A brand guru said that it takes years of hard work to build a brand but just one moment of madness to kill it. The Satyam case is a live example of this adage.
Late July 1996 I got a call on a Saturday morning from one of the largest head hunting companies in the country asking me whether I wanted a change of job. Their Hyderabad manager would not tell me the name of the client company as he was afraid I would refuse the chance on the phone itself as the company was small and relatively unknown compared to the one I was working in.
However, I did go to meet him and I was rather disappointed when he told me the company’s name though the company was Hyderabad based and I was in the same city, too. He persuaded me to at least meet the company management. The same afternoon I met Ramalinga Raju, Chairman, Satyam Computer Services. I had no clue what the company did as IT was not even in my radar being more from the engineering and automotive industry. In fact, I even had a stray thought that they assembled grey market PCs.
The meeting with Raju lasted more than an hour and was very pleasant. He came across as a gentle person and very polite. Very soon I got an offer of appointment from Satyam. My wife referred to a few people in Bangalore in the IT field before I accepted it. Of course, the financial offer was very attractive,too
I joined Satyam as head of corporate communications on August 16.The next day I got a call from Economic Times asking me for a comment on a story that they were running about a check bouncing case against Satyam. This troubled me as I had never experienced anything like that in the past. I just mumbled that there was no truth in that story.
About ten days later we had to print some invitation cards for inaugurating our spanking new technology centre. It surprised me when the printer asked me for 100% advance. He was the same printer who used to give my earlier company thirty days credit without questions. I began to worry whether I had made a major error of judgment in joining Satyam. I now remembered that some of my friends in Hyderabad expressed surprise when I told them that I was leaving a leading multi-national company to join Satyam.
Anyway, it was too late to do anything about it. And in 1996 driving a brand new Maruti Suzuki Esteem around Hyderabad was a balm on a hurt ego. I put all negative thoughts aside and decided I would carve a positive role for myself and do what was right for the company.
The Company Negatives:
1) Nobody knew who ran the company, including investors. This was surprising as Raju was in the office regularly from 9am to 9pm.
2) The public and investors still associated the name Satyam with construction and textile spinning and not IT.
3) The promoters, based on the flavor of the season had entered all kinds of businesses in the past and failed, including such diverse fields as aquaculture and shoe uppers.
4) Satyam was still perceived as a small Hyderabad based company.
5) In the Dataquest ranking of Indian IT companies, Satyam stood a lowly 13.
6) Publications were reluctant to interview Raju as he was not really forthcoming with comments or with his plans for the company. Further, his speaking style at that time was not very fluent. The face of the company at that time was the head of sales & marketing.
7) People perceived Satyam more as a body shopping company than a serious IT player (this was actually an unfair charge as at that time most Indian IT companies were actually just that).
The Company Positives:
1. The company made profits
2. The client list was quite impressive
3. Working ambience was friendly
4. The urge to grow was there
5. Raju gave a lot of freedom to the senior staff (though this itself created fiefdoms)
1. In my career till then I had never handled the editorial or news media. I was always in to advertising, marketing and sales promotion.
2. PR was something absolutely new to me. In a way I had joined Satyam under false pretences, because when Raju asked me at my interview whether I knew anyone in the media the only name I could tell him was that of a good friend who handled the advertising function for the biggest media group in AP.
3. When I joined Satyam I had never sent an email in my life nor knew anything about something called the internet. IT was an alien subject to me. I was basically a Mechanical Engineer.
I found that the Bangalore based advertising and PR agency handling the Satyam account was not really contributing much though they charged a high fee. We sacked them and through a professional selection process appointed one of the top advertising agencies in the country to handle our paid communication business. The first collaboration effort was to bring out the corporate identity manual, called the Satyam Covenant.This was to make sure that all corporate branding effort across the world would be cohesive.
Knowing that an advertising agency is generally not clued in to public relations, I decided to handle the media myself instead of incurring further expenditure in hiring a PR agency. My first effort was a disaster. I prepared a press release for our annual result without a headline. The next day each publication interpreted the results in its own way. It was rather embarrassing seeing some of the headlines early the next morning.
It was time to start earning my salary. I wrote out a pretty decent brand strategy plan. On top of the list was something I titled “Brand building the CEO”. I made a slide presentation to Raju defining various brand positioning attributes for his image building.
