Women’s Day Special: Shanaz Ramzi on journalism today, her PR venture, award-winning documentary and meeting Prince Charles

Author: Fatma Khalil - Chief Editor

If we begin with stating the obvious, Shanaz Ramzi is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated journalists of our nation I truly have looked up to in all these years of my career among other aspiring writers/editors.

Post her remarkable association with Dawn Newspaper and Hum TV, she runs one of the most trusted & dependable PR houses of Pakistan – Starlinks PR & Event Management today, alongside her son and daughter-in-law.

The list of awards that Ramzi has won not only increases by the year but the category of her expertise she is recognized & honored for, varies tremendously too, from social media innovation to documentary film-making more recently.

Her humility is both infectious and endearing as she comes with the rare quality of being genuinely amiable and abundantly respectful. 

This Women’s Day, Whitepaper proudly brings to you the highlights of our conversation with this complete woman of our land…

 

You were and still are one of the most renowned journalists. Did your education set a base for that or it was an innate quality you nurtured? 

I think both. I have always been fond of writing since childhood and I did pursue journalism as my major at university and I just loved it.  I was always a freelance writer and a stay-home mom.

That is precisely why everybody was surprised at the volume of writing I was able to churn out –an article a day I recall – be it food reviews, travelogues or cover stories.

All my invitations used to address me as “Dawn Correspondent” since I was writing for practically all their magazine sections at that point from Tuesday Review and Star Weekend to Images and Sunday Magazine.

What do you notice as a vital change of mindset or tonality in the new crop of writers compared to maybe your batch or when you took to it actively?

No comparison. Look, journalists at that point were professional journalists. They were seasoned writers who knew how to imbibe and present stories. These days, people who claim to be bloggers are actually not even that. They’re just Instagrammers. There was a point where I had approached some supposed “food bloggers” and they ended up merely sharing with me their Instagram IDs. I mean they don’t even know the difference between twitter, Instagram and a blog.

Then there is a lot who expect us to give the entire outline of the draft along with the hashtags. They cut/paste and then except to be paid for it for no work on their part per say.  Also as a journalist I have been around since donkey’s years but I don’t feel the need to throw around my weight like “if I won’t get a front seat, I won’t come” and here we witness these fresh crop of self-proclaimed bloggers who expect so much protocol when they arrive at events. I don’t think that you can even blame them because they’ve been given so much importance by the clients that they’ve gotten used to it now.

On the other hand, print journalists who’re actually working sincerely and giving you authentic reports without even being paid separately for featuring you are the ones you should be trusting instead of this paid Instagram crop with a million or so followers, who’ll write whatever one tells them to write so where’s the credibility? Generally speaking, from digital to print – I have interviewed people to be hired for various magazines I have edited and it’s mind-boggling – the rate at which quality of writing is coming down. They write in their CVs that they’re fluent in English and Urdu only for me to see some horrendous bloopers in their write-ups.

An observation on global scale is that Print Media is dying? Your take on it…

It has come down right in front of our eyes. Yes. All those magazine sections for which I used to write in the past have been discontinued as they’re no more feasible. Dawn’s Star Weekend and Tuesday Review shut down, which is heart-breaking. The erstwhile Images and Sunday Magazine (now ICON and EOS) has reduced drastically in size and volume too.

See all these were/are complimentary sections but the editors, contributors and graphic designers still had to be paid so now when the sale of the main newspapers is affected, how else do they cut cost? Many people have stopped buying print publications for the obvious digital shift so now even the avid newspaper readers get their dose of it online for free.

Having said that, I don’t think that the print will completely die out as while on the one hand you see fewer newspapers on the racks, on the other hand you see the glossies and even new magazines coming out as their means of earning is dependent on advertisements as opposed to circulation. So there are still people who love flipping through magazines while they wait at salons etc.

Hum TV – 11 years – what was that association like?

Today I am here because of HUM TV frankly. When Sultana apa asked me to join her, she hadn’t even launched her network and was president of an organization called NWPGO. On her invitation, I became a member of the said organization when I once went to interview her for Star Weekend.  She asked me to take out a souvenir newsletter for which I was getting in touch with all the higher-ups in the organization for their interviews.

So she saw the way I was working and then she told me to come to her office and speak to her about something. “I want you to head the PR department of a television network I am launching” she declared and I started laughing. I said I haven’t worked in my entire life in a full-time situation. I have always been a freelancer and I have a very hectic social life, I can’t do this 9 to 5 job. To top it all, I have never done PR in my life. I am an English journalist, I don’t have a rapport with vernacular journalists.

