L. ARUNA DHIR
I entered the hospitality industry in the Summer of ’97. I remember being selected majorly on the basis of my strong media contacts. Of course the other bits and pieces of qualification mattered too, but this was the most important clinching factor. And I was nervous as hell. I was coming from the hardcore nuts and bolts PR background with strong foundation in media strategies and practices and had been frequenting hotels as a restaurants and room guest but now I was going to be entering the world of glitz and glamour and all that sparkle and shine as an insider. The first person I called for help and guidance was a friend who was at that time the Head of PR for the Australian Tourist Commission in Singapore but had been an old hotel hand. And the first lesson she imparted was about MARCOM and Brand Management. She was absolutely right about her advice that a Hotel PR responsibility encapsulated the area of Brand Management and Marketing Communications with strong shades of Marketing within its fold. Hence, to my base of Corporate Communications and Public Relations skills, I had to add the aspects of Marketing Communications and Marketing and thereby began my tryst with producing internal and external publications, hotel brochures and sales collateral. With hotels I got into conceiving and seeing through marketing alliances with like-minded partners for a win-win outcome that directly impacted the bottomline.
My years of experience in the Public Affairs department of a Diplomatic Mission concretized the knack of dealing with and pitching for a wide array of media talents. On one day I may have been the Media Manager for an aboriginal artist or historian, on the other I would be on the media team of the Foreign Minister visiting the country and on yet another occasion I would be devising a media plan for a scientist from the Health industry. This trained me to look at anybody in a niche position with their unique skills as a prospective media talent. This hands on experience also enabled me to transport this attribute to the hotels and I began looking at not just the General Manager and the Chefs – often the usual suspects, but also Housekeeping, Engineering and Security Heads, Horticulture Managers, Sommeliers and Technology Team Leads as wonderful media talents who I could effectively leverage in order to garner extensive media coverage for the hotel I worked for.
While at the High Commission, some days the only guest I had visiting was the sparrow on my sill, at hotels I am in the heart of wining and dining a checkered mix of guests ranging from editors & feature writers, bureaucrats, corporate chiefs, country ambassadors to film stars, musicians, artists and sports personalities. Hence, Guest Relations gets intertwined with Public Relations as I go about cementing the hotel’s bond with these special guests. This has brought in the need to be a good conversationalist, in step with the ongoing trends, to have several interests while being a shrewd Brand Ambassador who seldom passes on a chance to ensnare the mindspace of the relevant publics. And if I am asked to pick out the single most important trait in my PR quiver then it has to be the skill of writing – plainspeak documents, fancy guest letters, creative content for newsletters, business writing for press releases, manuals etc. So, it would be useful for you to practice your writing skills in diverse ways and bring it to effective use every time an opportunity presents itself, of which there will be many I assure you.
Working in international hotel chains of repute adds the aspect of celebrity management to the PR person’s portfolio. We must know how to be an integral part of the briefing that involves the security issues and larger mandate about the dos and don’ts while hosting the high profile guest. As a PR person, the most important thing is to be the perfect foil and know when to be graciously tight lipped about the hush-hush stay or be gung-ho and manage the media interest well in the case of a willing guest. This, indeed, is a tight rope walk that you need to balance yourself well on; as you cannot afford to annoy the special guest or put off the media either; hence delicate, judicious and intelligent handling of the visit is paramount.
The above is, often, in the case of famous guests who are on a private visit or on a pre-scheduled media plan with Z level security. But being in hotels brings in the exciting opportunity to work with wonderful celebrities at close quarters. I remember getting legends like Paul Simon and Goldie Hawn to pose for the Newsletter pages. I have also enjoyed putting on the Chef’s apron and toque on guests such as eminent writer Khushwant Singh and respected danseuse Sonal Mansingh for Celeb cookouts. Then there have been celebrity tennis clinics, cricket matches and golf tournaments that have not only been excellent branding and marketing exercises but have also presented the fabulous opportunity for the other hotel guests to mingle around with the star guest.
With respect to dealing with external publics in an industry like hotels, there is a wide spectrum of people you deal with and they range from a perfectly coiffeured and haute coutured Society Star to the brusque son-of-the soil vendor, both important and integral to the PR playfield. Hence, it becomes imperative to understand the fine cultural nuances and relate with people at their level to, not just take out optimum work, but also establish strong relationships.
You will often hear Management Gurus and Life coaches telling you to dress the part you want to play in work and life. As a PR Professional with any kind of organization, you ARE the brand custodian for the company whose personality you represent through yours; and whose profile you work endlessly to up in the minds of its significant partners. Hence, learning to dress in accordance with my work milieu with appropriate representation of the Brand traits has also been an invaluable lesson in the course of my career.
