Bill Gates once said, “If I was down to my last dollar, I would spend it on public relations.” Gates pretty much sums up the significance of PR in today’s world. And when you are into showbiz, PR can make you or break you. Dale Bhagwagar is one of those makers.
Dale Bhagwagar, the “Bollywood PR guru” has managed public relations for some of the biggest stars in Bollywood, we are talking Hrithik Roshan, Shilpa Shetty, Priyanka Chopra to name a few, making him unquestionably qualified to answer the queries that such a job poses to the outside world.
We PRs are control freaks. We control the publicity. We plan, plant, manipulate and scheme. We want the media to write what we want or what the client wants.
Before diving into the nitty gritty details of the world of PR, Dale gives us an idea about who he is as a person. Besides managing the images of world class celebrities, he has also created an image of himself as not only a hard worker and a revolutionary in the PR business, but also a go getter and nigh untouchable personality. However, there are a few things nobody knows about him yet:
“You want to know my secrets, huh? In real life, for the outside world, I am more of an extrovert. For them, I’m more of a ‘Dabaang’ type of a PR, who talks the talk, who does a lot of things at one go, who multitasks. But my real life is very different than this image. Very similar to what I feel about branding my clients. Even with actors, you see the brand and not the reality. Living in a world where perception is a reality. My real life also goes by this dictum. My real life is opposite to what people think of me on social media. On social media, people often think that they know everything about my life, because I share so much regularly. In fact, they hardly know anything. I am quite a recluse, and I live in my own created walled world; very controlled world. We PRs are control freaks. We control the publicity. We plan, plant, manipulate and scheme. We want the media to write what we want or what the client wants. Basically, media thinks that they have the power of the pen, and we have the power over that pen. So, control is a very important part of being a PR. That is how my personal life is; all about control. I control how people image or control me. My real life is a very simple life compared to what people think it is. My favourite food is daal chawal. My work timings are convenient according to me. My clients don’t question my timing. For the last 20 years or so, things have been according to my convenience with PR. I have always kept this aura intact in the outside world. In real life, I have always been a private person.”
It is often said that one comes across a motivation or a switch in interest much later on in their lives. After reaching a certain level of maturity, it is then that they realize what they want to truly do. For Dale, however, these questions were being implicitly posed and answered by him at a much earlier age. In fact, it seemed like it was only a matter of time before he switched from journalism to PR specialist. Moreover, he talks about what led him to make that change.
“Money. That’s the only reason. I’m being very honest and forthright. A lot of people might give different answers to this, but I am giving you the most frank answers. In the 80s and 90s, I was a journalist. I started writing for a children’s magazine when I was in the 6th standard. I wrote a few poems for a children’s magazine and it got published. I was very happy, and I showed it to everybody in school. The only thing I said was, “Dekho mera naam papers meh chhapa hai”. I was not bothered about what I did. I was bothered about fame. It was my main motive. That one poem led to others. I started writing articles and short stories. They encourage your creativity in school, and they did for me as well. I did that till I was in the first year of college. By that time, I started reviewing books, movies and music. I started writing articles for a local paper in my hometown. When I was in college, a new newspaper was starting out. I joined there as a trainee cum sub-editor cum reporter. So my work was to assist as a rookie at the business desk. I wasn’t interested in it, but the editor said that it was the only vacancy that they had for the moment. I stayed there and after finishing my training after two months, I was no longer a trainer but a regular. After two years, I became a desk-in-charge. I was bringing out a magazine, Sunday and youth supplements. Simultaneously, I was writing reviews for the newspaper. I was doing a lot of things. This paper belonged to the Lokmat group of newspapers. There was a saying there. Since our training went so well and we had to work so hard, we had a saying that whoever worked in Lokmath Times could work anywhere else in the world. The training was superb. The smallest mistakes were pointed out. I am really indebted to my time as a journalist, because it helped me in PR.
all the PRs who were there with me when I started, have all been wiped out. I’m the only surviving PR now. This happened because I always thought five to ten years ahead.
