Planet Bollywood
“PRs are the new kings” - Dale Bhagwagar (an Interview)
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He’s the driving force behind Bollywood news, and he knows how to manipulate people’s perceptions of Bollywood celebrities like no one else. He is also this year’s recipient of the ‘Crossover Publicist of the Year’ award by the Suvidha Gaurav Achiever Awards Foundation in Mumbai. He handles the PR for some of Bollywood’s top celebrities including Hrithik Roshan, Shilpa Shetty, Vivek Oberoi and Randeep Hooda. No, I’m not playing a Bollywood trivia game with you—I’m simply describing Bollywood’s leading PR practitioner, Dale Bhagwagar, whose interview for PlanetBollywood.com follows below. Read away and re-examine the world of Bollywood through a PR lens!

I’ll start off by asking you a basic PR question — what is your definition of PR? And, how do you apply such a broad definition of PR to Bollywood?

A PR is a media manipulator par excellence. The better the manipulator, the better the PR. We are living in times when perception is reality. PRs are the perception builders. They are the ones who make the world believe a lot of things the way they formulate and strategize. Their minds influence the minds of millions. That makes PRs no less than the new kings of this perception-driven world. All bow! (smiles)

Since there is a fine line between manipulation and being unethical, how do you make sure you don't cross it?

Simple. Very simple. I come from a journalistic background, a place where ethics have ruled over the decades. While I manipulate, I also let my conscience do the talking. It keeps me far away from attempting the unethical.

There are a lot of misconceptions that PR is equivalent to publicity. Why do you think people fail to understand that PR is a multifaceted field that encompasses much more than just publicity?

Because most people think simple, while we PRs scheme (laughs as if the laugh were a roar).

PR is still in its early stages in India, overall. How advanced do you think Bollywood PR has become, and what changes/developments do you still feel need to take place?

Bollywood PR has matured a lot. It’s just that most of the learned lot of PRs have entered the segment just about five years ago. It will take a little more time before clout sets it. But I can already sense boom time.

How have you seen PR evolve and develop in Bollywood?

Earlier, we had PRs working with formulas. There was a particular way of doing certain things. There were set norms and rules. Today, a PR like me believes in breaking all the rules and experimenting with the norms. The world is changing rapidly and so is the world of the publicist. Ten years ago, we used to have just a couple of publications to cater to. Now we have hundreds of them, plus whole lot of television channels and FM radio stations and a new Web site springing up almost every week. It’s chaos. Organized chaos! And the ones, who’ll survive this media madness and news and gossip frenzy, are the ones who would get to mould and rule the future – the minds of millions. It’s a PR PR PR world, and all are welcome.

These days the emphasis is not just on PR, but on Integrated Marketing Communications — a combination of PR, Advertising and Marketing. How effective are Bollywood PR firms and practitioners in embracing this concept?

Not very. Though most advertising firms have started their PR divisions, the PR firms have been specializing only on Press Relations. I agree that Public Relations as a field encompasses a lot, but most Bollywood publicists have not tapped the entire spectrum. Even I have not ventured into integrated marketing yet.

There are very few PR firms in India which handle Bollywood PR — Buzz (a branch of Perfect Relations), Percept, Dwapar Promotions and your agency Dale Bhagwagar Media Group are some of the leaders in the field. Yet, Bollywood is a really big industry. Why do you think there are few firms at the top, and why do you think most celebrities still rely mainly on one person or a secretary as opposed to an entire firm to handle their PR?

In any profession, only the best manage to stay at the top. When more great people and minds enter the profession, they will create their space. At the same time, many celebrities and makers do rely on people, rather than big companies to handle them. Personal approach and vibe works best in Bollywood. Since representatives change from time to time in companies, it is often difficult for them to continue the rapport the outgoing person shared with a particular celebrity or a maker. That is why the solo publicist, the proprietor or the company head who manages to personally keep in touch with his clients, retains the hold better than a company with a lot of staff. In our profession, rapport, trust and network means much more than jazzy offices, corporate lingo and manpower.

Clearly, PR practitioners, just as Bollywood itself, need to keep up with technological changes. Currently, quite a few celebrities have been blogging on Web sites such as PassionForCinema.com and IndiaFM. How effective do you think this technique is?

