Tuesday, 22 April 2014

On The Day After National Public Relations Day, Spare A Thought for Hospitality PRs

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

WHENEVER Richa Sharma of ITC Hotels sends me a 'thank you' text early in the morning for a cheeky story I may have written about Bukhara, or some other pet peeve, I can feel the searing heat of her irony. I call her up at once, she makes her point, and then it's business as usual.
Having known Richa from her days as the country's first celebrity television news anchor (when Zee News ruled the ratings) to the present, when she's the national head of PR of a hotel chain that takes media reports about it a bit too seriously, I know, and I know she knows, that if there's a more thankless profession than journalism, it is hospitality industry PR.
Richa Sharma's Facebook profile
picture seemed to me to be a
telling comment on the fuzzy
status of the PR person in
the hospitality business
It was National Public Relations Day yesterday, so it set me thinking about the people who keep calling me, texting me or emailing me every day, feeding my exaggerated sense of self-importance, asking me to review restaurants or attend food promotions, or sometimes, grace hotel and restaurant openings, or better still, go on an outstation junket. The older I get, the less inclined I am to accept invitations to places where I know I won't get a good meal. Earlier, I would just flatly, sometimes rudely, say 'no'; now, I try to come up with inventive excuses.
My latest didn't work. The other day, I met this bright young man named Akshat, well brought-up and polite without being grovelling in the fake PR sort of way. When he was pressing me hard to review a new restaurant, which must have become old by now, I said I had decided to stop eating out. He took one good look at me, laughed out loud, and said, "No sir, that can't be possible." Well, now that the world assumes that I live to eat, and now that I have to keep playing this cat-and-mouse game with PRs because I am left with no other option, let me share my thoughts on the people whom food journos need all the time, no matter how much we may deny the fact.
Hotel PRs can never please anyone, especially their own F&B guys, because the human appetite for the spotlight is limitless. Even if they get the respect of their colleagues, the world doesn't get to know the work they put in to create stars. As I keep telling Mukta Kapoor of Old World Hospitality, Manish Mehrotra owes a substantial part of his fame to her efforts to market his exception talents at a time when he was an unknown chef in a restaurant that used to be empty even on a good day. Yes, I am talking about Indian Accent five years ago.
In hotels where the F&B guys are bright and communicative, as in the instances of Soumya Goswami at The Oberoi New Delhi, Rajesh Namby of The Leela Palace New Delhi and Tanveer Kwatra at Pullman Gurgaon Central Park, the PRs have to work overtime to be taken seriously by their sub-set of contacts. Deepti Uppal of The Leela Palace, though, doesn't have to make that effort. Nor does Deepica Sarma at The Oberoi. But Tanveer definitely deserves a doubling of his salary because of the effort he invests in popularising his hotel!
The PRs also have to contend with another, greater, internal challenge. Their bosses, I know for a fact, are in love with international PR agencies, because they get gora journos on junkets to write glowingly about their host hotels after being wined and dined by the local PR resources. Good publicity in the international media is worth several times more than the money a hotel might spend to get gora journos over -- and the poor local resource who put in 16-hour days to wine and dine the junketeers is forgotten in the afterglow of a splash in the North American and European editions of Conde Nast Traveler.
If the poor local resource manages good local media for free (which is becoming increasingly hard in the time of paid media), the chefs walk away with the credit. If a hotel, however, lands in a mess because of a prostitution ring being busted, or a man deciding to jump to his death from its 17th floor, or an IPL after party going bad, and the name of the place gets mentioned even once, then I would rather be in a deserted island with Osama Bin Laden than be the PR of that hotel.
I have lost count of the number of times PRs have called me to get their hotel's name dropped in a crime story. I have invariably obliged because I believe that if a hotel did not actively aid and abet a murder or a freelance escort, it should be left out of the glare of bad publicity. It should be taken to the cleaners, however, if there's a case of food poisoning or bad service. Of course, in this day and age of the social media and citizen journalism, hotels should give up the fond hope of their fair name not being dragged through the mud in the public domain.
When I first started writing about food, I would be chaperoned by PRs who used to remind me of my Science teachers in school -- of course, I was a young man then and would have surely enjoyed their company now! They oozed sweetness, but they controlled, like mother eagles, access to even the doorman as if he was privy to some state secret.
In those dreary days, I would pray for an invitation to the Taj Mahal Hotel because Vandana Ranganathan (who has since left the hotel industry -- not because of me! -- and even re-married) could at least share stories (never gossip!) about the theatre world, which was her second life. Madhulika Bhattacharya, who would entertain us with her mellifluous voice and her quirky sense of humour, was briefly the light of our lives, first at the ITC Maurya and then at The Park, but then she opted for happy domesticity with my good friend, Aman Dhall, India's foremost wine importer. L. Aruna Dhir was another exception who stood out in the crowd till she opted out, not only because of her exceptional grasp over the English language (she is gifted poet too), but also because of her unfailing sense of humour.
I don't know what has happened, but as the years progress, and the industry grows to unprecedented levels, the PRs are getting younger, sassier and definitely more professional. Some years back, I was particularly impressed by Pallavi Singh, who manages the PR of the two Crowne Plaza addresses in Okhla and Gurgaon, after she passed on information that I had forgotten to add in a restaurant review, and which I had noticed just as the pages were going to bed, at 11 p.m. She was half-asleep, but she called the hotel, got the information and passed it on to me. That, for me, was a wow example of professionalism.
The trio of The Oberoi's PRs -- Silki Sehgal (who I have seen grow in stature, and how!), Deepica Sarma and Mallika Dasgupta -- are textbook examples of professional finesse. Madhur Madaan of the Kempinski Ambience and Nidhi Budhia of Crowne Plaza Rohini get my vote for doing a great job of putting their respective hotels on the mindspace of Delhi-NCR's media-consuming public. Madhur, of course, is lucky to have Vella Ramaswamy as her General Manager -- I always look forward to an invitation to dine with him.
Nidhi Verma of The Leela Ambience Gumrgaon is the other PR whose understated efficiency is complemented by a General Manager (Michel Koopman), an Executive Chef (Ramon Salto Alvarez) and an Executive Sous Chef (Kunal Kapur of MasterChef India fame), who are pros at having the media eat out of their hands. Unfortunately, Reema Chawla, formerly of the Taj Palace and Vivanta by Taj Gurgaon-NCR, has moved on to another line of business. She has always impressed me with her sunny disposition and competence at work. It'll be hard to find a replacement for her.
Before I sign off, and although I have steered clear of PR agencies, I must mention Neeta Raheja and Pareina Thapar's Very Truly Yours, which has a host of F&B accounts. What I like about them is that they create excitement in their communications about the restaurants they handle and their juniors, luckily for us, don't exist in some other universe. Their one-time colleague, Sonali Sokhal, who now has her own agency, Intelliquo, brings to the table that winsome quality. And of course, my last sentence must belong to my favourite upcoming PRs working with impersonal agencies. They are without doubt Muddassar Alvi (Avian Media), Daisy Basumatary (Perfect Relations), Ruchika Gupta (PR Pundit), Zainab Kanthawala (El Sol) and Akshat Kapoor (Goodword). If their tribe grows, journalists won't ever dodge the calls of PRs.