PR kiya tho darna kya?

I ONCE interviewed a grandmother who manufactured shavig�. Yes, by "manufactured" I mean "made from raw material by hand". I watched open-mouthed as her fingers worked on the dough and spun long, white threads that miraculously didn't stick to one another. She wasn't trying to break a world record, just treating her family to a snack. But imagine what would happen if she was hungry for publicity and employed a PR person to spread the word. "Grandmother sole custodian of unique facet of Kannada heritage." Or something like that. A marketing company would buy rights to her expertise and sell the product in vacuum-sealed packs as Ajji's Hand-Made Sevai, or perhaps export it as Grandma's Extra-Fine Indian Spaghetti.

Nothing is too fantastic or too ridiculous to imagine in the arena of marketing and public relations. The PR machine that churns on relentlessly in Mumbai and Delhi may work at reduced r.p.m. in Bangalore, but it has been picking up speed of late. Working hand in glove with an ever-compliant media which seems to have clean forgotten its adversarial role, the PR-valas ensure that their clients not only make the news but stay in the news.

Talent and ability are not always the yardsticks for newsworthiness. Let's say you're the CEO of a company and you're bursting to give the public some crucial information on the subject of growing brinjals. You either write the book or have it ghostwritten, and use the PR agency at your disposal to see that it gets wide coverage. Suddenly, you're the world authority on brinjals, the eggplant egghead, so to speak.

A little PR goes a long way in turning mediocrity into star quality. In his impatience to capture attention, the aspiring star rushes to perform before he has polished his act, and never mind that the rough edges are showing, for his name is up there, and that's what matters. A non-entity who manages to squeeze his way into the news turns into an entity. The entity finds space more easily the next time, and the third time around he's hailed as a "well-known" entity. Now it's time to pile on the adjectives. There's just one problem: what do you do when a superior entity comes along? Once you've used up "brilliant", "fantastic", "amazing", "stupendous", "path-breaking", and their every available synonym, what's left? Just how many "gods of rock" are there? If every band is "superlative" (as one radio jockey can be heard repeating, ad nauseum), how do you describe the best? By calling it superiorative? Superdooperlative? What?

"After all that hype, it was such a disappointment." How often we've heard this statement! All high-profile events, these days, are backed by 10 sponsors, and the PR agency takes care to stock the press-kit with sheaves of printed material (instantly dropped into the w.p.b.) on all 10. It includes exciting quotes from 10 company chairmen on how delighted they are to sponsor the show because it so perfectly matches the precise flavour of the biscuit or the precise colour of the shirt they manufacture - a biscuit that embodies sheer grace, a shirt that stands for courage in the face of adversity.

Many argue that in today's world of hard sell, you cannot survive without PR, however good you are. This notion has taken root even among those who have already won recognition, and it makes them deeply insecure. As a result, they have learnt how to issue quotable quotes, how to make the headlines by courting controversy, and how to split a single achievement into three parts so that it gets reported at three points in time.

On the other hand you find talent going unrecognised merely because the bearer cannot bear the thought of marketing it. There are so many in the City - artists, musicians, theatre-people, professionals of all kinds - who have to struggle to keep their head above water because they refuse to advertise themselves. Do you admire them or call them foolish dreamers? Either or both of two things happen to such people. Their inferiors gain fame. Their ideas get stolen. To give you just one of a thousand examples, there is this young practitioner of a particular brand of theatre who has been trying to build a movement. Some time ago, a chap from out of town learnt the ropes from him and pushed off to tell the world that he was the reigning expert on the subject. The national media played him up as a great pioneer and he is now probably minting money through workshops, while the original says, without rancour, "It doesn't matter, I'll just carry on with my art."

There is no point in looking upon PR as a dirty word, though. After all, in its broadest sense, don't we all use some amount of it? When you hold back your opinion to get what you want, when you soften the truth to please another, when you pamper egos to settle a conflict, are you being dishonest or just doing a bit of PR? You may not, for instance, be able to say the words, "My USP is..." without bursting out laughing, but you might change the focus of your c.v. to suit a particular job description.

If you're really good, there's nothing wrong in saying so, but the manner in which you say it depends on the limits to which you'll go, which really is a measure of the thickness of your skin.