With hotels, a very very important (cannot stress enough how important it is and hence the usage of the redundant double word) aspect of your responsibility area centers around Crisis Communications and Issues Management. Each industry type brings in its own brand of crises and they deal with it in their time-tested methodology, either through a specialized in-house cell or through an outsourced Agency or both. In hotels, you are the pivotal point in the Crisis Communications team and often, along with your CEO, the face that addresses and the voice that responds to such a situation. In my decade and a half long experience with the Hotel industry so far, I have had the opportunity to handle a disparate bunch of crises ranging from a staple pin stuck in the crab cake of a food writer to the untrained housekeeping attendant leaving the dust cloth along with dust in the suite reserved for a renowned Hospitality Editor who was coming to do a special feature on the hotel for an international publication of repute to a well-known TV personality jumping to his death from the tenth floor terrace. The key here has been to devise the most appropriate crisis communications strategy, put together the right team, issue out the most effective press statement and be available 24X7 to answer questions and corollaries, dispel rumours and rectify incorrect grasping of the case.
In my professional journey from High Commission to hotels as I strode over from the Australian Embassy on to the turf of Hyatt International, the best trait that I came with was the “Fresh pair of eyes.” Hyatt took a chance with me to bring in an outsider into its team of hoteliers and what I brought with me was a deep sense of curiosity about everything around me, an eagerness to learn all the ropes of the new trade I had entered and keen interest to acquire new set of skills in order to deliver my best shot in the defined KRAs. As such, a lot of people and situations presented themselves as great media stories that I could pitch the media with. The GM who was also an excellent cook and an avid motor enthusiast, the Director of Marketing who was a national level Trap-shooting champion too, the Landscaping Manager who had learned Ikebana in Japan, the Food & Beverage Director who was a travel junkie and a comic books collector, the much-feted and awarded chef who painted his plates with culinary art and came to be called Chef Picasso by the team, the Executive Housekeeper who loved to devour management books as if they were the latest bestseller and always came up with fantastic sound bytes – the hotels have been a hotbed for a trained media professional like me who has been happy to cajole reticent talent into speaking out, gently nudge shy but talented colleagues under the arc light and thrust the mike under the nose of a super-achiever of few words.
Even when I was in college and University I was naturally veered towards interests that involved people. So, whether it was being a Quiz master for a handful of seasons or running a weekly column in and sub-editing a Regional Newspaper I was always engaging with people from diverse backgrounds and walks of life. Later on, as a freelance Feature Writer with several mainline dailies, I got to meet really interesting people who had carved a niche for themselves. Besides being exciting assignments, what all this pointed out strongly to me was that I had a natural affinity towards dealing with people and through my well-honed communication skills – written and verbal – I was easily forging strong relationships and getting the task done in the most effective manner. I guess that’s where the idea of getting into Public Relations germinated. Anybody who is a somebody in Public Relations will tell you that a liking for people and the ability to communicate with them are the two most relevant prerequisites for a career in Public Relations. Though not just it, as there is a lot more to Public Relations, these two do form the basis of a good foundation.
As a pleasant offshoot, the multicultural environment I have been working in has helped me to assimilate some of the best practices from different corners of the world. Besides the advantage of having worked with some of the strongest hotel brands, I have had the distinct challenge and privilege to reposition an old Hotel brand as a contemporary, top of the line hotel in India and Asia. This by far has been one of the best experiences in my eclectic career path that has enabled me to develop a 360 degree view of the PR & Communications profession and span out my learnings, skill and knowledge to the utmost optimum level. The point I would like to drive home is that you should welcome professional challenges and tasks that are high up on the difficulty quotient with open arms and be open to change management; adding to your professional weaponry quite admirably in the process.
What is fascinating about a Hotel PR role is that it turns you into a first-rate multi-tasker. In a day’s work you could be addressing a press briefing in the morning, working on a Newsletter or Advertising Campaign, getting involved in the organizing of a food festival with the Food & Beverage team or thrashing out the details of a Marketing Campaign with the Sales colleagues during the day, hosting a Lifestyle Editor for lunch, organizing a couple of press one-on-ones in late afternoon, catching a quick drink with a hotel guest in the evening and then getting ready to present a hotel event in the late hours. It is a checkered palate, all the elements of which you must handle dexterously, with aplomb and good results. A tall order but one that keeps you excitedly involved and is highly satisfying at the end of the day.
With hotels you work with a lot of different departments and therefore different functions and business units much more closely than I would think in any other industry. Hence learning about these other functions will also stand you in good stead. One important lesson is to never pass up an opportunity for internal or external training, whether it is a Sales or Guest Services module being presented by the in-house training manager or attending a Summer University being put together by a panel comprising faculty from established institutes. The academic and learning interlude is not just a pleasant breather but also equips you with attributes to be an emerging professional in a global work environment.