Even as a journalist, Dale’s perseverance led to a great big many changes in his life. His anecdote about interviewing Amitabh Bachchan is one worth reading about. To see how a rookie from a smaller city such as Nagpur ended up interviewing one of the biggest stars in Bollywood through sheer presence of mind and willpower shows how if one wants to make changes in their lives and in the industry, one needs to grab the opportunities by the scruff of their neck.
“After graduating in Nagpur, spending three years as a reporter and editor in Lokmat Times, I shifted to Bombay and decided to stay in film journalism. I was looking for publications which would take me on as a hardcore film journalist. I joined CineBlitz as a chief subeditor and reporter. They were quite popular back then. My first interview in Bombay shocked me. It was the second day in office. There was a conference between ABCL and BPL, for a tie up. There would mostly be corporate talks, so our publication wouldn’t get much information. It was a yellow journalist publication. In those days, Amitabh Bachchan was very reclusive. He gave one off interviews to big shots, but was not open to media interviews. I got to know that he’d be there. I took a camera and recorder. I did not ask Bachchan any questions during the conference. I was making notes and cornered him after the conference. I asked him for an interview. But he told me that I should contact his secretary and not do this in a press conference. I didn’t step away. But I kept insisting. He finally relented. He spoke to me for 15 minutes or so. When I returned to the office, they were stunned. So was I, actually. That day I got the feeling that I had arrived. My first interview was Amitabh Bachchan. It couldn’t get bigger than that. My colleagues were stunned. I just felt after that the entire film industry was there to be conquered. This boosted my self-esteem. I felt like there were no limitations. After 6 months at CineBlitz, I started freelancing for papers such as Indian Express. It was a great but hectic life. After two years of journalism in Bombay, I realized that I couldn’t earn a lot of money if I stayed in journalism. I thought that I should look at myself from a monetary point of view. Journalism gives a lot of creative satisfaction, but from a monetary point of view, it was limited. PR was more of a business. I thought about giving it a shot. Journalism, the rates are fixed per article. I thought that I should start my own business, and dictate my own money earning limits. I shifted to PR in 1997. By that time, I had spent 11 years in journalism already. All that helped me in PR. I knew which angles to use, and I knew journalistic ethics. Ethics in PR is waning now. I set my own benchmark over the years, and I do certain things my own way. I am not over-ethical, but I do draw a line. I don’t do paid or fake news. I do small things in PR, which not everyone in PR gets away with. The money was the main reason for shifting to PR.”
This perseverance and willpower ultimately led him to the top of the PR food chain. His meteoric rise in the industry garnered him a lot of names, from both his admirers and competition. However, what the PR world unanimously seems to agree on is calling him Bollywood’s ‘King of Spin’. According to Dale, here’s why:
“There’s another creative satisfaction in PR, that I could reach twenty times the usual audience. In reality, PRs are manipulators. They manipulate the media. They want that their stories and their angles should come out in the media. They discuss the angles with their clients. They basically want to manipulate the media. “King of Spin”. I’m thankful to the article that used that term. In some sense, I do consider myself to be a spin doctor. PRs do spin and turn the situation around. These terms are just terms. I do my thing. I don’t mind the terms. I’m a sucker for glory. I do what I feel like doing, and what my conscience allows me to do.”
When Shipla Shetty went to Big Brother, she told everyone including the producers, she told them not to cancel the shooting because she thought that she would not last there.
Keeping in touch with the moniker of the ‘King of Spin’, Dale’s excellent handling of the sensitive issue surrounding the controversy of Shilpa Shetty in Celebrity Big Brother has become the stuff of PR legend. Once again, Dale shows us why his presence of mind and quick thinking allowed him to use the circumstances to his and Shilpa Shetty’s advantage.
