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BR Research

An interview with Selina Rashid Khan, CEO Lotus PR

‘Pioneering Strategic PR Storytelling in Pakistan.’ Selina Rashid is the CEO of Lotus PR, Pakistan’s first...
11 Jan 2021

‘Pioneering Strategic PR Storytelling in Pakistan.’

Selina Rashid is the CEO of Lotus PR, Pakistan’s first dedicated communications and public relations firm that she founded in 2007 at the age of 23. She is the first Pakistani recipient of the prestigious PR News Top women in PR global award and the first to have Pakistan recognized on the international public relations map. Selina is the Vice President of PREDA Council and was most recently awarded Media Entrepreneur of the year 2019-2020.

Selina graduated with a first-class honors degree in politics from the University of Warwick with a distinction. Following graduation, she worked at Avalon Public Relations in London for several years before she shifted back to Pakistan in March 2007 when she set up Lotus Client Management & Public Relations.

She has been recognized by the Marketing Association of Pakistan, the Pakistan Advertising Society, Coca-Cola Atlanta, LadiesFund and the Lean In global network by Sheryl Sandberg for her pioneering role as a woman entrepreneur in Pakistan. She has been selected to represent Pakistan as a woman entrepreneur at several global forums through her career.

Following are the edited transcripts of a recent conversation BR Research had with Selina Rashid:

BR Research: Let us begin with how the business of PR is different from/ supplements marketing and advertising?

Selina Rashid: Philosophically speaking, I have always maintained that Public Relations is really both the art and science of strategic thought which then translates into tactical positioning, molding, shaping, and sustaining. True PR is built on the power of qualitative thought and strategic execution. Practically speaking, this means PR, unlike advertising, is more nuanced, often with greater long-term implications.

PR can and has played a huge role in shaping the narrative and perception of people, brands and nations with credibility and believability. What one chooses to project, the way in which we choose to project it and the mediums we use, all play a significant role in how one is perceived. PR, with its multi-faceted nature has the ability to really land ideas, thoughts and messages into the hearts and minds of people, as opposed to paid marketing activities.

BRR: How has ‘Public Relations’ evolved over the years in Pakistan? And more recently, how has digitization and social media changed the face of PR?

SR: Speaking in context of PR in Pakistan specifically, PR has evolved consistently and quickly. In a sense, PR today is almost unrecognizable from where it was 13 years ago when Lotus PR was born. For starters, in 2007 when Lotus was born, there was no concept of long term personal or lifestyle PR. Any PR that existed was at the corporate level and more often than not, this was through paid advertorials masquerading as corporate PR.

Initially, for approximately the first 5 years, my work would almost always be confused with that of an event manager. It was an understandable assumption for people to make, considering the only PR that was on offer was via event management companies who would offer clients nice Sunday magazine picture spreads and media attendance at their events.

Today, PR is a standalone industry and entity unto itself in Pakistan and is in fact, largely digital. Today there is recognition of PR as strategic thinking and direction as opposed to simply an extension of event management or paying people to talk about you. The industry has come a long way in defining itself and its stature and defining a new industry skill set and service.

With digitalization, the mindset has also evolved - of both clients and consumers. For instance, people are much more cognizant of what they are consuming as paid / advertorial content as opposed to content shared for its own integrity or value. Further, people are also much more interested in stories based on emotion as opposed to utility, function. People are also far more interactive, seeking engagement and dialogue. We live in an era where our greatest storytellers are in fact those to whom we advocate. Indeed, with digital media, the era of talking AT people has ended.

All of these changes have greatly affected the way PR is practiced. People are much more focused on the quality of content they put out. The subtle art of storytelling has gained far more traction as opposed to big native articles with a client plastered all over it. However, the media and other such stakeholders have also evolved and changed the nature of the game, moving to a model where often finances dictate the kind of content and stories they are willing to carry as opposed to storytelling for the sake of engagement. It’s definitely become trickier with boundaries constantly evolving but it is equally exciting in that it’s a new era for PR and storytelling. With digitalization, it has become increasingly clear that PR cannot operate on the principles of a world that no longer exists.

BRR: From the client perspective, what's their understanding and application of PR in general?

SR: In my experience with Lotus, it is always the client with a long-term vision for growth, leadership and imaging that truly understands the value and nature of PR. Almost 90 percent of the clients we work with are those with a vision for long-term strategic PR planning and to this end, they are very well versed in the dynamics of PR and what falls within the ambit of PR.

This doesn’t necessarily mean only those clients with budgets that allow for long-term PR retainers understand PR; but rather, clients that have a belief in the need for strategic thinking that goes beyond today.

