Interview with Universal Communications Chief Executive Officer Parag Desai

"PR is not just about writing press releases any more"

Posted on 17 September 2003

Chances are aplenty that Universal Communications as a Public Relation (PR) company might not sound familiar to the Mumbai journalist fraternity, but it is unlikely that they have not heard about Parag Desai. The 30 something CEO of Universal communications, has carved a niche for himself in the big world of entertainment PR.

Although a relatively new field, Entertainment PR is now coming of age with the coming of big budget shows. As the turnover mounts, Hindi entertainment channels are turning more and more media savvy. Despite bigger corporate companies in the picture, Desai has managed quite well to hold out on what can be termed as a one man show. His modus operandi is to deal with mediapersons on a rather personal level without being pushy. His press releases may not have a design element or an arty cover but the man is clued in to the day to day working of the industry.What a journalist could term as a reliable source, Desai has his finger on the pulse of the entertainment beat.

His company Universal Communications started operations in 1987 with corporate communications and later diversified to the entertainment industry with specific focus on the television industry. Universal now has a turnover of ten million rupees per annum. Nine years later, this Mithibai college graduate is ready to take the industry head on.

Desai spoke to's Trupti Ghag about entertainment PR and more. Excerpts:


Were you always inclined to make a career in public relations?
Although I was assisting my brother, I hadn't decided about taking up PR as a career option. But I was drawn to dramatics ever since my college days.

When I was in the last year at collge, I got an offer from Sanjeev Bhattacharya for Campus, though I wasn't keen on acting. A couple of my friends, including Paritosh Painter and Ninad Kamat, went in for the auditions and got selected. I meanwhile started doing some PR for the show. In a sense, I already had a friend circle in television. I think entertainment was by and large the most poplular career choice at my alma mater. We had plenty of actors studying with us including Bobby Deol, Raveena Tandon, Vivek Oberoi...

Even after graduation, I hadn't made up my mind, so I enrolled in KC College for a PG in Management and Public Relations. But I think working with my brother for corporate PR had helped, the field grew on me and I before I knew it, I was enjoying my work.


How did you branch out as a Television PR company?
Along with my brother, I did corporate PR for four years. I had handled most of the clients and around 500 public issues. It was during the Harshad Mehta boom time. Every day, we used to handle around two or three press conferences, so I had a very good grip on public relations.

Slowly, it started getting too drab and I just had to diversify from corporate to entertainment. Look at it this way, even if the company is big, you have a small write up about it in the business papers. But a show with even a little potential finds more coverage with pictures et al. It is more happening, basically entertainment sells.

One of my friends, Santram Varma, whoe is now a director with Balaji Telefilms, used to direct Sony's Aahaat earlier with B P Singh. He offered me Aahaat. Though I was a little skeptical about taking it up, I worked on the corporate guidelines and created a presentation. Both B P Singh and his partner, ad man Pradeep Uppoor, were very pleased with my presentation and I got the job.

Aahaat wasn't doing well those days, I arranged for a few interviews with B P Singh and organised a special screening of Aahaat. Though I wan't really aware of the TRPs, inadvertently, with all the publicity and mileage, the TRPs too shot up.

After bagging the account, I decided to go head on with PR for television. I created a one page profile, took the addresses of producers from Screen world and sent it randomly to people in the industry like Gajendra Singh. Post Aahaat, I bagged one major project Close up Antakshari.


Is there a change in the modus operandi in PR since then?
It is only of late that leading entertainment houses have started appointing professional public relations firms to handle their corporate communications. Earlier, a failed production man used to dole out badly written press releases, which were general information capsules that did nothing to enhance the image of either the production house or the product.

The big production houses like Chopra's and Sagar's usually had a specially appointed person in the office to send across the press releases. During the DD days, journalists used to either approach the producers to get information about the show, synopses and interviews or the advertising agency who did the marketing for the production houses. One of the advertising personnel used to co-ordinate on the sets meetings with the cast.

With the change in the scenario, it is now producers who approach the journos.


What is the essential requisite of an entertainment PR person?
According to me, much more important than fancy PR school education, is your personal reach with the grass roots.

It is extremely important because you need to have an idea of what is going around you. When I am assigned for a press conference, I have my list to which I send across my invites, do follow ups and give my list to client but if I come to know that there is an Amitabh Bachchan party by another big PR company scheduled at the same time.

