Thursday, March 11, 2010


PR practice is as old as the history of civilisation itself. King Kroesus of Asia Minor had his face put on the first gold coins. During the World War II, RAF bombers dropped tonnes of propaganda leaflets over Germany. What’s up in India?

Imagine the Government to be a corporation. Then our PM will be its CEO, Rahul Gandhi the heir apparent, and Sonia the family matriarch. The citizens will of course be the stakeholders. Such a Government and its divisions (read ministries) will have clear set of objectives, a five year roadmap, a statement of basic issues and challenges, and an action plan. The stakeholders will monitor the progress while the regulator (Parliament) must ensure compliance. KPIs will be created, communicated, and worked towards. And to ensure brand loyalty a constant dialogue needs to take place between the management (the PM, the council of ministers, and the bureaucrats) and the citizens, the stakeholders.

The record of this corporation is not bad at all. PricewaterhouseCoopers, in its latest report, says that India will have the highest growth rate in the next few decades, surpassing even the current favourite China. But then naysayers abound in equal if not greater number. IMF for one will certainly scoff at this line. And it is in good company; the local nabobs of negativity, including PM’s own Economic Advisory Council, mandarins from finance ministry, or Planning Commission too, contribute adversely towards creating a perception of gloom. A classic case of self-deprecating communication. Indian opinionista refuses to recognise that the coming decades belong to India.


In Orissa, anti-Posco activists kidnapped company officials while Nandigram simmered in West Bengal. Locals felt anguished against being left out by the changes taking place in their neighborhood. The local Governments failed to ‘sell’ the advantage of having such projects to these people on their land. Heartburn and violence ensued. Stern warnings were issued where confidence building measures should have preceded project site allotments.

At an NRI conference organised in New Delhi a member of Indian diaspora showed the gumption to ‘express’ disapproval of official attempts at drumming up investment from the community. One minister reacted incoherently in return. Instead of making any point wise rebuttal of the complaints, he just hurled abuses at the hapless victim, using epithets like ill informed and ill learned, in front of a congregation of nearly 150 potential investors.

The signals are mixed actually. With Manmohan Singh, the great liberaliser turned social entrepreneur as its mascot, Congress weaved a winning election campaign around loan waivers and NREGS. Then a fresh faced Rahul started dining with the dalits and talking to the tribals. With their people first policies the troika of Rahul, Sonia, and Manmohan is wowing the aam aadmi. The PMO has asked for report cards with vision and mission statements. The Sardar (used as a designation) has set the deadlines while Sonia and the king in the making work to the socially correct causes. But while the semantics are in place (‘governance with conscience’), the conscience keepers – the ministers and the bureaucrats – have to necessarily put their act together.

India is trapped in Liliput state. Since 1991, the liberalisation phase India has become home to ever increasing number of rupee billionaires; this meant a shift of power from the ruling classes to the entrepreneurial clan. India’s leaders have of course resented it. Under the Soviet form of communism, Indian development effort got strangulated and poverty got accentuated. However, due to the vote bank politics, poverty became a saleable item. Indian leaders thus have become reticent in claiming success with the new recipe of economic freedom and rapid growth as being the best bet to greater inclusion. The linkage and multiplier effect of rapid economic growth on employment and poverty elimination are not communicated, and deliberately so.


The Parliament elections last year, with 700 million voters, certainly made India proud. According to the 2010 Quality of Life Index published by the travel magazine International Living, India is up 35 places in the list of 194 nations, leaving behind Russia and China. According to an Economic Times-Dentsu survey of ‘Top Hits’, the Indian growth story in 2009 even in face of worldwide recession occupied top rank. There is plenty to talk about.

Even though the vibrant Gujarat Global Investor’s Summit in 2009 was a big success, the No.1 state in India has decided to adopt a modified approach for the oncoming 2011 summit. Now, it will partner with the leading industry associations (CII, FICCI…), which will be entrusted with the job of undertaking a pre-event warming up exercise like special seminars for the investors. A professionals PR agency will handle the whole event.

The phrase public relations (or, PR in management lingo) was invented by Edward L. Bernays who was deeply influenced by psychology precepts. He professed that it pays to be proactive in the battle of winning public opinion. If there is an information vacuum, then either the grapevine communication or one’s opponents will fill it with damaging assertions. The lazy minded information gathering (as against active information seeking) audience will soak it in to our detriment. We need to actively undertake public opinion building.

