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ComFest 2013

A round-up of revelations

Hotel Taj of Mumbai acquired another distinction last October. One of its glittering halls was venue for the event - Comfest13 - a forum that was a unique milestone in itself. It hosted a gathering of distinguished professionals from around the world who were here to share their extraordinary stories of success and insights.

Like every year, this year's ComFest was a celebration of milestones and a sharing of ideas. But unlike every year, ComFest13 presented varied content and context for the discussions. This year, ABCI widened the spectrum to present a very rich kaleidoscope of insights, ideas, strategies and milestones of the communication industry.

The programme lasting a day-&-a-half had quite a few surprises. There were more than professional views exchanged in that hall. There were also inside stories and other revelations that could change a few things around in our industryand society.

The line-up of speakers was as illustrious as it was eclectic and was announced by Mr Yogesh Joshi - president Association of Business Communicators of India (ABCI). Mr Joshi began the inaugural session by introducing and welcoming chief guest Mr. Ramakrishnan Mukundan, MD and CEO of Tata Chemicals Limited. Mr Joshi also announced the names of all speakers that would be sharing their experiences and insights over the next day and a half.

Chief Guest Mr Mukundan was the quintessential Tata CEO when he delivered the keynote address. He brought an apex-level perspective with great depth, valuable advice and insights, as well as stories you would never forget. He established an instant connect with the audience with a speech that was rich with anecdotes and examples from personal experience. He pointed out that today's professionals have to work on not 'One-to-One' communication but 'Many-to-Many' communication formats. He also offered his views on the essentials of effective communication. The young among the audience hung on to every word, in fact every letter - as Mr Mukundan spoke about the A,B,C,D,E,F and the G of good communication.

Among the many examples he gave, one struck a chord instantly with the youth. He spoke about a presentation he had to make on 'Electromagnetic Wave Theory' when he was an engineering student. Despite the scientific merit of his project he could sense the lukewarm reaction of PhD scholars and other academicians as he earnestly read out his papers before them. There was almost complete lack of interest in a subject that young Mr Mukundan had worked on diligently to impress the faculty. That poor response prompted him to review his communication skills. He decided to invest some time and effort to improve them. That single decision may well have been the spark that ignited a thirst for excellence in that bright student and also marked the beginning of a career of such eminence.

Mr Mukundan also explained the wisdom behind each those principles with perfect anecdotes. The need to build a safety net was aptly illustrated with the story about the recent oil spill issue and the company (BP)'s inability to deal with the consequent public backlash over the digital media. In current times, corporate communication would simple be unable to handle such a crisis, he felt. He said "what one needs is a strong digital team" that can function as the voice of the company at such times. Such a team would ideally mean a network of all stakeholders - "everyone in the company now" he said.

He closed his speech with a beautiful example to illustrate the need for authenticity (or truthfulness). He narrated the famous story of a mother who requests Mahatma Gandhi to persuade her child to give up sweets.
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Session 1 : Global V/s local communication

Session 1 began with host Mr Deepak Bhandarkar inviting 3 distinguished professionals on stage for a discussion on the topic 'Global Vs Local' communication:
(1) Dr Mukund Rajan who is Chairman Tata Council for Community Initiatives and Chief Ethics Officer for Tata Group. Dr Rajan would be moderator for the discussion
(2) Dr Pragnya Ram Group who is Group Executive President corporate communications and CSR for Aditya Birla Group; and
(3) Mr Maxim Behar-CEO M3 Communications, Sofia and Chairman Hill+Knowlton, Prague.

Mr Bhandarkar opened the subject for discussion by outlining the current scenario of globalization, its challenges as well as its good, bad and ugly sides.

Dr Pragnya Ram began her speech with a brief introduction of the Aditya Birla (AB) Group. She then followed this up with an interesting discussion on brand perception. Her discussion brought to light certain issues that have baffled marketing and communication experts for a while regarding some brands within her group.

In recent years the AB Group has successfully integrated Western sounding names like Louise Phillippe, Peter England, Allen Solly, Van Heusen, etc. within its own brand image. Over the years, domestic markets have accepted these world-class brands as belonging to the AB Group. She then revealed the secret behind this unique accomplishment.