BRR: What are the general misconceptions around PR and their root causes?

SR: That there is no strategic depth, and it is simply a way of paying bloggers and influencers to say good things about clients or to drive sales quantitatively. This misconception has built over the years as there has been a sudden mushrooming of smaller, often one-person strong PR outfits in the last 5 years, who have quite literally been presenting the face of PR simply as this who do not necessarily have the breadth of exposure nor diversity of experience in PR themselves. Clients, then exposed to these types of KPI’s, in turn hop from agency to agency asking them to deliver the undeliverable (sales spikes and good, repeated, nonstop reviews only), only to meet average results, agency after agency. It has turned into a bit of a vicious cycle of wrong/ misaligned demand leading to a lack of result: both clients and agencies need to stop and reflect at this point.

BRR: Lotus started off as the first PR company dedicated to art, culture, lifestyle, and entertainment. What is the current competition and landscape like? Any plans to go towards corporate PR?

SR: When Lotus started operating in August 2007, there was no company dedicated to long-term image building in the arts: be it music, fashion, literature. There were certainly event planners offering a capsule collection of PR services such as red-carpet photography, Sunday magazine spreads etc., but nothing more. Therefore, when we came in, it was certainly challenging, simply trying to reframe the concept of what was then known as PR, to clients, media and young professionals looking to enter the PR industry. It was also daunting for artists in these fields to consider investing in image building without a clear quantitative ROI. A lot of work at the start was a result of leaps of faith and trust.

However, as an industry, we have come a long way. As I mentioned earlier, today, PR is a standalone industry and entity unto itself in Pakistan with recognition of PR as strategic thinking and direction as opposed to simply an extension of event management. There are now companies specializing in PR for the arts, finance, business, corporate, celebrity et al – based on demand from almost all kinds of industries across Pakistan.

In terms of landscape, we now have two clear ‘branches’ of PR if you will: PR linked to events; and PR linked to longer-term image building.

In terms of competition, there is a lot of businesses for everyone, depending on one’s skill set and bouquet of offerings. You have clients looking for one time, one hit solutions, those coming to you specifically for a crisis, others coming for medium term campaigns of projects, and those in time for the long term. The wonderful thing is, there is a demand across the board. The key then is to harness this demand into long term results that allow clients to commit to the idea of PR.

For Lotus, our shift to service corporate clients commenced some 5 years back – because it has required far more discretion and confidentiality and is after all the less ‘glitzy’ side of what we do compared to fashion weeks and celebrity PR, perhaps less people out of the corporate world are familiar with what is now a rather extensive body of work on the corporate side.

We currently consult with a number of international clients from the UK, Singapore, and Montenegro. We also work extensively with clients in technology, finance, banking, textile, personal care et al. I believe working in both the arts and the corporate world gives our team good exposure, experience and knowledge to cross pollinate between the two, and opens up the mind to greater understanding and to the depth of possibilities.

BRR: What are your portfolio's key components (in terms of clients/segments)?

SR: We offer a diversity of services within the B2B and B2C sectors covering strategic planning, positioning & consultancy for multinationals, brands, and individuals: image creation, evolution, and relevance; campaign ideation, advocacy, lobbying, government relations and local/international networking along with a separate entire strategic unit for crisis management.

We work with clients from the fields of personal care, fashion, finance, banking, technology, celebrity, film, entrepreneurs, startups, multinationals, music, environment, fine art, government affairs, education, development et al.

BRR: As COVID-19 triggers a deep economic downturn, marketers around the world are faced with some tough strategic choices. What is your view are the changes that the Publicists and PR companies are experiencing or might see in the coming years?

SR: When COVID-19 hit Pakistan, clients and PR firms started downsizing, cutting costs where they could. In terms of agencies specifically, the effects of the pandemic were particularly unkind to those who work on an event by event or short time basis with clients, as all that worked suddenly came to a screeching halt. Many others had their contracts renegotiated and have been forced to revisit their business plans, scale down, strip their workforces to the bare bones and service clients with far less resources. Naturally, this is now having its own effect on mental health, publicist burnout and general work fatigue.

At Lotus, senior management unified over one clear decision: we would not, under any circumstances, let anyone go, irrespective of the natural downturn in business. As my Director Zubair very aptly said, PR agencies are only as good their human resource and therefore, keeping the Lotus family together was a natural decision. I will admit, the pandemic has been tough for us as it has for all: but I am proud that we are here, weathering the storm, and using it as an opportunity to learn, to evolve and to transform to a more agile way of working, physically and mentally. After all, a crisis often challenges the very fabric of one’s DNA and with that, brings out the potential to see things differently and act accordingly.

