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How to repair the Reliance image

BS Strategist Team | April 19, 2005

The recent spate of controversies has taken the shine off the Reliance image. The Strategist asks some well-known image consultants how they would initiate damage control in what has been India's most dynamic business house.

Dilip Cherian, Head, Perfect Relations

Dilip CherianThe flight path for the Ambani brotherhood version 2.0 that I would prescribe would have at least two distinct aspects, to start with.

The brothers, once they decide on the Kamath formula and its money modalities and on finally going their separate ways, will simply have to find a clever method by which they will each become truly independent entities on and of their own.

They would inevitably have to then derive independent and coherent image structures. Only one of them will, in image terms, be actually able to inherit the so-called Reliance brand.

So the other, whosoever that is, will have to abandon that precious umbilical cord, at some stage, which is not so far in the future.

This could be a serious issue. It could even be the basis of some rather hardball bargaining at this stage, and with good reason. The Reliance Brand, after all, has a substantial and exploitable value of its own.

This image advantage will be one that both parties will seek to retain. But they cannot. In the end, only one will be able to appropriate the benefits. If both do, both lose.

(Wicked thought: the other brand available to inherit is the underlying and latent brand Ambani. Could one be traded off against the other? Do both have the same value? Can this be the basis of an equal image bifurcation?)

But what's been outlined so far is only Step Two. Substantively, there's Step One before that. Even before this bifurcation of images takes place, the brothers would be well advised to spend a considerable portion of their communications energies drawing attention to the reorganising of their new corporations.

To take attention away from the minutiae of disconnect, both will also have to do big-ticket announcements that will occupy the space hostilities had previously gobbled.

Unless there is the unleashing of fresh corporate energy of the gigantic variety, there will be the temptation to return to the battlefield stories.

And the Buzz space? Only the quiet hiss of frenzied internal reorganisation work in progress. It involves the re-establishment of corporate governance, and the refurbishment of credible management talent at the top levels in both companies. Basic, mundane and boring, but it gives confidence.

The Reliance image is like Humpty Dumpty: all the king's horses and all the king's men can never put the original image together the way it was. But an image makeover is certainly possible.

Harish Bijoor, CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc

Harish BijoorReliance is a brand. It is a thought that lives in the minds of three distinct segments of people with whom a brand typically communicates: the B2B segment, the B2C segment and the C2C segment.

But Brand Reliance has a problem -- a big one. It is a sullied brand today.

The needs and aspirations of each of these segments is different. But everyone has a worry. In the B2B segment, are vendors worrying about the state of the agreements they've signed with the group.

In the B2C segment, the image of Reliance as a squabbling entity is one consumers love to talk about. Apart from shareholders, there are also the actual users of Reliance facilities, be it in power or telecom or petroleum.

Add to this the circuit of the fringe set who are neither business partners, vendors nor consumers. These are the potential consumers. Most brand communicators ignore them. I would look at them keenly.

I would address each of these segments with care and sensitivity. First of all, I would urge an immediate cessation of hostility before this communication task begins.

The rules are simple: all dirty linen must be washed in private; and keep politics out of the issue. It adds a different dimension altogether. Never mind that we have a member of the Rajya Sabha at the centre of the issue.

What's done is done. Don't add any more negative baggage to the brand anymore.

I believe communication is not a single piece of work. It is a cascade. Crisis management communication needs to be a quick and efficient cascade that address all the segments I have delineated.

A brand communication cascade is a set of repeat experiences, each different, but each engineered to result in a series of thought. This is a corporate issue. The role of PR is clearly dominant compared to the role of advertising.

I would use the tool of systemic PR to advantage. But, with sensitivity.

PR is like an onion. The first layer is 'pink paper' PR -- messaging that will appeal mainly to corporate readers. Then there is deeper, 'white paper' PR, which appeals to the lay reader as well.

That is followed by 'pink' and 'white' television. The final layer is the core: the larger mass of people, some of whom are exposed to all or some of these media, and some not exposed to these at all.

I would address each as a separate package, but not make the mistake of restricting the communication cascade to the elite. The brand is a much deeper entity.

Prema Sagar, Principal & Founder, Genesis Public Relations

Prema SagarAnd they lived happily ever after. Cut to a happy family picture. Real life, sadly, does not reflect reel life. Be it Gucci, Rite Aid or U-Haul; international desi businesses like Pataks; or, closer home, Bajaj, Birla and yes, Reliance, family feuds are as much a fact of life as of fiction.

Perhaps that is why, internationally, only one out of 10 family businesses survives to the third generation.

This is not to run down the power of family-run businesses. Names like Ford, Fidelity, Nordstrom, Tata, Birla and countless Indian businesses bear testimony to that.

The problem arises when the dividing line between business and family matters is blurred; when board meetings resemble dinner-table conversations and professionalism takes a back-seat to ego clashes. That is the time to raise the red flag.

Those that do, realise quickly that the process of mending fences and rebuilding corporate reputation extends far beyond managing the media and the odd AGM appearance.

For those who do not do damage control in time, the media invariably jumps into the arena, shareholders lose out and reputation is impacted.

Fast forward to today. The good news is there is progress -- but not enough. With foreign investors having made Reliance a symbol of today's Corporate India, there is immense responsibility resting on the shoulders of the Ambani brothers to redeem not just their own company but also the image of professionalism in Indian business.

The first step in this direction would be clear and concise communication from both brothers -- collectively or individually -- about the agreement, what it means to the stakeholders and how they will continue to build value and world-class organisations.

The next step would be to take stock of the course after the embankments have been breached by the torrent. This would be by measuring perception and reputation year on year through stakeholder research.

It is imperative to professionalise communications for a strategic plan to reverse the damage and rebuild reputation. Focused outreach programmes would need to be built to address key editors, bureaucrats and analysts separately.

Accessibility, honesty and transparency would need to take the place of closed-door mystique.

Shareholders are looking for comfort that systems are being put into place for corporate governance. So, set up advisory boards that comprise large customers, respected industrialists and/or economists who will give independent advice to the management on key issues of importance to the market place.

These boards must comprise fiercely independent people. An endeavour to seek counsel from people who have squeaky-clean reputations would help the perception that there is a single-minded focus on restoring Dhirubhai's legacy.

Cut to a smiling sibling picture. . . at least, they worked happily ever after.

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Number of User Comments: 2

Sub: reliance must remain as one group

mr mukesh ambani should become chairman and mr anil ambani manging director of reliance industries. mr mukesh ambani must share power with mr anil. mr ...

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Sub: heroes are fabricated in india by the media !!!

Aren't some 20% of the MPs have always been on the payroles of Reliance? Most of the wealth created by the industry in India has ...

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