Having enjoyed, thus far, every moment of a more than 15 year long breathtaking roller coaster ride with nail-biting challenges and pleasant-as-a-pie experiences, may I take this chance to share some of the fine things I have picked up in the course of working with great brands and a greater set of minds and present herewith my 25 Golden Rules of Public Relations –
- Upfront attitude – a high level of honesty, integrity and transparency go a long way, a very long way in your career.
- Easy accessibility – with technology in your palm and on your fingertips, there is really no excuse.
- Reliability – you owe it to yourself, to the identity you have carved for yourself and to the brand you represent.
- Exchange information relevant to new ideas – nurture the media, be nurtured by their exposure to a wide range of issues and develop a winsome two-way information & knowledge sharing street.
- Give complete information – Tailor make it and often go beyond the brief.
- From reporter to senior editor, treat everyone with respect – Today’s cub reporter will be tomorrow’s editor.
- Adhere to timelines, however acute they may be – this may just be the single most important reason that keeps you in news and your competition out of it.
- Be genuinely friendly and not falsely flattering – believe me when I say that people can see through the sham.
- Be professional – would you like to be any other way!
- Always be interested – in people, in issues, in the news, in your job. The six inquisitive men are, then, your best friends for life.
- Out of the box – Bring a sense of uniqueness to your role, put forth new ideas, look at things and issues from a new angle, develop new approaches – all, mind you, within the overall Company Profile and the defined set of P&Ps; for that is what defines your brand.
- Brand Image – In all aspects that define you – your physical personality, your ideation, your work ethics and professionalism, your communication skills – be the best brand ambassador of your Company that you can be.
- Idolize – Develop mentors along the way – your immediate boss, a person you have a dotted line to, the Company CEO, an industry champion, an international whiz kid in your chosen field and keep on injecting doses of inspiration in the course of your work day.
- Mentor others – Be a mentor to the people you manage or who are junior to you in experience. Be a friend, guide and philosopher to others. Set fine examples and get emulated. You will be remembered for years and in the most positive fashion.
- Become tech-savvy – Today we live as much in the virtual world as in the real. Every day some other new technology or a gadget is added to the already exhaustive list. Learn new software, befriend a new gadget. Stay on top of the game.
- Web 2.0 – Make this one of your strongest allies. Be seen, be heard, be read 24/7 and what’s more, be able to control what is seen, heard or read about you. Tailor-make, monitor, regulate and police what appears about your Company on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Blogs, YouTube and all that is out there.
- The written word – Learn to write well. Being in Public Relations, you are often the in-house writer of Press Releases, Speeches, Backgrounders, Talking points, Newsletters – the list is exhaustive.
- The spoken word – Hone your oratorical skills. Blossom out behind the mike. There will be several occasions where you will be asked to present yourself on the podium. Make yourself and your company proud by shining out there.
- Be a perpetual learner – Graphic designing for those in-house design jobs, photography or styling or power point presentations or more – keep adding to your skill set.
- Become a part of the larger pie – somebody wants a business letter written or needs help with their résumé, offer your services; the telephone operators need training on English language skills, pronunciation and pre-set statements, get out there and help; another department needs a hand on their manuals or presentations, be that hand and so on.
- Tune in the Trainer in you – Media train and nurture the media talent within your organization – your CEO, the chef, the F&B Head, even the Chief Engineer, the Executive Housekeeper and the Security Head. When media come calling for a wide range of stories, guess who gets asked for the perfect sound bytes!
- Need for Knowledge – know your industry well; learn about the functioning of the other departments. Being in PR all this information comes in handy when developing your communication capsules.
- Network – Take part in Industry seminars, forums, panel discussions. Become part of Public Relations Societies, network with relevant trade bodies, club out with Alumni or Ex-employee associations.
- Get buck-savvy – Learn to understand the balance sheets, study the annual reports, bring in element of profit protection in your area, negotiate well with the outside agencies when contracting them for PR work.
- Superman-ly – learn to multi-task (that’s the exact nature of your role after all), wear different hats, learn to beat the stress without allowing it to impact on your efficacy, deliver under pressure and be a positive team-player. The sub-title is misleading – this is not superman-ly at all. It is all in a day’s work.
These 25 Rules have stood me in good stead regardless of the fact that I worked in Indian or International companies and had the opportunity to interact with a multicultural, multiethnic and multinational workforce that brought its novelty and work practices to the arena.
I am of the contention that, added to your unique set of experience in your defined work area, these 25 Golden Rules will at best be guiding factors in your work or at the least be pertinent points to ponder over.
And please, don’t forget to always have the “fresh pair of eyes.”