Before her organisation goes in for an acquisition, they make it a point to study the brand and conduct customer and employee surveys. The company studies the strengths of the brand before it decides whether it ought to be incorporated with the parent organization's brand identity, including the visual signage. She said a brand is the heart and soul of any organization and likened it to a human being.

The Aditya Birla Group has a significant global footprint with many world leaders buying the 'brand' because "it signals trust and reliability" she pointed out. And all "communicators must remember that these two attributes are never compromised". She emphasized that employees are the best brand ambassadors, especially in current times of social media. Hence it is essential to "first ensure that the internal branding processes are first class then go on to the external processes".
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Mr Maxim Behar charmed the audience with his humorous style and presentation. As most ABCI delegates know this was the second ComFest that Mr Behar was attending. A man of many facets and diverse interests that he is, Mr Behar enlightened the audience with a speech that was brief yet full of wit and wisdom.

In his view there were 3 main elements to effective communication: personal branding, speed and Depth of message. He elaborated by saying "personal branding is what other people are saying when you are not in the room". Your every single word counts; in fact every single gesture and every smile matters. Speed - he explained was as essential to communication. Taking quick decisions was crucial and sometimes a bad decision taken in time can be better than a no decision or a good decision that is taken too late. Lastly, for depth of the message - Mr Behar said professional communicators must be able to discern the depth of communication and choose appropriately.

He summed up by saying it was all about 3 'S's - simplicity, speed and self confidence to overcome all global and local troubles and be ready for opportunities.

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Q&A session:

Dr Mukund Rajan stepped up to the dais to begin the Q&A session and offered some questions of his own to both Mr Maxim Behar and Dr Pragnya Ram. The AB Group's chief spokesperson that she is, her answers were comprehensive and offered glimpses into the dynamism of her organization and their chairman Mr Birla who is regarded by industry peers as a brand icon.

Mr Behar felt the term 'public relations' may, in the near future be replaced by 'social relations'. In answer to a question from the audience, Dr Ram revealed that AB Group have a dedicated communications network to service the rural sector of their business. And CSR is an integral part of the system, e.g. women from villages are employed at Madura Fashions for stitching jobs, etc.

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Session 2 : Communications strategy for BRICS nations

Session 2 began with Mr Bhandarkar inviting distinguished speakers Ms Elena Dugina of Russia, Mr Solly Moeng of SA and Mr Luiz Brandao from Brazil. He introduced each of them and handed over the mike to moderator of the session, Mr Yogesh Joshi, president of ABCI. Mr Joshi explained the backgrounds against which the BRICS nations union was formed.

A British economist Jim O'Neil had first coined the acronym BRICS in 2001 to characterize the apparent global shift of economic superpowers even from the G8 nations.... The erstwhile three engines (economic superpowers) of the global economy - US, Germany and Japan were to be replaced by a combine of emerging economies whose growth had been outpacing that of US and Japan. The new group comprised Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (hence the coinage 'BRICS') economies that were growing at an impressive average rate of 4.2% even in 2012. The world was increasingly being seen as one global economic entity, yet there were many diverse factors affecting it.

He then spoke from an Indian context and pointed to the spurt in media growth of the 90s until 2000. At the time the media only focused on all the negative aspects of India and likewise of the other BRICS nations. But now it is time to get onto one platform not to challenge the hegemony of the advanced nations but to demonstrate and assert our own individual economic strengths and contributions to the global economy. These nations must got together to discuss what should be the strategy going forward. It must be pointed out that ABCI forum is the first instance where such a platform was created outside any diplomatic relations. It was another milestone initiative by Mr Joshi and ABCI.

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Elena Dugina commenced her speech by sharing some good news. Just before she arrived in Mumbai for Comfest13 she received news of her appointment as Director for a prestigious University programme by Russian Presidential Academy and was visibly happy. She also announced that she had established a PR consultancy of her own and was its COO. Before beginning her presentation, shared a most interesting story about the fire incident at Federation Tower in Russia.

She spoke in some detail about the new consumer in Russia. Factors like rapid growth of social capital and crisis of faith in consumer information have given way to a new class in Russia. In the Russian context, she pointed out the Creative class as the fastest growing and the most influential segment of their society - the opinion leaders; and hence information must be first addressed to them.