As an industry in Pakistan, challenges PR practitioners may find now include more pressure from clients to perform greater feats on lower budgets; increased pressure from clients to link PR to sales; a larger burden of work on an increasingly smaller pool of professionals; and an acceleration in the move to digital PR and with it, the pressure to deliver innovation in ideation at a more rapid pace.

BRR: What has been the effects on media plans, PR activity, and ad spend among local brands due to COVID19?

SR: For most clients, from individuals to multinationals, PR has most definitely affected media spend, planning, activity, and mindset. The shift from physical to virtual engagement with stakeholders means spend in the digital realm has grown tremendously as has attention and focus on content creation and execution.

However, the downturn in business for clients in the initial wave of COVID19 also meant a downturn in spend overall. Plans and activity are now more focused on short term strategy and execution for instant result with the ability to sit back and wait for the long-term benefit, affected.

BRR: How do you see the business of fashion evolving post COVID-19? Lotus has a significant number of fashion brands in its portfolio.

SR: Fashion as an industry has always been trendsetting: not just in terms of product but also in the marketing of it. It was fashion brands that started doing virtual shows / fashion weeks when the pandemic hit after which several other industries followed with virtual launches/show and tells for their products and content. By nature, fashion is evolutionary and constant pushing the boundaries – that is perhaps why Lotus has always maintained an affinity for it and we keep strong roots in the business of fashion. It keeps us on our toes!

The evolution varies with the type of fashion client: Our high-end fashion portfolio for example has reacted differently compared to our fast fashion high street portfolio, many of whom are also large exporters of textile. The commonality between the two is the growing dependence of e-commerce.

BRR: How are SMEs holding up in terms of PR the current situation? What was the trend in pre-COVID-19 times?

SR: It has been difficult for many SMEs and the trend during COVID was to scale back, close physical premises and cut down staff. Initiatives such as the State Bank Rozgar/temporary refinance scheme were definitely helpful in keeping specific businesses afloat but the industry as a whole needs a better institutional framework to keep it strong and functioning during times of crises.

Further, the multiplicity and complexity of taxes is a burden on SMEs at the best of times. During a crisis such as the pandemic it becomes doubly burdensome. Also, true to almost all sectors in Pakistan and reflected in PR is the fact that there are many SMEs who operate outside the tax network, which makes it unfair and burdensome on those operating in an upright and legal manner. At a time when the government itself is short of revenue unfortunately the standard practice in institutions like FBR, PRA etc. is to squeeze existing taxpayers rather than hunting out those operating outside the tax net.

BRR: There has been a shift towards digitization be it in media or financial transactions or shopping. Do you think these changes will be permanent?

SR: Absolutely – no question about it. As more people gain access to internet in Pakistan with 76.38 million users as of Jan 2020, and a 17 percent rise in internet users between 2019-2020, more businesses, stakeholder et al will turn to media.

We’ve already seen a major growth in the fintech sector of Pakistan; we have traditional media digitizing their content to produce digital specific networks; dedicated YouTube shows and TV shows now being screening live on YouTube; the explosion of Tik Tok across all SECs and the subsequent monetization of such media.

There is no turning back: for PR professionals, brands, and nations: either you lead the change, follow it or, simply get left behind in irrelevance.

BRR: How have the business activity at LOTUS changed since the COVID19 outbreak? AND how has your organization adapted to the situation in terms of work, safety and client dealing?

SR: In practice, we have changed a fair bit. We have been challenged to think differently, digitally and with a greater focus on tangible ROI.

There is also a greater reliance on us as publicists to think more strategically and address a number of challenges for client that are as new to them as they are to us.

Initially, working from home was challenging given that suddenly, the concept of work hours and boundaries vanished, with clients demanding the availability of publicists 24/7 – WhatsApp groups were buzzing till 3 AM, emails flying day and night and come 9 AM, phones ringing ad nauseam. This was because of the great uncertainty of what was unfolding, and what lay ahead. Bear in mind PR, because it is such a new industry, is dominated by a lot of young people and all of us do not have the luxury of wisdom that comes with age! The adaptation to the ‘new normal’ took some time.

However, this continues to be a time of great learning. In terms of adapting to COVID physically: like all businesses, we immediately switched to a work from home model, closing the office for a good 6 months. We reopened just recently on the basis of the rotation of team clusters and with a clear focus on safety protocols.

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