All new-age changes are very important and instrumental because technology and PR go hand in hand. A publicist, who doesn’t adapt and consistently learn and evolve, stands the risk of being stagnated. In my ten years in this profession, I have seen many Bollywood PRs being wiped out just because they were not tech savvy and couldn’t change with the times. It could be scary for any PR, especially veterans – but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

What trends do you think will soon be taking place with Bollywood PR?

Mobiles phones will be the new TV sets. Webcams will take over the communication activities of the mobile phone. Get set for remote control PR. I could be sitting in any corner of the world and placing write-ups in newspapers and throwing in news pegs for channels catering to a particular region and community. The PR world will soon go wireless. Right now, I am operating from an island called Madh (a little away from the hustle-bustle of Mumbai city life), and doing pretty well for myself. While many are busy battling traffic jams, I’m already having a decent mix of work and the beaches.

You’ve had a lot of experience in journalism, and I’m sure you use that to your advantage when pitching to the media. I’ve noticed that instead of sending out standard press releases, you actually send out releases which resemble feature articles. Tell us a little bit about your background in journalism, and why you decided to make the transition to Bollywood PR.

Very interesting question. I started out in journalism 21 years ago, when I was in sixth standard in school. After freelancing for children’s magazines, I started doing audio reviews and film reviews. Later, when I was in first year in college, I joined a newspaper and worked on the business and magazine desks. After graduation, I joined as Chief Sub-Editor-cum-Reporter in ‘Cine Blitz’ magazine. It was difficult to make a transition from mainstream journalism to gossip journalism as the writing styles are different, but I managed. Later, I freelanced for ‘The Indian Express’, ‘Screen’, ‘Showtime’, ‘The Asian Age’, ‘Moviemag International’ and others. It is around this time I felt that I was kinda stagnating in journalism. PR was the next lucrative option. Firstly, it had more money. Secondly, due to the larger reach I could have, it gave me a sense of clout with added social responsibility. What’s more! I could continue writing articles and press releases if I wished. This aspect of the profession took care of my creative satisfaction too. So I made the transition in 1997. In just two months of entering PR, I came to realize that while journalism was a profession, PR was a business. I’ve survived and grown – at times, much above my own expectations. I no longer write my press releases as I have outsourced copywriters for the job, but my experience in journalism helps a lot. I think like a journalist and act like a PR.

How do you feel when people just copy-paste your press releases on their Web sites?

Not only on Web sites, it happens all the time with newspapers too. I’ve often been told that my press releases have been responsible for making journalists lazy to write. But I can’t help it. I have to be immaculate in whatever I do. At least, that’s what I constantly strive for.

The relationship between the media and PR practitioners is that of a love-hate one. Since you’ve also worked as a journalist, what are some mistakes you see PR practitioners making when dealing with the media?

There are many, but the most common mistake is to think about only the client and their needs, rather than look at what a journalist wants. I feel, a good story should precede the client and PRs requirements, and everything else automatically falls into place.

What are the pitching angles that appeal to the media — for example, do you think negative leads are picked up more often, since many journalists follow the “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy?

Let me tell you a little PR secret. Good publicity is good. Bad publicity is better. Ugly publicity is the best – cause it travels the fastest and strongest. The worst of all is no publicity.

As Bollywood globalizes, do you see the potential of various clients working more with global PR firms instead of India-based firms?

Indian firms are good enough to cater to the West. I should tell you that just a week ago, I received the ‘Crossover Publicist of the Year’ award by the Suvidha Gaurav Achiever Awards Foundation in Mumbai. This was given to me for publicizing and positioning my clients Shilpa Shetty and Ashok Amritraj in the international media. If I can do it, so can the other PRs. With superior technology in our palms, the world is becoming smaller by the day. I don’t think Bollywood needs to outsource PRs as long as the current lot here is ready to reach for the skies.

What do you think separates Dale Bhagwagar Media Group from other agencies/firms which offer Bollywood PR services?

My brains. I’m trying hard not to sound too boastful though. (winks again)

You have quite a few clients such as Hrithik Roshan, Shilpa Shetty, Vivek Oberoi, Randeep Hooda, Nikita Anand, Diana Hayden, Shamita Shetty, Chunky Pandey, Vinta Nanda, Raman Kumar, Jatin Kumar, Ritesh Sidhwani and Farhan Akhtar’s ‘Excel Entertainment’ and Ashok Amritraj’s ‘Hyde Park Entertainment.’ How do you decide to take on a new client?

I look at three aspects before taking on a client. One, will the client be important enough to further my passion to continue as a leader in my profession. Two, will the client offer me the price I deserve. And three, will the client be pleasant to vibe with. If these click, then we are on.

