public relations for the public good. We need a more open PR which is not confined to journalism or media work, image-improvement, publicity, and advertising; it should be essentially related to the welfare of the public.

  6. Garbage disposal and waste management (GD&WM) is another major area of work in all States of India. PR Managers have to evolve suitable methods to streamline GD & WM in all the organizations they are connected to. Public and private companies can evolve a system of working together for common causes---transport and communication, public health, working and living environment, etc.

  7. The construction of silos to store grains in all major areas of agricultural cultivation and production is absolutely essential in India. Preservation of grains, vegetables, fruits and other agricultural produce is a great priority. Urgent attention is to be given to the construction of silos and the modernization of FCI godowns. Wastage of grains to rodents and pests in farms,
    homes and public godowns is to be prevented. Preservation of products coming out of farms and factories has to be given all priority.

  8. Temples and Toilets:
    Recently, Shri Jairam Ramesh, Minister of State for Rural Development made some bold
    statements, for example, about temples and toilets. Narayana Guruji, a Sage who lived in Kerala in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries used to exhort his followers that keeping temples and temple premises clean was as important as personal cleanliness of the worshippers. Worship God in a clean environment, he stressed. Our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, called our dams and big projects the modern temples. At that time our narrow-minded politicians wisely remained silent. But when Minister Jairam Ramesh spoke of temples and toilets, their intolerance button got activated! Modern scientists of the world also speak of the need for keeping our living and working environment clean and safe.

    Unnecessary controversies were generated by intolerant and small-minded votaries of organized religion; they said that the Minister spoke only of temples, not of churches and mosques! The less said about this controversy, the better. Contemporary media reports reveal how ignorantly many people associated the word temple with one community. Many leaders have not perhaps heard about Jewish temples in ancient and modern Middle Eastern cities; nor are they aware that the Baptist Temple (Christian) in Philadelphia evolved later into a big university in that City, namely, the Temple University, in 1864.

    Do we not at times call Buddhist viharas Buddhist temples. The word, temple, means a place of worship. Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and other areas in North Africa and West Asia, respectively, had temples. People in South Asia do not have the broadmindedness to look at the issue from a cosmopolitan perspective. The spirit of the Minister's statement was not properly imbibed by our religious leaders and politicians because they wanted to create controversies by jumping into the pool of intolerance and communalize the issue, forgetting that the greatest need in India, after all, is the toilet! We need at least 300 million toilets in India in the 21st century!! Is this not a development priority? And hence, a PR priority?

    Incidentally, while speaking of toilets, I am aware that India is sui generis in many things; it has the dubious distinction of being the only country in the whole world to let fellow beings carry human excreta in big baskets balanced on their heads!!Pardon me for speaking this plain truth. Are we, PR practitioners---are we not ashamed that in this 21st century of science and technology, flush toilets are not universal in India and that several lakhs of people are compelled to carry raw sewage from dry latrines in urban and rural areas? What is the image of India in the civilized world? Is it not a PR concern?

    Our science and technology, my friends, are galloping like race horses but our sociology is limping like a wounded donkey carrying a heavy load of our history spanning five millennia.!

    History is too much with us but the unfortunate thing is that there is no attempt among the elite in India to question the bad principles and practices from a scientific point of view. What do we do to change the situation in which millions eke out their existence in lowly, menial, dirty, foul-smelling and dangerous circumstances. S & T have to be utilized for the betterment of life for all people---high and low, rural and urban, rich and poor.

    The recent actions and statements from leaders are not very helpful in changing things around. The elite seem to be preoccupied with IT zones and higher and higher Q-profits, forgetting fundamental needs of society.

  9. I am reminded of the pontification from certain political platforms in recent months; some have suggested early marriage as a remedy for raping tendencies among adolescent boys and immature men! Our constitution prohibits early marriages, but our politicians in their wisdom suggest that early marriage is a wise solution to mis-behaviour and indecency among men!! Why not revive other practices sanctioned by the old generation law-givers? The Indian Constitution proscribes child marriages, sati and human sacrifice. Are we going to permit such evil practices to placate certain misguided political or religious leaders, especially in khap panchayats where people kill their own offspring for honour!? The media have coined a euphemism for such plain illegal, murders---HONOUR KILLING.

    There are many more sociological problems in our country. PR cannot solve them, I know; but let me stress that PR cannot ignore them, although some of you may think that PR has nothing to do with these social problems.

    Labour relations & Low Wages
  10. In their pursuit of profits, many new entrepreneurs seem to forget certain basic issues in labour relations. For example, the health workers except doctors in the new high-tech hospitals in Kerala, Karnataka and some other States, perhaps throughout the country, are on strike these days for better wages and 8-hour workdays. Many qualified nurses are given paltry wages as low as Rs. 2000/- ($40) a month for very long working hours stretching up to 12 hours or more a day. PR cannot ignore such basic injustices.

