With over three decades in the public relations and corporate affairs industry, Ajey Maharaj, Group Head, Corporate Communications and PR at Fortis, is no stranger to evolving trends, effective messaging and crisis management, especially when tides have flown over a pandemic.
In this interview, Maharaj opens up about his journey, how he has seen the PR and Corp Comm landscape transforming, his “accidental” entry into the field and the trends he expects the industry to face in the coming years.
You have been in the corporate communications industry for close to three decades now. How has the journey been and how have you seen the industry evolve/ transform in all these years?
Corporate communications, as a concept and an industry, has gradually evolved in the past two decades. Earlier, it meant more to do with external and internal communications and media relations but many aspects have undergone a transformation. Today, organizations want to do more than just communicate about their initiatives and growth to benefit the business. Today an organization drives purpose, is empathetic and how much it relates to the public interest and its key stakeholders. Employee morale and integration is also a key part of corporate communications. Plus, the expansion of digital health services and growth in social media has completely changed the way of communication professionals navigate through business communications today and has led to a recalibration of the communications industry.
Today corporate communication has to be seen as integrated with media relations, brand communications, traditional and digital marketing. It has become much more creative and is a highly recognized space today.
Today, Internal Communications has become an integral and crucial part of the Corporate Communications function. In the healthcare industry for instance, Internal Communications played a pivotal role during COVD-19 as organizations needed to keep the frontline staff regularly updated with the rapidly-changing protocols, share personal safety information and emerging best practices whilst keeping them motivated by recognizing the good work. COVID-19 has also played a very critical role in shaping the PR and communications industry in the past two years with brands relying on corporate communications in the absence of traditional, on-ground marketing activities. Information issues when emotions are running high. During the pandemic, corporate communications launched an effective multi-media outreach, ensuring that scientifically-accurate information from experts were shared with the people and fears were allayed.
Before healthcare, you have worked in the power and telecommunications sector. What were the changes you had to embrace when you shifted between diverse sectors?
Power and telecommunications are two diverse sectors but strong beckoners of the country’s infrastructure. Though there wasn’t much diversification in terms of work, the media connect and brand narrative for both the sectors were strong. Back in the 1990s, India was an evolving economy with all the major sectors undergoing privatisation. It was imperative to have a sustained media outreach to convey the brand messaging with regards to privatisation of the power sector and how it would benefit the Indian economy in terms of AT&C losses, reducing power thefts and eventually build a stronger economy.
You have a Master’s degree in business administration yet you chose the field of Corporate Communications. Tell us about your decision of venturing into corp comm at a time when the term was probably at its nascent stages.
PR and Communications happened to me by accident. While working with SAIL, I was part of the Sports Cell, being a National Level Basketball player. The Cell was under the Public Relations Department in the organisation. SAIL used to organize and sponsor national and international level tournaments on a regular basis. I was responsible for communication with the media and getting news published in the print media around the tournaments. I enjoyed the process and the outcomes, and later started regularly contributing for the internal newsletters and other relevant communications, since then there has been no looking back.
Where do you see the Indian Corp Comm industry in the next five to 10 years and what are the trends that this industry can expect in the coming years?
Corporate communication will become more and more significant as it will influence how a brand communicates with the public, industry partners and also policymakers. Communication is less about being business-driven today and more about consumer experience. The messages a brand gives out and the way it is perceived are key to building customer support and loyalty.
Transparency, accountability are higher now to win patient and customer support as things are going digital. In times of crisis, timely, fast communication and redressal mechanisms are crucial.
If we talk about media, then newsrooms are shrinking constantly and the digital world continues to expand, changing the way the world consumes news and information. Communication professionals need to evolve, think out of the box and deliver robust integrated campaigns. The new decade will be one of digital revolution with advancements in communication technology especially podcasts, Twitter spaces and clubhouse will pave the way brands communicate. There will be a shift in the influencer paradigm with the rise of micro influencers. PR Measurement Matrix with quantifying business impact from PR will become an important task.
What would your advice be to the young generation?
Change is the only constant in life. Everyone needs to engage in the continual process of upskilling to keep up with the demands of the ever-evolving communication industry. It is important to not only have analytical and creative skills but also soft skills. Sharing of insights and knowledge, stronger integration with the business, teamwork and problem-solving attitude, patience backed by strong interpersonal skills will be instrumental in achieving success.
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