Post-COVID, Will the New Normal for PSUs Be ‘Digital First?’

India is propelled by 399 PSUs with a total investment of Rs 16,40,628 crore. 

Published30 May 2020, 11:11 AM IST
7 min read

The change has been long coming. Digital India set the tone. COVID-19 will accelerate its adoption. Privatisation will make it inevitable. The time is now, for India's government undertakings – Maharatnas, Navratnas, and Miniratnas – to make a switch.

Switch to digital transformation, for the corporate to communicate, with purpose and precision. Through the orientation of people and induction of technology.

Who should read this? Decision-makers at Public Sector Undertakings, from the chairperson and managing director to departmental heads, and senior managers responsible for public relations, corporate communication, and marketing.

A preamble is a must before I present my case for a tectonic shift. First, a recap of classic segments of technology adoption: In every breakthrough, we have the innovators followed by early adopters, early majority, late majority, and lastly the laggards. Early adopters among PSUs have the opportunity to emerge as a case study for others to emulate.

Looking back, public sector companies were first nurtured in the early 60s. Entrusted with key mandates of import substitution, employment generation, and community development, PSU behemoths grew multi-fold, across multi-locations. Most are efficiently managed and highly profitable companies today.

They are domain leaders in mining, metals, oil exploration and refining, power generation, transmission, banking, insurance, heavy engineering, and much more.

Stocks are listed in major exchanges and actively traded. Foreign majors queue up for consulting skills or to collaborate.

As per an industry report dated 31 March 2019, India is propelled by 399 PSUs with a total investment of Rs 16,40,628 crore. In short, a key vertical integral to corporate India.

Until the new millennium, and for a decade after, communication modes at PSUs took the legacy route. Product advertisements were created and released in industry and trade magazines, corporate ads in business magazines, and foundation-stone-laying and dedication to the nation functions merited full page or double spread in mainline dailies.

House magazines were designed, printed, and distributed as hard copies. Websites of PSU undertakings of course have been around for two decades now, yet they continue to reflect the organisation in a safe mode with a sterile listing of history, activities, financials, and contact details. Rarely you will find a blog section, knowledge corner, or interactive chatbot window.

When the Union government launched “Digital India” in 2015, its swift implementation ensured the digital empowerment of the country. Growth of the internet, penetration of smartphones, and entry of millennials into the work environment ensured we typed more and printed less.

In this transition, PSUs added vendor registration links to their websites or set up exclusive vendor portals, invited e-bids, conducted reverse auctions, and selected successful bidders online. They initiated social media handles and populated pages with company news and updates.

Good going you will agree, and is there a problem?

Somewhere in this journey, most PSUs overlooked the fact their business was more B2B and less B2C. For many government undertakings, merely posting about their CSR projects on Facebook was good enough to be “online.” Uploading a video on say, COVID-19 measures on social media would do, and in any case, the link was mailed to Hon’ble Minister’s office.

Here comes the void. Being active on social platforms is presumed as more than sufficient for corporate communication, supported by a stoic belief that communicating with followers will suffice. The gap is widened by a lack of awareness of new-age technologies that can enrich the reach of your corporate message.

Beyond the gap is a worrisome chasm… in product communication. While PSUs reduced their spending in product advertising in trade magazines in the last 5 years, this was not substituted significantly with an online B2B thrust.

Looking ahead, here’s a likely scenario: As we succeed in curtailing COVID-19, India’s PSUs will soon get back to their nation-building role. As wheels of industry begin to churn, as products roll off the assembly line and services seek customers, what will be the fate of marketing and brand positioning, when we come face to face with a phase where people prefer not to meet?

How can PSUs survive and thrive in the new normal? Here is an actionable checklist for achieving digital transformation:

1. Conduct a Master's Class in Digital Marketing

The mentor must orient your team on the latent power of digital marketing and marketing technology and recommend customised strategies to promote your products and services.

2. Convert the Company LinkedIn Page Into Your Marketing Channel

Review content, update photos, and product information. Populate the page with a plant or product video, upload a podcast, add a customer testimonial, keep refreshing the page week after week.

3. Content Management

Get your in-house PR team or your advertising agency to work on a series of knowledge articles and digital films on your products or services. No hard sell, just share an industry or company update along with highlights of your quality and technology.