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Luiz Brandau introduced his organization Aberge through a presentation titled 'Facts about Brazil'. He spoke about the reasons why there was growing international focus on his country. His organization set up in 1967 is the oldest communications organization and currently a think tank for strategic communications.

The collective GDP of Aberge members alone amounts to $1.1 trillion, which gives us an idea of the power behind the organization which comprises nearly all sectors of the Brazilian economy.

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Solly Moeng South African delegate Solly Moeng began with an introduction of his organization Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa (PRISA). His discussion brought to light certain common elements that were affecting India and SA - mainly corruption. He read out a piece by a South African parliamentarian on the subject. In the article the minister lauded the manner in which Tatas were dealing with the issue, through a clearly defined policy and measures. The minister urged SA companies to follow the Tata model in order to weed out or minimize corruption.

Mr Moeng felt that one of the key challenges that PR associations such as ABCI have before them is to support and encourage students of communications and PR to ensure good talent in the profession. They must also ensure that the PR community's professional standards are very high to raise aspiration levels. He also recommended approaching the BRICS issue as we would approach brand management; he likened it to an iceberg whose submerged parts - the unseen aspects need to be addressed for it to emerge as a strong brand. He hopes that one day BRICS will truly emerge as the powerhouse that economists speculate it will.

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Mr Joshi offered a list of recommendations to approach the issue of BRICS communications strategy. He suggested coming together on a common platform, which would bring greater benefits than just bonding between community members. Key recommendation was to form a communication policy.

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Mr Brandao invited Mr Paulo Nassar the president of his organization Aberge to say a few words before signing an agreement with Mr Yogesh Joshi president of ABCI for a formal exchange of ideas and strategies and a strengthening of ties between the two nations. The agreement signaled that from this "moment onwards Brazil would be home for Indian communication professionals." Mr Joshi read out the objectives of agreement.

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Session 3: Destination Branding

Mr Bhandarkar announces 3rd session and invites:

  1. Mr Roger Perreira who would be moderator and session chairman; Mr Perreira is a renowned PR consultant
  2. Mr Nikhil Desai, MD of Goa Tourism
  3. Mr Sanjeet Shastri, CEO of Beehive Communications

Mr Roger Perreira shared some unknown facts about how Goa came onto the world map, thanks to the late Mrs Margaret Thatcher's wish to spend some days in it as part of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. He also made some other disclosures as he spoke about some tourism campaigns. These included 'Goa in the Rains' and a campaign for Mauritius tourism.

Nikhil Desai presented a historical perspective on the growth of Goa's tourism industry. He also spoke about the recent development in his state - the decline in mining activities which had been affecting tourism. In recent times, Goa tourism had seen a slide in growth due to branding by default. This created certain negative sub-branding adversely affecting its image.

These included the currently popular notion (among some circles) that Goa was a great destination for sex, booze and rave parties. A pity, not the least because Goa has a lot more to offer but mainly because it was far from the truth, he said. Goa is a melting pot of people from around the world and offered such an excellent range of cuisines and so many facilities to offer to the global tourist. Goa's branding could achieve much more if it had exploited and explored its competitive advantage to the fullest. However, recent positioning of Goa as a 365 day holiday destination had boosted tourism. Also, it had resulted in increasing traffic for business meetings and MICE programmes. Currently, brand Goa is undergoing another transformation and positioning following policy makers' review and decision to create something for tourists of every like and need.

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Mr Sanjeet Shastri CEO of Beehive Communication has been working with Mr Manoharan Periasamy Director, Tourism Malaysia, India who was scheduled to speak at Comfest13 but called in to say he could not. He was hospitalized due to a small accident and so sent Mr Shastri to stand in for him. Mr Shastri gave us a comprehensive presentation on the evolution of brand Malaysia as a tourist destination.

Following a research done on the nation over two years, Malaysia's policy makers converted every disadvantage into a competitive advantage, a breakthrough marketing strategy. They also used different communication platforms while targeting different countries as part of their sub-branding strategy. He also shared some amazing facts about Malaysia's efforts to protect its marine ecology. "A focused branding strategy with a sub-branding worked."

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Session 4: Reputation Management Fundamentals

Jairam Menon was moderator and chairman of the session on Reputation Management and introduced the delegates.