We debated all the positioning points and I explained to him why each one was not right for him. His previous enterprises were not really successful so the first one was out. As he was not technically qualified, the second and third points would be difficult to push through. The fourth one too would have been a far cry from reality. Luckily, Raju was not an egoist so he accepted my role as a Devil’s advocate with some amount of amusement.
Finally, I showed him the crucial slide. Through the months of interaction with Raju one thought that hit me was that he rarely got in to the details of the running of an enterprise. All his statements were a bit philosophical and holistic. He also tended to go off on a tangent sometimes. To give him a branding that he would be comfortable donning I recommended that he be positioned as a Visionary.
“Raju is a visionary who has a global view of the industry and where Satyam would head in the future. To make his vision a reality he hires the right people and empowers them to find ways to take the enterprise forward.”
Raju immediately accepted this hypothesis. Subsequently, in all internal and external communication, I would create statements on his behalf that would match the new brand positioning. For any media interviews he would speak holistically and one of the other senior managers would get in to the detailing.
I travelled to all the offices after that to meet the Business Heads and get ‘masala’ from them for any newsworthy story that could be highlighted in the media. I visited various media offices across the metros and got to know the business correspondents. I found them all pretty professional and knowledgeable about the sunrise industry. Many of them still remain my personal friends after so many years.
Every Monday I would release a story to the media highlighting some aspect of our business. The third paragraph of all of them would have a quote from Raju. I took a big risk with my job as I wrote and released these statements without getting his prior approval. However, I knew his thought process well and also the kind of words he used regularly so there was nothing controversial about any statement.
In fact once Raju and I were traveling together in his car to a function when a senior correspondent of a weekly news magazine rang me and asked me which business leader was Raju’s role model. I covered the mouth piece of my phone and asked Raju. He said Jack Welch. He was a bit taken aback when in front of him I gave a detailed statement on why he admired Jack Welch of GE. The magazine quoted Raju verbatim in the next issue.
The turning point came when in late 1997 or early 1998 BusinessWorld magazine called me and wanted to interview Raju for a story on IT in India. The original concept was to have Narayanmurthy of Infosys, Premji of Wipro, Nadar of HCL and Raju on the cover. I picked up the correspondent and photographer of BusinessWorld from Hyderabad airport and was driving them to the Satyam Technology Center, about a 45 minutes drive. The photographer asked me whether there was something interesting about Raju which he could shoot. I told him that Raju was comparatively an understated person but recently he had received a Mercedes- Benz car as a birthday gift from the family. But I was not sure whether he would agree to pose with it.
After the interview the photographer requested Raju whether he could photograph him along with the car. Surprisingly, Raju agreed. The next issue of BusinessWorld had only Raju on the cover with a laptop on the bonnet of his Benz.
Raju and Satyam had arrived!
The Growth Years
By the second half of 1997, Satyam’s media coverage had increased manifold. We made plenty of press releases and media would also call us for a quote for including in any IT related article.
Communications professionals tend to work out elaborate strategies on how to handle press releases. They generally work out a twelve-month calendar of releases and try to space of stories at the rate of one release a month. For example, October will see the release of an article on Quality. December, on HR practices. And so on. In the beginning, to work on a schedule like that. The explanation given to me was that the media will get bored of receiving too many stories from the same company. All rubbish.
Newspapers release every day. Magazines – weekly, fortnightly or monthly. Their very existence depends on news coverage. I decided that whatever I thought was worthy of a press release I would go ahead and send it off. After all, if publications do not see it fit then they wouldn’t publish it any way. Even if sixty-five percent of my releases saw the light of day it would more than suffice.
At the risk of hurting some of my media friends, I ranked the publications where I wanted to see Satyam featured regularly: Economic Times, Business Standard, Business Line, Times of India, Hindustan Times and The Hindu. Owing to local sentiments, the Hyderabad publications were a vital cog in our media activity. News covered by all other publications was a bonus.
We made releases on practically any activity of the company. New client wins, office inaugurations, technology innovation, senior management recruits, visits by VIPs. Stories and pictures of the animals in our menagerie in our technology center.In fact; we made a song and dance about the increase in the deer population at our center. Implying that they were well fed and happy. All good human interest stories that added to our brand image.
