Everything is ‘breaking news' even if it does not qualify as news - forget the fact that the only thing it breaks is poor victims' hearts.
In the eye of the storm: Indian cricketer Virender Sehwag.
In the Sixties when I was a young kid, I had the onerous responsibility of reading the newspaper to my grandmother or telling her the highlights of the day as depicted in the Tamil newspaper of that day and age.
The headlines were graphic and everyday there were delightful headlines (to me, at least) with sound effects and gory details of how a person was stabbed or how another man's wife was abducted. I must confess that because of my lack of interest in politics, I would never read out the stuff to her. In fact, if I was to believe the newspaper, there was never a dull moment in a Madrasi's life!
My imagination would go bonkers at all the stuff that I was reading out to her and I would look anxiously at my grandmother, wondering what her reaction might be to all the “sax and violins” that was the order of the day. She would look at me calmly and say, “All this is bound to happen. We live in Kalyug.” Of course, this sounded quite dramatic and ominous when it was spoken in Tamil. I have neither the earthy wisdom of my grandmother nor her stoicism, yet, when I see some of the news from the world of business, politics and sports that is making the headlines today, I am reminded of her prophetic words.
Here is a sample of the news that is rocking the world. BP, a once revered company, has suddenly found its reputation rocked by the oil spill and its image completely tarnished by its harried CEO telling journalists that he “just wanted his life back”. He got it back alright as he lost his job. The charismatic and successful CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Mark Hurd, had to resign over a sexual harassment investigation.
Closer home in Karnataka, an Infosys employee was accused of murdering his wife and promptly invited suspension from the company. The State's Labour Minister beat up a common man who overtook him on the road and obstinately refused to apologise, even as the hapless Chief Minister intervened and did so.
The Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah
Up North, the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, had a finely polished shoe thrown at him. As the Commonwealth Games continues to break new records in corruption every day, it has moved from the front pages, replaced by more exciting stuff that is happening every day all around the country and the world. In cricket, Virender Sehwag was denied his century in a one-day match against Sri Lanka thanks to an overzealous bowler bowling a huge no ball (he almost tread on the batsman's toes). The bowler was given a one-match ban with everyone and his mother-in-law getting into the act and offering sanctimonious statements about the ‘spirit of the game'. The only spirit that one can associate with modern day cricket is being provided by the sponsors, but that is a different story.
Is public memory short?
When I see all the mayhem and chaos that seems to follow our lives so easily, I am reminded of that comedian of old who used to jump up and down and ask “ Yeh kya ho raha hai?”, though I wonder if there is anything even vaguely comical about all that is happening around us and is assaulting us from every possible media vehicle. It must be conceded though that life of yesteryear was hardly as complex as it has become in today's day and age.
People doing the darkest deeds were still secure in the knowledge that they would quickly get a ‘second life', which would begin soon enough as public memory continued to be short, and sooner rather than later one of their contemporaries would outdo them in villainy and, thankfully, make their current misdemeanour pale in comparison. Not today, as thanks to the Internet, everything, if not carved in stone, is at least preserved for posterity, coming back to haunt the poor perpetrator (if one can be described that way) at the unlikeliest of times.
If I needed to find out what happened to the CEO of BP in 2010 in the year 2060, I would not have to visit the dusty archives of a newspaper office but just surf the Net. Yes, today's crisis will not go away easily but, perhaps, return to haunt companies and individuals long after their deeds are done and dusted.
Picnic with the tiger
In my cub years in communication, I read with interest what the renowned columnist Maureen Dowd said: “Wooing the press is an exercise roughly akin to picnicking with a tiger. You might enjoy the meal but the tiger always eats last.” I thought that India was different and in any case the tiger was an animal that was facing extinction, so why worry about the media that was out to get you. But the rules have changed with so many newspapers, magazines and television channels vying for attention. Everything is ‘breaking news', even if it does not qualify as news, forget the fact that the only thing it breaks is poor victims' hearts.
So what do some of today's editors do? They twist news around, put words into people's mouths, sentence the accused even before the slow arm of the law has a single hearing, attribute motives where none exist and either glorify or deify people. Liberalisation has reared its ugly head as far as reporting is concerned as most people will do anything for rating points and readership (this newspaper excluded) and journalistic ethics is banked with the same ease as politicians bank their ill-gotten gains in Swiss banks.
So it is hardly surprising that crises happen readily, multiply like the Indian population of old and stay permanently in the public memory thanks to the Net. So what should individuals and corporations do? Can they escape the noose they have created for themselves and that the media has so carefully and painstakingly tightened?
Preparedness the key
Tylenol, the over-the-counter drug that Johnson & Johnson had to recall several years ago.
Even today, when people discuss crises that hits companies, there is a reference to Tylenol and to Johnson & Johnson, the company once under siege, which actually turned the crisis around, if not to come out smelling like roses, at least with its image intact as a concerned corporate citizen willing to accept the problem, face it head-on and climb the slow, arduous way to the top. I wonder how many more case studies we could talk of with regard to companies that have ridden crises with a comparable degree of success and most certainly not in the Internet age. Is there a method to this madness? What must companies do? Can they do anything at all? Yes, I strongly believe they can. Here's how.
More and more CEOs are going to be in the firing line of media and activists. They need to be prepared and, more crucially, prepare for crisis. I often think CEOs are so full of themselves that they frequently shoot their mouths off and themselves in the foot in the bargain. The CEO of BP is a case in point.
In my opinion PR agencies have a role to play and must get into the CEO chambers more often than they are in the cubicles of corporate communication managers. The question remains, however, whether PR companies are ready for this challenge. If they are not, then they must get ready to assert themselves with clients, who need to be led in crisis, but often enough are not. I do know that companies prepare for crises too and the better-run companies have programmes in place for eventualities of all sizes and shapes.
So how prepared is your company? How open is your CEO to listen and how ready is your PR company to handle the crisis? How good are their relations with the media? Can they bank their goodwill to defuse the crisis? Can companies that are at fault own up when they are wrong? Can the PR companies advise their clients to come clean? It helps to be honest. BP might have learnt a thing or two from Johnson & Johnson.
My vote goes to Abdullah
It is easy to clutch at straws but I did feel that there is light at the end of the tunnel amidst this entire crisis and some learning for us. I admired Abdullah for saying he was glad that it was not a stone that was thrown and just a shoe. He had the good sense and if I may add, patience, to call the shoe thrower for a private meeting, spent an hour with him and sent him back to his native village in his private aircraft or was it helicopter. Clearly, he had won over the aggrieved man with his charm. Now how many CEOs would have done that?
Yes, we live in difficult times and the media will ensure that the difficulties continue. The survivors will have a strategy in place and more importantly keep their cool.
So how cool are you?
(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly: Branding on Indian Turf. He blogs at www.ramanujamsridhar.blogspot.com.)