“I protect my clients’ reputation so I do a lot of things not only to please my clients, but I also do crisis management. It was not a form of PR back when I started, but now it is a separate department in PR with its own set of exercises. In fact, I am considered to be a master for reality TV for crisis management. I handled the PR for Shilpa Shetty during Big Brother. She went through a lot of ups and downs. There was a huge international controversy regarding the racism.
I didn’t plan this, to be honest. In fact, before she headed to Big Brother, I did not know what it was all about. Even she did not. When she was offered the part, she asked me what it was. Neither of us knew about it. We found out everything after research. When she discussed it with me, I told her to go and try something new. She was sceptical at first, but I told her to give it a try. She went with the thought that she would not last the twenty days. She was shooting for ‘Life in a Metro’ during those days. Next schedule was going to happen in about a month or so. When she went to Big Brother, she told everyone including the producers, she told them not to cancel the shooting because she thought that she would not last there. The thing centred around racism because racist comments were passed which were racist in nature. UK identified it as a huge issue and people were shocked. They stood by Shilpa big time. She was initially hassled quite a lot, and broke down initially. On the 12th or 13th day, I sensed a change in her body language. I immediately told the media that there is going to be a change. She is going to fight back. She was gaining confidence again. She started fighting back, even though the lady continued to insult her. She then went on to win the show. I spoke to a lot of international media about her. I will not deny that I added certain ghee to the fire, and that I hyped certain controversies. With her efforts, she made sure that everyone knew her. I tried my best with the media.”
Considering this story, it can be of little doubt that Dale had cemented his reputation as the best PR manager in the entirety of Bollywood. His name and reach had spread far and wide after that particular incident, allowing him to have greater connections in Reality TV shows, movies and even the music industry.
“After that, around 20 controversial contestants approached me and asked me to handle their PR. I’ve handled Shilpa Shetty’s regular PR for over 7 years now. I’ve also handled the PR for Hrithik Roshan, Govinda, Priyanka Chopra, Randeep Hooda and Vivek Oberoi. I’ve also handled the PR for 35 to 40 movies. These include ‘Style’, ‘Kya Kehna’, and Govinda’s ‘Hadh Kar Di Aapne’. I have also done the PR for a couple of Amitabh Bachchan movies, as well those by Katrina Kaif such as ‘Boom’, which was disastrous due to the bombing at the box office. Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘Don’ had the PR handled by me, as well as the Farhan Akhtar starrer ‘Rock On!’”
Another challenge was when Swami Nityananda hired me to do a crisis management exercise since I usually do it for celebs. Patrons of Radhe Maa hired me as well. The PR for them is different than that of celebs.
It is often stated that change is the only constant. That motto definitely seems to be the case with Dale and his handling of his business. Dale continued to constantly reinvent himself and change the tactics of his firm in order to stay leaps and bounds ahead of his competition. He describes how, for twenty years, he continued to make changes to himself in order to stay on the top of the PR world.
“Although I have excelled in news and magazine journalism, digital media is something that I had not introduced changes to. Attention spans were shorter, and so were the articles. The effects that photographs had on people, the fact that headlines could be determined by photographs and not the content or the body, I was already excelling in that. Digital revolution did help me. Compare the other PRs who did not focus on digital, and stuck to print, they have been wiped out. In fact, all the PRs who were there with me when I started, have all been wiped out. I’m the only surviving PR now. This happened because I always thought five to ten years ahead. There’s a strong fear I have, that I will get wiped out like them. Because of that fear, I try to visualize what the future will be like. With that visualization, I do things before the rest of the PR fraternity does. I changed things before for my own convenience. Now it’s not a selfish need. Now I need to change due to fear. It makes me experiment more, and take leaps ahead. Fear makes you do a lot of things. I don’t want to get wiped out. You never retire in the PR profession, but you can get outdated. I don’t want to get outdated or retire.”