Political philosophy from Plato to Montesquieu had advocated that the truly free State must have tiniest possible existence. But we are living in an age of bigness. Every subsequent government is becoming increasingly inclusive in terms of the roles it plays in an ordinary citizen’s life. At the same time the resultant size, complexity, and remoteness of the government have created barriers in the path of fruitful communication between the state and the subjects.

Not that governments have not been dallying with it. PR practice is as old as the history of civilisation itself. King Kroesus of Asia Minor had his face put on the first gold coins as a glitzy reminder of who was in charge of the royal mint. During the World War II the RAF bombers were assigned to drop tonnes of propaganda leaflets over German territory claiming that the German authorities were lying about losses, urging the Germans to demand the truth from their governments. Since then the flirtation with the act of opinion building continues. Since December 1999, the Ministry of Health in India has been organising a nationwide oral polio vaccination programme, which is well publicised and promoted. Nearly 100% target population has been covered. The exercise has won approbation from many quarters, including the WHO and the UNICEF.

The short point of it thus is that in a country where 75% of the population is aged 35 or less (27% being in the age group 15-29), about 84% of 15-34 year old are optimistic about future, and 53% have high or very high aspirations, public opinion building is very important. Equally so because 68% in this age bracket suffer from high anxiety about their future; they carry the cross of free market, survival of the fittest, keep up with the Joneses society… Unemployment is a real issue for them, and not a topic for arm chair debate.

There is a need for a new demography; the early 70s can’t be the new 40s. What we need is a new social contract between the state and the governed, a contract that defines and is committed to democracy, development, and a state ready to deliver social justice.


All this will be possible only in a more open environment with lines of communication open both ways. As the saying goes in marketing communication, winking at a girl in the dark is a fruitless exercise.

Today, the combined forces of growing network of communication, education, mobility, and technology have led to an implosion of the vast and remote world. It is now important that people must understand how they are being governed. Only when they appreciate this will the government find it easy to secure their support for, and participation in, implementation of various policies and programmes. Ironically, however, public opinion building is becoming increasingly difficult because the hierarchical levels between the rulers and their subjects have lengthened creating a wide chasm. The distance is not merely geographical; it also spans the social, cultural, and emotional spectrum.

The media and the general public regard all Government PR as smacking of base propaganda and a disguised effort in censorship. Largely, these sentiments are a legacy from the past which the successive governments continue to inherit. A Press Commission report laments, “Government publicity was a child born of reluctance, out of necessity, and in the early years very sickly infant.”

A failure to appreciate the role of PR stems from a genuine lack of understanding about what it can and is supposed to accomplish. There permeates an overall attitude of not parting with any information; this myopic approach prevents any dissemination of information, including that for the government’s own good. This lack of transparency acts as a breeding ground for mutual distrust between the rulers and the ruled.

The ill-famed securities scandal of nineties assumed crisis proportions, at one time threatening to engulf the entire financial services industry. Ideally, the government should have admitted mea culpa, not necessarily because it was involved but because it was guilty of negligence. The then finance minister advanced platitudes that failed to convince anyone. A systematic plan to achieve a specific communication goal was lacking.

Such stopgap efforts, aimed at best towards belated damage control, are hallmarks of activism of most of the government’s propaganda machine. Michael Naumann of Der Spiegel thus commented wryly, “Public relation’s main task is to detract people from serious problem and focus their attention elsewhere, or… take your choice … the good looks of the president’s wife, the sexual mores of the opposition leader…”

So if a government sends Sri Sri Ravishankar to Kashmir on a peace mission, even the Economist magazine says that he sounds less like a spiritual leader and more like a politician! So dim the patriotic pitch and replace the spiritual sadhu with a communication guru. That should be the right approach.

Else, the propaganda programmes are likely to invite the comments that those RAF veterans had made sardonically, “The only thing achieved (out of the propaganda exercise by the British Government) was to supply the Continent’s requirement for toilet paper.” PR sure evokes mixed feelings. It is for the practitioner to make it work to the advantage of the organisation. While two scientists from University of California have devised a formula to determine the attractiveness of a female face and those at the University of Manchester have worked out another for a perfect hourglass figure like that of Kate Winslet unfortunately, no luck here. Till such time as the perfect recipe for success in PR is developed the only guideline shall remain: plan, execute and monitor intelligently!

A cocktail with the right blend should do the trick. But do you have the ideal mix? I don’t. Happy hunting!