I still remember what Sultana apa said as the last resort to convince me to take it up; she said “do this for yourself, you won’t regret it. Do it for an hour a day, or a couple of hours – I won’t force you. But you do it!” This was October 2014 and my husband too encouraged me to take it up saying “what’s the harm in trying”, so I took it up after a couple of sleepless nights worrying about making a fool of myself as I had no clue of what I was getting into.

So glad I did. It was a one-man show as while on paper I was the head of the department, the department was really just me so I was doing everything by myself from writing press releases to filing documents. It was a great learning experience as my responsibilities kept increasing and so did the headcount of the department. I thoroughly enjoyed my journey at HUM TV. It was always an open-door policy and I was treated like a family member. Had it not been for my son coming back from Dubai and wanting to start something around PR of his own with my help, I won’t have quit HUM TV to date.

How did the idea of Starlinks PR come about and what it took for you to start and establish it as your homegrown company?

My son Turab used to work in Dubai; then when he came back here, he joined his father’s business which was construction. He was not enjoying that very much because he’s got more of an artsy soul.

He had run a small event management company with some friends before leaving for Dubai, and Mina, my daughter-in-law  had exposure of event management too so that’s when I asked them if you’d like me to establish a PR setup for you guys and get you going. I have my experience and contacts, I can help you out and then you guys can take it up from there. So that’s how Starlinks started three years ago.

How is Starlinks PR any different from others in the business?

That you all should tell me! For one, we are a proper company unlike many others that have recently sprouted and are one-man shows. I started with a proper office, team, systems & processes and never operated from the house or a garage. So it was done professionally. I was told by some senior professionals of PR companies I’m friends with, as to how initially I should keep my overheads low and not keep a big team.

But I feel that was the right way of going about it as there was never a time when we were flummoxed about how we are going to cope. Even when we got something as huge as the launch of LuckyOne Mall! To date we do many launch events at LuckyOne mall. Touchwood. Our clients maintain that Starlinks under-promises but over-delivers.

What’s it like to work with your son and daughter-in-law- Turab and Mina? One thing you learn from each of them and are proud of that quality?

It has its pros and cons. At times when I say something it’s not taken seriously as of course “maa keh rahi hai” and the reactions are volatile from my son. These three years have had its ups and downs like this. But it’s been a lot of fun at the same time because my entire family is here so we’re around each other daylong. Initially it used to be frustrating because even at home during mealtimes we would be talking about work. But then as the team started expanding, we managed to take a break from work discussions at that frequency.

As for the quality, even though from his childhood I knew he is gregarious and sociable, I was still very pleasantly surprised to see how great Turab is with people! He makes friends easily and mingles all too well. This quality of his is very endearing to the clients too.  We actually get letters from clients saying how much fun it was being around him and they miss the time spent with him.

Mina is very disciplined and well-organized so we really rely on her for keeping us all sorted. She is so responsible and on the ball with digital media and great with pursuing and coordination.

So while Turab is not so much of a desk/laptop person and likes to be out there making things happen, Mina on the other hand is inhibited and excellent at taking care of the documentation of it all.  Precisely why we make a good team together!

How has the PR and events industry evolved over the decades in Pakistan? Is it too early to ask as to how Starlinks may have contributed towards its’ growth in any manner?

It has evolved tremendously from the times when everything used to be done in-house be it a small or a large company or for private events such as birthdays and weddings. When was anyone hired to put together these events? It is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Maybe it’s because people are pressed for time now or it’s because of the need to compete and do everything on a grand scale. People prefer hiring professionals who can simply take on everything and churn out a flawless & presentable event.  So now even a small press conference hires a PR company.

I think what makes us different is our CSR component. From day-1 our mandate was that whatever we do, we have to pay back to our country so we always encourage all our clients be they from corporate sector or private to give importance to CSR when working with us and at the same time it helps our clients’ portfolio as well.

I have been working with Heritage Foundation since year 2000. We were doing a whole lot of initiatives to create awareness about Pakistan’s heritage. We’ve gone a long way in doing that and when I was starting Starlinks PR, it became an integral component of it where we give them pro-bono services of PR and project all the vital measures taken by the organization.

One project that has been the closest to your heart that you worked towards under the banner of Starlinks?

Hum jis cheez ko uthaate hain, hum us mein itni jaan daal dete hain that it becomes ours more than theirs, however clichéd this maybe sound.