Then, of course were the news releases about the awards. The 1999 E&Y award which was of course a prestigious one. The other one was the World Economic Forum award (the biggest humbug of them all, in my view!). But all worthy news stories that had to be exploited. What did all this cost my company. Zilch. You treat journalists with respect and honesty; they will trust you, too. Bad eggs could be ignored.
But all this did not mean that all press coverage was positive. There were two occasions when explanations had to be given.
1. When a subsidiary, Satyam Enterprise Solutions merged with the parent company the share swap ratio of 1:1 came in to a lot of criticism and there were rumors of some underhand deal. The media was after me for a clarification, which obviously was beyond my scope to reply and I had to discuss the subject with Raju and the CFO. Unfortunately,the management decided to ride out the storm.
Strangely enough, at a later stage after the Y2K business thinned out, it was the competencies built up by Satyam Enterprise Solutions that actually took the company forward, including the money spinning SAP business.
2. When we started to use the web extensively one benchmark we had set was on how quickly the results could be posted on our website. The finance department would give us dummy figures which my department’s desktop publishing operator would put in a template and upload it on a test site. Once the official result was cleared by the Board, the official figures would be given to the operator for uploading on the company website. By a comedy of errors that particular year someone in the finance department gave the official figures which the operator by mistake uploaded on the live site. He immediately realized his mistake and blocked that page. But the damage was done. Some of the wire services were monitoring the site and immediately called me. I was clueless at first but got the full story later.
This became a big media story with all kinds of motives attributed to the management. It took months to overcome the negative impact. In fact when Raju and I had gone to Singapore and Sydney some of the TV news channels there would ask him a question about that controversy during live interviews. He used to get upset and later ask me why I could not stop the interviewer from asking such questions. Unfortunately, he did not realize that professional journalists do not always ask what you want them to ask.
Apart from editorial releases when it came to paid advertising, I felt that the time was not right for any general media corporate campaign. However, we put more creativity in our recruitment ads and used them for corporate brand-building, too.
Side by side with external communications it was critical that the company paid attention to internal communication during the growth years.
1. Ensure that all employees are kept informed about the activities of the company.
2. Reassure the existing employees that they have not taken a bad decision by joining the wrong organization
3. Use the existing employees to encourage their friends and relatives to join Satyam.
One day in early 1997, I was walking along the aisle near the CFO’s cabin. On his secretary’s table I saw a copy of the Memorandum of Association that showed that Satyam began operations on June 24, 1987. Something about that date kept whirring in my head over the next several days. While driving to work one morning it hit me that we were in the tenth year of our existence. I discussed it with a few colleagues. Thus was born an intensive internal communications program under the banner of “A Decade of Excellence”.
We printed posters and stickers. The major activities were the inter-office competitions like Quiz and Dumb Charade, culminating in a gala entertainment program in Hyderabad. At that time the company strength was still only around 5000.
One activity left me embarrassed. We made T-shirts for the winners of competitions. In my eagerness to get things made at the lowest cost I placed an order with an unknown entity. Phone calls and emails were plenty after that – one wash and the T-shirts had shrunk to an embarrassingly short length.
By 1998, I had a good team working with me. I made it a point to recruit young business graduates with a western orientation as I was clear that the future would be in building a brand for overseas markets. Luckily, IT is a people-centric industry and so no one questioned me on why I needed more staff for a support department like corporate communications. I added copy writers and graphic artists, too.
By now, it was clear that web-related communication was the way forward. An internet corporate site was a given. Raju told me that it was imperative that as a global organization information dissemination across offices was very critical. Every employee of Satyam, wherever in the world he or she was located should have access to the same information in realtime as compared to someone in Hyderabad.
A couple of departments were working on a corporate Intranet at that time. I managed to hijack it from them and assigned a team in my department to handle it. We branded it SatyamWorld and made it the global internal communication platform for the company. SatyamWorld later won the prestigious CIO magazine award for being one of the top intranet sites in the world.