I have done my job to the T, but can I guarantee attendance? That is when the grass root level contact comes into the picture. You need to have contact numbers of the organizers and be able to convince that person to either reschedule their conference or you have to do yours. On an average, a client is spending about Rs 2,00,000 per event, so what good is a degree if you haven't done your job well too? The main issue is delivery. The practical is important.

90 per cent of the time, you are dealing with crisis management. Ideally around two years of experience is required to handle the client. It is not necessary to have contacts with big people, you can build them up. But you need connectivity with the industry on whole.

Some channels' PR is not clued into the regional media scene. They manage the English press and merely send out press releases to the regional press. I have an edge over them as I have rapport with all the journalists. Barring Balaji, I have done extensive PR for most major production houses. It's not that I have done just an assignment and moved on. I have been with them since the inception and I have continued with the client on a retainer basis. Basically, I believe that it is not enough just to build up the hype. You need to constantly keep up the interest, rejuvenate the project.


In your almost decade long career span, have there been any major goof ups?
It is natural to have may just call up two people from the same organization for the same interview or conference, which could then mean that either one is offended and calls up the production house to complain.

It has happened to me, but I had the journalist calling me instead of complaining to the production house that I represent. Till date,I have never had any misunderstanding leading to me dropping out of a project. Whatever the case may be, I pick up the phone and clarify. I do not depend on the mails. Most of the people depend on the paper work, do that too because it is required. I send a mail to the client giving a day-to-day brief.

"In PR, 90 per cent of the time, you are dealing with crisis management"

How does PR operate in television industry?
PR is not just about writing press releases any more, we do a lot of back grounders and offer suggestions too. Most of the times I also give the clients some ideas, I do not execute them, but yes, I participate.

To quote an incident, I offered to the producers of Sony's Medical drama Dhadkan that we get journalists into the operating room. They (the producers) were talking about technical terms, they were very proud of the technical finesse. The artistes too had been allowed to witness a live operation. So, we got a Mid-day journalist to witness a heart surgery by Dr Mandke.

Production houses have very low budgets, it is very difficult to get everything done. But nowadays with the barter system, it is possible. Now producers can afford hoardings, road shows, the works.


What do you look for while accepting a project?
Potential. At times, I also take up projects as a favour, even if they are no big shakes. But I am forthright in telling my clients that I will only help out till the launch of the project. I ensure that the product gets enough mileage then probably after three months I take it up again. But with artistes, I am very choosy. I only do artistes with potential, someone who can sell. I don't take up artistes just because they can afford my bill.


Even artistes have to sell themselves...
Yes. With Balaji coming in picture, many artistes have obtained a celebrity status. So other artistes need to market themselves.

"Most of the artiste think that given a chance they can outperform even Shahrukh Khan"

Has there ever been a clash between you and the channel PR?
Channel EPs are not concerned with me. If the channel has worked out a press meet and interviews, I work out some other angle. Something to get the producer some extra mileage.


What is the best PR in today's times?
I think Star has the best PR and to a certain extent, they have contributed to the success of the channel. The person handling the PR is a senior journalist; she knows what it is like to be on the other side of the fence. 30-40 per cent of the success can be attributed to the PR department.


With big actors coming on to the small screen, is that going to make your job harder? Aren't they famous for their filmi tantrums?
Doesn't really happen if you work by appointment. When I have to arrange a big artiste's interview, I make sure that I brief them a day earlier. If they are convinced, they do not have problems.
I have handled most of the film stars' début on television, be it Helen Khan or Madhuri Dixit, or Karisma Kapoor or Mohnish Behl.


Of late, you have been doing a lot of PR for Sahara.
I started with Zindagii Teri Meri Kahani, followed by Draupadi. Coincidently, all the producers that worked with the channel were my clients, so inadvertently I ended up meeting them often and my work was looked at. It has worked, coincidently.


Recently, you have started doing film PR as well, are you planning to shift to films?
Nothing of that sort. I did Oops and Antop Hill mainly because both the producers Deepak Tijori and Kushan Nandy, like the work I did for their television shows and wanted me to work on them.

I am doing Cinevistaas' Shhhh…, Chupke Se and Anjum Rizwi's Charas, primarily because of the same link. In the PR busines, you should be resourceful.

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