Having said that, LuckyOne Mall launch will always remain our pride & joy as it came our way so early and it was massive giving us all the room to prove our mettle and make a mark for the coming times. Was quite an audacity on our part to take it up as a small new PR house as it was huge!

Three days before, Hyperstar pulled back saying they cannot launch just yet. Now no mall in Pakistan has opened up without Hyperstar opening. I said, trust me with this, we ensure you the footfall!  Truly grateful to them for entrusting us with it! Thirteen whole days we did nonstop activities and what a success it was!

One PR campaign lately that you’ve witnessed and felt you could’ve done a better job at it?

Well, a lot of people who’re my friends and run PR companies saw me as a threat and started dropping me like a hotcake from their invite lists – so I don’t witness too many events that have been done by others! I know actively they went to my clients and said “ap unko kyun de rahe hain kaam, they don’t have any idea about it”, as if they themselves were born with the knowledge. I have always felt negativity pe concentrate na kero and also why waste time on such non-productivity? I never felt threatened and neither did I threaten anyone in any manner. Whenever rival companies invite me, I tweet then and there to promote their events. I really feel sab k hissay ka likha hua hai. So, can’t make a comment on this!

One campaign that you haven’t worked on but found it commendable and very well-organized?

I find all of Hasan Rzivi’s events done superbly. Then, there is HUM TV events team headed by Maimoona. All their events are done by themselves and they are super organized. We have been associated with their PR so have witnessed the events first-hand, like Hum Awards.

In the PR business, that one quality that is key to sustainability? 

You have to be very alert & responsive and moving with the times! In these three years perhaps our clientele has been as varied as it gets really; not many others can claim so. It’s very important that you be respectful with your peers in the media industry and how you give value addition to clients, and continue innovating and improvising.

One thing you feel is an absolute need of the hour in Pakistan’s media industry?

Professionalism.

Let’s talk about your recent ‘Spotlight Award’ winning documentary – Salute to Karima…

Oh it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a longtime – making documentaries i.e. In fact when I was at HUM TV, they had invited a French lady who was an expert at documentaries and ran a workshop with us for 6 weeks. I had attended that workshop, and we were divided into 3 groups making documentaries. So that was my first taste of it. I mean for what it was worth, some of it did come handy later.

Then also because I’ve been working with Heritage Foundation I know the kind of work we’ve been doing and always felt that this has to be documented as we get so lost in our work and efforts like these that we forget all about bringing it to people’s attention and really reaching our message across.  My dear friend, Shaiyanne Malik & I went to the northern areas once where we worked towards making a documentary on Heritage Foundation’s work in the earthquake-struck areas. We took a photographer/videographer with us. This was before I started Starlinks.  Unfortunately, so much so for the gala time we had, the guy we hired suddenly declared he had lost all the data footage. All our efforts turned out to be futile. Then when we worked on Makli, Yasmeen Lari (owner of Pakistan Heritage Foundation) asked me to take the lead on it; it was a challenging experience as the videographer we hired was so unresponsive and non-cooperative, even though he has worked on some documentaries earlier. He just wanted to get done with it. So, I had to put in a lot of effort and time to bring it to the stage where it won the award!

What are the other such ventures coming from you that we need to stay in tune for?

More documentaries! Yasmeen wants me to make another one after the success of this one because there is a lot of good work that has been done since my last film and we even won an award for our project – Pakistan Choolah – and it needs to be documented. We are also organizing an international workshop end of 2019 in Makli. You see, being one of the Heritage Foundation board members I went to London with Yasmeen Lari to attend the World Congress of Intabau – a heritage related entity – and we offered to host a workshop here. They took us to Poundbury – Prince Charles’ pet project. It’s a very old town, where the old-world charm is still retained. It is mostly a pedestrianized town. The newer parts do have vehicles plying roads but all is done in a way where pedestrians are given priority.

So, they had mentioned that Prince Charles might come and meet the delegates. I was having refreshments with my team and other visitors when he just walked in without any protocol per say. We were divided in groups of six each and he shook hands with all of us, including yours truly. He even wrote a letter to Yasmin that it was lovely having met us and he’d love to visit Pakistan! So, who knows, maybe he would!

Lastly, what do you have to say about our initiative – Whitepaper – a platform to analyze and converse around brand communications of all sorts?

I think it’s a great initiative. There aren’t too many brands & advertising centric blogs. The ones that have been there for a while now would only be glad to witness some competition as that’s what gets us going. Otherwise we tend to get complacent. So good luck to you for Whitepaper!

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