Do you prefer to stay away from taking on clients who are newcomers and who are not well known?

Not if the probable client seems to hold a lot of promise.

What are the pros and cons of taking on newcomers versus established actors as clients? Is it easier to work on branding a newcomer since the media has no preconceived notions about them, or is it easier to generate hype when actors are already established?

While its fun to mould an image of a person who has not been established in the media, at times, it’s also difficult to make the media plug a newcomer. On the other hand, generating buzz about established names is much easier, though less of a challenge for the PR.

You have many clients, however, not all of them seem to receive equal attention from you — how do you decide your PR strategies for various clients?

It seems like that as PR exercises are often done in phases. Many-a-times the publicity of an actor or a film is held back till the project nears release. There is also this new trend of employing PRs to see to it that certain actor clients are kept ‘away’ from constant media glare. In such cases, the lull works for the hype that follows during film releases. This way, the media is also hungrier to catch a glimpse of the actor. Apart from this, there are a lot of controversial stars who also hire PRs for crisis management. With the way the gossip press is hounding our celebs, protecting reputations is fast becoming a bigger job for PRs than building them.

One of the most difficult aspects of PR is evaluating and measuring results. How do you approach the evaluation step of PR?

I maintain Press Clipping Files with Print and Internet clippings for my client’s reference. I also have three prominent TV monitoring agencies tracking and recording TV programs of my clients on a national level.

Are there things your clients do which you can’t stand? — for example, in Hollywood, you see celebrities regularly making big and embarrassing mistakes, which makes it really difficult for their PR practitioners to portray them in a positive light.

Last year, I had a gutsy client called Sherlyn Chopra who regularly amazed and amused me with her bold and bizarre statements in all the interviews I conducted for her in the media. But no, she was never an embarrassment. In fact, most of the time, she impressed me with her quotable quotes. The media too loved her for giving good copy. But then, she parted ways with me after our first term, stating that I was too manipulative and was trying to be “God” in life. She didn’t like being told what to do, and being a talkative PR, I loved to advice.

Who is one client you really want to take on?

Aamir Khan from Bollywood and Sylvester Stallone from abroad. Both have managed to leave a lasting impression on me with some of the inspiring films they have done. And, I want to do something for them in return.

You don’t have too many clients from the music industry. Is this a personal decision?

If a good music client comes along, I’ll take up the work. In the past, I’ve handled PR for bhangra icon Daler Mehndi, ghazal king Pakaj Udhas, ghazal queen Penaz Masani, pop icon Anaida and bhajan samrat Anup Jalota – all leaders in their music segments. I have also done work for a lot of music companies including ‘Tips Industries Limited’ and publicized more than 40 music albums till date.

You’re one of the most-quoted Bollywood PR practitioner. In fact, you seem to end up getting just as much publicity as your clients.

I believe in the benefits imaging and branding so much that I can’t help but do a little for myself. Yes, I tom-tom about myself, boast a bit at times and blow my own trumpet whenever I find extra time. Rest of the hours, I’m passionately promoting my clients.

Tell us a fact not well known about you.

I love to share my knowledge and experience and have given talks to college students of various faculties, such as BMM, BMS and Event Management. I’ve also been a Guest Lecturer and held inter-collegiate Seminars at some of the best colleges teaching PR in India. As I tell you this, I realize I need to begin publicizing this aspect of my career too.

Where would you like to see your career heading in the near future?

I have more or less achieved what I have wanted to, but as they say, life is a journey and not a destination. So let me tell you something that keeps me going. In the popular movie ‘Troy’, when the great Greek warrior Achilles is undecided about going for the war in Troy, this is what his mother tells him: “If you stay in Larissa, you will find peace. You will find a wonderful woman, and you will have sons and daughters, who will have children. And they'll all love you and remember your name. But when your children are dead, and their children after them, your name will be forgotten. If you go to Troy, glory will be yours. They will write stories about your victories for thousands of years! And the world will remember your name. But if you go to Troy, you will never come back… for your glory walks hand-in-hand with your doom. And I shall never see you again.” Next morning, Achilles leaves for Troy. My trip in life is that I should achieve enough for people to remember my name long after I’m dead and gone. Cheers to that and thanks for this lovely in-depth interview. May your ‘Planet’ rock as long as ‘Bollywood’ rocks.

Thank you, Dale. It’s been a pleasure interviewing you.


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