    People who plead for improving wages and labour relations are unfortunately dubbed socialists and communists by devotees of McCarthyism in developed and developing countries, forgetting the historical truth that one reason for the progress of the West, particularly of the U.S., is that while industries made progress, the system of 8-hour working days and payment of hourly wages were introduced in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. It is unfortunate that even educated health workers are struggling in India for 8-hour work days and better work environment. Managements in India are not paying serious attention to these basic requirements.

    We in India are confronting new environmental and health problems arising out of our failure to observe occupational safety and health laws. "Handigodu Syndrome" appeared in villages of Karnataka and elsewhere in the early 1970s. The lethal effects of aldrin, dieldrin, malathion and parathion (various types of agricultural chemicals, pesticides and insecticides) were confirmed in the mid-1970s, but there were no attempts to ban them. In the early 21 st century, some insecticides, pesticides and herbicides have come back in their new avatars---Endosulfan, etc., which are found to be carcinogenic, teratogenic and causing gene mutagenesis among sprayers and other agricultural labourers exposed to them in various parts of the country.

    Hundreds of agricultural workers in several States of India have suffered (and are still suffering) from the toxic effects of these organochlorine and organophosphorous compounds. There are hundreds of chemicals including asbestos that affect the ignorant and illiterate workers in the country. PR people have to bestow some serious attention to the series of compensation suits that are likely to arise from workers affected by short-term and long-term effects of the deadly metals, minerals, coke, coal, asbestos and other dusts and chemical particles of all kinds plus radiation to which workers are being exposed every day in this era of globalization. Substances banned in rich, developed countries are being imported liberally into poor, developing countries.

    I am not a Luddite, but I want all manufacturers and top managements, especially their PR people, to be aware of this silent process of industrial and environmental pollution that is taking place in India today. I hope you will agree that people's health should not be sacrificed for quick profits. PR and management ethics should take this up in all earnestness.

  11. It is also a fact that bonded labour, child labour, child marriages and all the evils we prohibited long ago, are very much alive even today in our country. What can PR do about this? PR must re-consider the role of "the public" in public relations. I believe a very prominent person is going to discuss this specific topic this evening at this well-organized Summit, and I do not want to jump the gun.

May I also utilize this opportunity to congratulate in advance the speakers and discussants in today's and tomorrow's sessions and wish all the participants a very delightful stay in this non-pareil city, I mean, this peerless Pondicherry.

I must also congratulate the two young, dynamic PR executives----Mr. Amith Prabhu and Mr. Shane Jacob on their great management skills in organizing this Summit so well in such a beautiful ambience that is simply beyond words.

Pardon me for re-iterating that PR must be re-oriented with a social purpose to enable management to achieve certain social goals relevant to developing countries such as India.

Thank you all for your patient listening. Thanks again to the organizers of the Summit for giving me an opportunity to share some thoughts with you. Jai PRaccis. With these words of " PR wisdom" may I with pleasure inaugurate PR-AXIS 2012 and wish you all well.

I will now be happy to respond to your important ---and kind----questions, and comments, if any.

Le Pondy, #3, Lake View Rd., Nallvad Post, Pudukuppam, Pondicherry—605 007

Telephone: 9222272222/ (413) 261-9666/688 and (413) 3040800 to 999

3:40-4:00 p.m., November 23, 2012


Professor Dr J. V. Vil'anilam was Vice-Chancellor (1992-1996) and Head of the Department of Communication & Journalism (1982-1992), University of Kerala, Trivandrum. He was Professor Emeritus of the UGC and Senior Travel Fellow of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), London. After obtaining a first rank Master of Arts in English from the BHU in 1958, he worked as an Assistant Professor in several colleges and later worked for MRF. In 1975 he took another master's degree – in Communication --- from Temple University, Philadelphia and a Doctor of Social Science from the University of Amsterdam in 1986. He was also on the Editorial Board of the world famous Gazette, International Journal of Mass Communication, published by the U of A and the Netherlands Press Foundation. After retirement as VC, he visited many Universities as Professor Emeritus of the UGC, and headed the PR Department of the MLC University of Journalism, Bhopal. He has also served as Chairman of the NACC Peer Team from 2001-2007. Currently he is Editor Emeritus of Media Watch.

Professor Vil'anilam had served as an Adjunct Professor at the School of Communications & Theater, Temple University and also at the Annenberg School, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Writer of about two dozen books in English and Malayaal'am, Dr. Vil'anilam is noted also for his
occasional TV & Radio programmes. His latest book in English is Public Relations in India (SAGE. 2011).

Visit his website: for more details.