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Professor Dr Matthew Hibberd explained the fundamentals of reputation management (RM) and the need for it. Any company or corporation consists of 10% tangible and 90% intangible assets. It is the latter for which RM is required. Through a simple yet lucid presentation he illustrated the various areas where RM is employed: 'managing corporate identity and corporate image, CSR/ISR - Ethics, Issues management, crisis management, governance and stakeholder relarionships'.

Like most speakers before him, Professor Hibberd felt social media is already a force to contend with and could grow even more influential and more difficult to control in the future. "Social media means your reputation is under scrutiny 24x7. Crises of any type can bog down an organization even those that are proactive in their communication, e.g. Gulf of Mexico, BP, etc." he said. He closed with an apt quote by Shakespeare "Who steals my purse, steals trash. But he that filches me of my good name robs me of that which not enriches him but makes me poor indeed".

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Ms Olga Rink spoke about issues common to banks around the world yet her discussion brought a completely fresh perspective on reputation management for financial institutions. Her presentation reflected unquestionable expertise in financial communications and investor relations.

Though she spoke from the context of Russian financial industry and individual institutions, the points she made are just as relevant to India's own financial sector or for that financial sectors in most nations. Theoretically, risks to any organization's reputation may be mitigated through higher standards of governance imposed by regulators, yet there were several factors that could work against it.

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Mr Gianni Catalfamo brought to light facts about the Internet our 'Digital Self' that we take for granted. There are several aspects of being on the Web that are beyond our control, but there are still steps that we can and should take to minimize or prevent the damage. He outlined these steps through his presentation.

We expect his book reveals more about this subject and he candidly admitted that he was here to promote it. Yet the relevance of his subject for presentation cannot be overemphasized. It was titled, quite understandably 'Restoring Control of The Digital Self to its Rightful Owner'. Its significance in reputation control is obvious as whatever is posted on social media sites today "would be there for the next 25 years at least" to haunt the user in the future. He also revealed the economic drivers behind what seems to users only posting updates and sharing content with our networks.

He closed by commenting on the paradoxical needs of our time: the desire for transparency and the need for anonymity. Those are incidentally the same issues that the financial services sector has been dealing with and we could take some lessons from them, he recommended.

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Session 5: Reputation Management Story of Mrs Margaret Thatcher

Mr Bhandarkar invited Lord Timothy Bell and Mr Anthony Good to the stage for the last session of the day. Before inviting Sir Bell to speak, he read out a detailed career graph of the late Mrs Margaret Thatcher. The reason, he explained was that there was karmic connection between Mrs Thatcher and Lord Bell who had been instrumental to her rise as a political leader.

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Lord Timothy Bell was at his candid best, narrating instances and observations from professional life as well as stories sending titters in the audience throughout his speech. He unraveled much of the mystique of his professional edge in the simplest of terms peppered with humorous anecdotes and examples.

Managing communication is "just plain, straightforward commonsense", Lord Bell said. He hit the nail on the head by saying the most important aspect of reputation management was 'self esteem'. "A bad reputation or a good reputation was like beauty: it's in the eye of the beholder". One more observation he made was that people invent new words in order to conceal. After concluding his discussion on reputation management, he finally broached the subject that everybody eagerly waited to hear: the story of Mrs Margaret Thatcher.

Mrs Thatcher was called the 'Iron Lady' because she had declared that she was dedicated to bringing down the 'iron curtain' - the Soviet Union. Then we learnt about a term that had gained popularity during her tenure as PM of the UK: 'handbagging'. Lord Bell was also quite honest about how he approached his craft. The audience loved every minute of this talk as titters didn't seem to stop throughout. Lord Bell had clearly charmed the audience with his inimitable manner and humor.


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Day 2:

Session 6: Communication Matters

Dr Sandip Ghose has been head of HR for the Reserve Bank of India and currently is Director of the National Institute of Securities Markets. His rich and extensive experience as an academician gave him a distinct advantage not only in his current position but also on the subject of discussion 'Communication Matters'. In the course of his presentation, he shared some interesting bits of information about the RBI.