One thing is for sure, Dale Bhagwagar is the one person who has the know-how and the genius to remain relevant in such a cut-throat industry. Who better than him to tell everyone what is needed in order to reach anywhere near the place where he now stands? His standards of working and his level of requirements far surpass those of others. He tells us about what is needed in order to be successful in the world of PR:
“A lot of people believe that to become a good PR, one needs to have contacts and connections, writing abilities, and good communication abilities. All these are fine. But I feel that they are add-on. The basic quality needed is street smartness. A little bit of vision and street smartness is required. Nobody can teach you. It is ingrained in your personality the way you are raised. The circumstances make you how smart you are. You cannot be trained on this, you have to develop that. If a PR is not smart enough to manipulate or control, it is not possible. Control and manipulation goes hand in hand. The better the manipulator, the better the PR. It’s my job to control the words, that’s what I’m paid for. Then other qualities are acquired with time and perseverance. Street smartness cannot be acquired.”
I think regional film industries have good publicists. What it lacks is the vision of the makers to bring it on a national platform… They need to think big.
Getting to the top of an entire industry can never be easy. The road is paved with challenges which even Dale had to counter with great wit and resourcefulness. He talks about what he considered the biggest challenges during his time so far as a PR manager.
“The campaign is a challenge itself because if the person has a drab personality, it becomes more difficult for the PR. People think that it is difficult to manage troublemakers. But if you look closely, you will find that the boring ones are challenging because they need more pushing. Every client has been challenging in that sense. With ‘Bombay Boys’, I introduced post-release PR. Before this, only posters were put up which stated whether the film was a hit or not. The maker was very enthusiastic about post-release PR, asking me if I could do something. The PR usually stops the day the movie is released. After that, it is the job of the journalists. I conducted a PR exercise for about two months after the release of the film. Post-release PR always helps the film. I also did it for ‘Koi Mil Gaya’, one day after the film release. This was very challenging for me. Also did it for ‘Kya Kehna’ and ‘Don’. Shilpa Shetty’s Big Brother appearance was challenging because the PR was done in UK. The accent was a problem. They would put words in my mouth and I would not be able to completely grasp. I had to stop journalists from misquoting me. Another challenge was when Swami Nityananda hired me to do a crisis management exercise since I usually do it for celebs. Patrons of Radhe Maa hired me as well. The PR for them is different than that of celebs. It has to be handled with deftness. A little mistake will lead to a controversy.”
I’ve handled Shilpa Shetty’s regular PR for over 7 years now. I’ve also handled the PR for Hrithik Roshan, Govinda, Priyanka Chopra, Randeep Hooda and Vivek Oberoi. I’ve also handled the PR for 35 to 40 movies.
Although Dale has worked mostly with commercial films and bigger stars, he does have his feet firmly in the roots of cinema. When it comes to Indie and regional cinema, he has his own bite sized information and advice to give in order for these films to reach a wider audience. He talks about how they can create a bigger impact both in the Indian audience and the box office. In fact, he does not think that PR is the problem when it comes to Indie and regional cinema.
“No, I would disagree. I think regional film industries have good publicists. What it lacks is the vision of the makers to bring it on a national platform. They don’t aspire or visualize their presence on a national scale. They need to think big. They have good PR in the regional market. They need to expand their vision.”
Who better than Bollywood’s ‘King of Spin’ and the ‘PR guru’ to give advice to the aspiring PR professionals about what they can do in order to reach the top? Dale gives his take on today’s competition and what young aspirants can do in order to reach a point where they would be able to provide some competition to the PR savant himself.
“Everyone works in their own style, way and experiences. I would say that they should be scared and adapt to change. Visualize the future, and always be scared. One day you might be wiped out. Innovate, change, and look at the future. If you don’t a new generation will come and wipe you out. Listen to “Times are A-Changin’” every morning. You could be removed if you don’t change. I would be very happy to compete with them. Competition will keep me on my toes.”
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