I told my team members to think out of the box and that they should come up with a new idea every day, however crazy it may sound. Most times, all my ideas would pop out early in the morning or while driving to work. Somehow, I always felt that techies were a humorless lot and in Satyam people would be a bit too serious. One day while having breakfast I suddenly thought of having a Smile Day. I briefed my team about my idea. Within a day they came out with a campaign. A week later, every employee entering any of the campuses was given a small packet that contained items with a smile logo for use on their desktops, including a small thingee that could be placed on your thumb and be wagged at colleagues. We made a press release and The Hindu carried a big box item on the activity and how it helped staff morale.
After that was the “Power of One” campaign and how we discovered a young music director duo that composed our anthem and today are names reckoned with in Bollywood.
But that’s another story…
Thanks to the early exploitation of the Y2K business opportunity, Satyam grew faster than many of its peers. This directly led to the growth in people numbers, that too across geographies. The mandate to my department was to make sure that Satyamites across the world felt one with the organization.
My team had a strategy session with our ad agency, R K Swamy /BBDO. They soon came out with a campaign proposal that I presented to our senior management team at a strategy conference. The theme of the campaign was “The Power of One” with a tagline: One World. One Team. One Goal. I implemented the concept across various goodies that could be used by the employees at home and in the office.I designed a large pouch to hold the items. The masterpiece was a music cassette that contained popular Hindi and English songs. Interspersed after every four songs was the Satyam Anthem. My department distributed the goody bag across the world to every employee.
I had asked the agency to work out an anthem for the company. The brief was that the song should sound young, vibrant and contemporary. A few weeks later the agency asked me to come to Mumbai to approve the tune. I met two brothers who were in their early twenties and had composed the song. I had never heard of them. But each of the three tunes they presented was outstanding. The agency and I finally selected one of the tunes, a duet with a male and female singer providing the vocals. An instrumental version was also produced that would be used as the call hold music on all Satyam’s telephone switchboard.
Today, the duo are extremely famous in Bollywood having provided background scores to various hits and also being the music directors to such films as Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, Chak de India, Krrish and Fashion. Their name: Salim and Sulaiman.
Based on this campaign I received invitations to several advertising and marketing conferences to speak on the effectiveness of internal communication programs. In fact, when the campaign broke Raju told me that he never expected that there were so many things possible in communications.
It was all well to feel happy about the news coverage in India, but the real challenge was in brand building overseas, specifically the US,which was our biggest market. Paid media over there was very expensive.
Around this time I discovered the benefits of news dissemination through global wire services. I regularly kept in touch with senior people in Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones Newswires. The challenge was that these organizations hire hard-nosed professionals who were not interested in irrelevant talk. Plus, they wanted to be the first with the news, counted in seconds! I tailor-made press releases specifically catering to a global audience. Our visibility increased considerably after that in international media. We also distributed our news releases through PRNewswire in the USA.
But global visibility also happens through unexpected quarters. Mid 1999, the head of our subsidiary, Satyam Infoway requested me to handle the PR for their ADS listing on NASDAQ. This gave me a major opportunity to work at a global level and also to deal with the big guns in the financial sector-Merrill Lynch, Citibank, Deutsche Bank, and KPMG and, of course, the top management at NASDAQ.
We did everything in style. All of us stayed at the Trump hotel near Central Park and on October 18, 1999 we were in a fleet of black Lincoln limos heading towards NASDAQ. The night before, I tweaked the brand positioning a bit. Instead of the news appearing that we were the second Indian company after Infosys being listed on NASDAQ, I changed it to the FIRST Indian internet company listing on that bourse. The ceremony itself was comparatively business-like. The symbol SIFY went active at a premium on listing. After that we had a live press conference from there with journalists waiting in India. I then accompanied the CEO of Satyam Infoway for live interviews at CNBC and CNN studios.
A fall out of this was a bit of brand cannibalization. Even at the parent company press interviews a lot of question would ask about Sify, particularly as it was now a global entity. This was particularly galling as all complaints about Sify’s internet service had a negative impact on the parent company’s brand image.
The next major media event was also connected with Sify. On November 28, 1999 the CEO of Satyam Infoway requested me to come to Mumbai to handle an important announcement. He would not give me the details over the phone. The next morning I went directly from the Mumbai airport to the office of DSP Merrill Lynch. There the investment bank gave a brief about the Indiaworld deal. Merrill had alerted the media about a press meet that evening without revealing the subject. I soon started getting calls from reporters wanting to know the details. I could not reveal anything to them though I felt a bit guilty not being straight forward with some of the reporters who had become good personal friends by then.