For disseminating content, existing followers are not enough. Target the page, article, or video to prospective companies in your customer segment. With an array of tools available today; you can:

  • Pre-select industry verticals. If you are a B2B PSU engaged in manufacture of turbines for power generation, it will be Energy, Heavy Engineering and such.
  • Choose the target audience and their level of seniority.
  • Decide the geography to beam the message (example your post and product video can be promoted if you wish in Vietnam or Finland).

4. Talk Directly to the Consumer

As you begin engagement on LinkedIn, you will start building a community comprising existing and potential consumers, and when the content gets interesting, informative, and interactive, you will have industry experts, columnists, and even peers joining the conversation by way of Likes, Comments and Shares. Followers also increase organically on this route.

5. Deploy Advanced Digital Tools for a Wider Reach

Is LinkedIn enough? It achieves most objectives but considering your competition, the constant need to reach newer markets, and given the quantum of search happening online, you have to deploy a set of advanced marketing technologies.

6. Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)

This may sound basic in 2020, but if your company is not ranking on the first page of the search engine, then it is not funny. Revamp your SEO to enable quick discovery online.

7. Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

This is an extension of SEO. In a B2C scenario, an online search is the first step for finding a service provider. “Leading health insurance company” could be the keywords typed, and your company’s URL needs to come up for view.

8. Location-based and Data-based Marketing

Let’s take a product category, such as a PSU in general insurance (B2C marketing), and we work on a road map for launching a pandemic cover by the insurer.

Rather than an all-India blitz, focus on geo-locations and engage with customers in a specific zone to sell your product. Let’s take South Bombay as a geo-location. Serve the banner ad, gif or video, to a pre-determined data cut.

A data cut (not to be confused with a legacy database) can be sourced from credit or debit card companies based on customer spending levels, yet the data is anonymous, the aggregator knows only your past behaviour through cookies inserted in websites you visited, or your mobile identifier pin (not your mobile number). Delivering through data, you reach potential policyholders rather than all of SoBo.

9. Make the CMD Your Company’s Brand Ambassador

As important as the company’s social media handles is the CMD’s LinkedIn page. He or she must post at regular intervals, present case studies, or share industry information. If time is a constraint, the task can be outsourced to an agency in the advertising panel, after verifying digital knowledge and content capability.

10. Social Listening

Having initiated so much traffic, traction, and interaction, we must be sensitive to comments by followers and competitors. Connect a social listening tool to your handles to monitor customer feedback and direct mentions of your company or brand. This will help to identify and respond to complaints or negative posts in real-time.

Strategies and technologies are endless, considering the diverse verticals in which PSUs operate. If there is a takeaway, it is the urgency to embrace transformation. Here’s what PSUs need to do:

  1. Review and balance B2B and B2C communication based on your business structure.
  2. Outsource digital activity: Two team members within a Rs 5,000 crore PSU cannot be called “in-house” digital resources. There’s no way a minuscule team can play the role of strategist, media planner, video editor, designer, web developer and content writer (a joke going around the ad industry is the typical recruitment advertisement for “Digital Marketing Specialist” which seeks from one candidate all the above attributes).
  3. Scale-up, fast. Many of the technologies I have outlined are already being leveraged by your competitors in the private sector. Deferment can be detrimental, inaction can cause the enterprise to lag behind and relegate its leaders to living proof of “We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us.”
  4. If you are the CMD or departmental head reading this clarion call, remember you may face opposition during the implementation – there will be naysayers, shirkers, procrastinators – penalise reluctance with the threat of ignominy, reward adoption with career advancement.
  5. Logic for urgency: A PSU may not be one for long. Privatisation has been announced. The government has said there may be just four PSUs standing when the process is completed. If the marketing communications team is not agile and ahead, the new owner can initiate a transfer or a warm send-off.

In another time, in another place. a lumbering IBM led by a dynamic CEO proved elephants can dance. To usher in a new normal of digital-first, PSU chieftains now have the chance.

(R. Chandramouli holds a Masters Degree in Mass Communications. His company, Moulis Advertising Service, serves more than 15 public sector undertakings as their communication partner. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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