The core of his presentation was the '4 skills of being a good communicator': (1) Are you a good reader, (2) Are you a good writer, (3) Are you a good speaker, and (4) Are you a good listener. He felt that "people who read are people who lead". The art of reading is one that enriches and nourishes the mind. It also helps develop the second skill - writing.

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Session 7: Digital Communication and Impact on Community Initiatives

Mr Jairam Menon offered his take on digital communication in a lighter vein. He likened it to a situation where you have to walk through a strange, deserted alley and see a sleeping dog. And who wants to disturb sleeping dogs?

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Stefania Fussi The first to speak was Ms Stefania Fussi - the youngest participant at Comfest13. Her domain being social media strategy, she is currently in charge of all-Europe social media strategy for Chevrolet's new SUV model Captiva. The very engaging presentation demonstrated her expertise without a doubt. One could see great clarity and synergy between all the creatives across all the platforms.

All promotional communication for the brand Captiva was executed in collaboration with online communities and popular channels and content creators on Youtube. The very youthful campaigns Sonic and Captiva campaigns were rolled out in a coordinated manner online with paid search and SEO and other avenues (Facebook, Tumblr, paid bloggers, etc.) using a combination of traditional and relational model. Ms Fussi was also quite candid to admit it was always a challenge to translate (convert) a brand's investment into returns or sales, ("e.g. how may cars will I sell?") when working through social media. It is especially daunting in this case "as Chevrolet was trying to sell the brand in the European market where it did not exist".

She advised her bosses at Commonwealth+McCann WorldGroup as well as Chevrolet to leave out the American heritage and history from the Captiva brand development process and to talk in a "more relevant manner" to the European youth. Her suggestion was accepted and the results are all before us. The breakthrough Captiva and Sonic campaigns are regarded as the most outstanding campaigns of their time and in the category. The famous Sonic Bungee jumping, the kick flip and the skydive stunts are amazing examples of engaging your market in a way they like and in the place they hangout - the Web.

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Ms Roma Balwani, Chief Group Communications Officer, Mahindra & Mahindra Limited (M&M) is also a second time participant of Comfest. She shared a presentation on a community initiative 'Spark The Rise' an online platform that evolved from a brand building exercise and is breaking new ground in the digital media.

Rise was more than a word to M&M, it was a rallying cry calling to action "coming together for business out-performance" she said. "Brand pillars of Rise are: accepting no limits, alternative thinking and driving positive change. Spark the Rise was designed to promote a culture of initiatives and innovations from people across the country." It invites people to submit their projects, find and network with volunteers, donors, funders, promote entrepreneurship, etc. Rise "is a connect with all your consumers, all your stakeholders, at all levels." She said. It is now seen as a movement by an innovative company that is getting the interest of other companies.

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Mr Gianni Catalfamo returned to the stage with a new presentation. He referred to Mr Menon's joke about the dog and said "my job was to keep the dog awake and deal with what happens next". He shared his recent spat with American Express over some spending limit in response to which he posted a blog. He promptly received a call from the card company and the issue was resolved turning Gianni from a critic into a brand ambassador.

For those who didn't know where to begin with in the social media, the simplest advice is to "listen to your customers". You'll never go wrong that way. He closed his presentation with a beautiful example on leadership.

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Session 8: A journey of journalism

Mr Bhandarkar provided a detailed perspective of Sir Mark Tully's life and career, including some historical events that he had covered as the India correspondent for BBC.

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Sir Mark Tully thought instant communication of our times was creating bad journalism. He also felt live coverage was often a dangerous thing - the best example he said were the terror attacks on Taj Hotel, the Oberoi Hotel and other locations in Mumbai. He quoted from an email that was purportedly sent by him. The email titled "Sonia a blot on the nation" had gone viral.

Sir Mark read from the email to indicate a new threat that existed on the Internet - a significant number of people who believe everything they read on the Internet without questioning. That dispatch purportedly from him was "an attempt to undermine my trust-worthiness, my reputation". He closed his discussion with the pressing question of current times, i.e. how do we journalists regulate our selves, how do we maintain the trust in ourselves". He recommended that a journalist must be on any regulatory board (or committee comprising people from various walks of life) set up for this purpose. He also believes public service broadcasting (PSB) would be a great asset in the effort to restore public trust in journalists. When PSB is independent from the government it does set standards.

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