It was a great feeling going through the process of an acquisition during that day. E&Y had done the valuation and were explaining the details.DSP Merrill Lynch was working out all the finer points of the M&A.I am not too sure how many communications professionals have gone through this kind of experience. The press conference was scheduled for 6.00 pm at the Oberoi Hotel. I went to the venue early. The conference hall was bursting at the seams with the media.
The proceeding was getting delayed for a very simple procedural bottleneck. The copies of the contract had to be signed by all parties concerned and because the documents were voluminous the deal was taking time. The owners of Indiaworld were getting emotional as they felt they were giving away their baby for adoption. Finally, the press meet started about an hour late. Boy, did it create a sensation. $115 million for a few web portals! The next morning at the Mumbai airport I bought copies of all the dailies and reveled in seeing the large banner headlines about the deal.
By now my department was on auto pilot. I had a great team that knew exactly what needed to be done. In fact, I found they worked more efficiently when I was away on tour.
Our front end sales team usually took our help for any client pitches. After the Y2K boom was over, we had to look at more value added business and the challenges in pitching for business. My team evolved a unique style of client presentation. We decided that every client pitch would be tailor-made to the client. We pitched for a health insurance client from Kansas City, Missouri. My team studied everything required about the city and the state. When the client walked in to the conference room we welcomed him with Count Basie’s jazz music; the walls had posters featuring tourist spots in Kansas City; the flower vase had a Blue Iris sticking out; and, most interestingly there were posters of famous players from Kansas City Chiefs football team.
We did a similar arrangement for a client in Dallas, where we played “Yellow Rose of Texas” as he walked in. Our hit rate with client acquisition went up after that.I am not saying it was because of corporate communications alone, but because the client felt that we were a company that would walk that extra mile for them.
My team started thinking more creative ideas for presentations. I had some very good graphic artists who were experts in Macromedia Flash. We actually started creating movies for client presentations. We would shoot some stock shots in sections highlighting corporate information, quality standards, HR initiatives, Infrastructure. Depending on the client’s industry we had a segment on how Satyam and they “were made for each other”. If the client was in Manufacturing we would get one of our business unit guys to talk about Satyam’s competency in Manufacturing and fit it in to the movie at a suitable place. And so on for Banking and Financial Services, Insurance, Telecom and so on.
These kinds of movies cost a lot in the US so when the clients saw our stuff they thought we had put in a lot of effort just for their pitch. At a Bear Stearns presentation in New York, one of the client’s senior officials jocularly commented that they knew whom to come to if they needed a movie produced!
One of the dangers of going global and earning in dollars but thinking in rupees is in the expenditure incurred on publicity material. In the early days our marketing office in the US would propose buying some ball pens for distribution at a trade show. They told us that it would ‘just’ cost a dollar a piece. Sitting in Hyderabad we would convert it in to rupees and exclaim, “What, Rs 40 for an ordinary ball pen! Forget it, we will send it from India where it costs only Rs 3”. Unfortunately, our ball pens were no match to the Chinese ones available there in a nice packing and qualitatively superior to ours. It was the same thing with T-shirts, stickers, leaflets and exhibition panels. Soon, better sense prevailed and we bought material in the local markets overseas.
The next major event that catapulted us to the big league was Satyam’s ADR listing on the New York Stock Exchange. Procedure wise this was more elaborate than what we had done for Sify’s NASDAQ listing. Our finance department asked me to think of a suitable symbol for the ticker. Of the cuff I suggested SAY and also coined the slogan “Say Satyam” as part of the brand promotion. This was approved by everyone concerned.
The morning of May 15, 2001 started with a ceremonial breakfast in the NYSE dining hall. Following this was a group photograph of the senior management and the bell ringing and cap throwing ceremony. Because another company was listing at the same time we were in a different room. The stock listed well at $11.16. We had arranged for business correspondents in Mumbai to assemble at a hotel conference room. Soon after the listing we had a live video conference with Raju addressing the media. After that we did the rounds of TV studios in New York for live interviews. After this listing one journalist told me that I held a unique world record of being the only communications person to have handled public issues for two group companies in both NYSE and NASDAQ
By early 2002 I had become bored with my role in corporate communications and moved on to another role.