Thursday, August 26, 2010

Crisis? Stay cool!

We live in difficult times and the survivors need to have a strategy in place and, more importantly, keep their cool..

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


Mukundan said...

Very well said sir, I have never been following the news( can we call it so )channels for quite sometime now. I just avoid it and now I realize I have better things to do and better this to worry about and act on. Have found a unknown until now 'peace' which is really invigorating.

Sundar said...


You have a way with words. This was a very refreshing article dicussing life and its affectations on very many people. I am not sure if CEOs can be forthcoming if there are legal issues on their lap when things go wrong.


ck sharma said...

Sridhar - with this blog you're going to add one more link for all of us to visit. I did enjoy reading this though I lost the drift here and there. Anyway, looks like the bottomline is that a) it's good to have a good PR agency, b) and better to keep one's cool and c) be ready to smile problems away.
Hopefully, you'll put yourself in the Pak Captain's shoes in your next blog - he and his team have really had it.

Alok said...

Sridhar - this article captures the sense of despair that most folks feel at the current set of "manufactured" and real crises. Given that media too is going through a surfeit of plenty, the tendency to "manufacture" crises "exclusively first reported by our channel" is largely contributing to this sensationalizing.

For corporates, the PR agency has a strong role to play in actively advising the client on the right nuances. However, most PR agencies focus on media management rather than advising the client.


Mahalingam C said...

Thanks much. I enjoyed reading your article also in the print version of BL. Excellent piece, like every other one!

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Thanks Mali.

Anik Banerjea said...

Dear Sridhar,

I have become quite a fan of your writing, especially of your sense of humour.I personally feel that the world was troubled always, except now we are more aware of how troubled it is.I also do not think we should be cool , as being cool makes the crisis creators more stronger.

Maalthi Swaminathan said...

Dear Sridhar Mama,

"Crisis? Stay cool!" is interesting.

Mama another way to "Crisis? Stay cool!" is possibly to go the way of the Maharashtra government path as discussed by P.Sainath in "Food Security -by definition" (Hindu, Opinion page on Aug 27th)!!

I like the way you have brought out both the "popular" case studies along side the recent BP and the now growing issues of sexual harassment as well as the
common happenings such as the reactions of commoners and leaders.
By well known I am talking of the issues of Tylenol with the recent news of shoe throwing and the slapping by a minister
(I missed reading this though).

Coming to think of it you have pulled things within the first three paragraphs so neatly and with ease (I am sure a lot of thinking went through). You have covered a lot of ground within this space!

Mama, when we write scientific papers for journals writing or pulling it all this first part is always tough.

One can get a clean sense of the differences between the concepts of issues and crisis.

"Kick" a popular Telugu film now remade into a Tamil film "Thilalangadi".
What I gathered from the reviews are that whole film is driven on this urge for a "kick". Excitement is such a staple diet without which many find it difficult to survive. Vicarious pleasure; people survive on others' difficult times. It is a pity that people refuse to recall a "turn around" and stay with memories of ill times. Exactly like the Tylenol scenario for J &J.

What I liked in your article is the portrayal of "how" one can be different.
Quoting Omar Abdullah just fitted in well.
Another individual despite the turmoil who stood stoic is Viswanath Anand current issue of being conferred with a doctorate degree.
He kind of fits your bill of "Crisis? Stay cool!".
His wife reacted with an evidence rather than speaking showing "action speaks louder".
Amul being Amul pitched in for Anand - The Hindu Metroplus Amul advertisement !

I agree with you that it would be so much productive to take the stance that Omar Abdullah took in personally discussing with the aggrieved. Doing this requires immense internal courage and conviction. One needs to be a field player. Being in the forefront again requires courage to face, think on one's feet. How prepared are people?? I am not sure Mama.

You disappointed me though at one level. Like many you dwelt well on issues of crisis. Barring the example of Omar discussing and Karnataka CM apologizing the "cool" aspect did not come forth much. May be I am an enhancement seeker! I guess that you may have probably within the given space detailed "My vote goes to Abdullah" leaving the rest to readers' judgment. Then, will a sample do?

You have also raised this issue of "tweaking" news that too somewhere feels unfinished for me.

One thing is clear that cricket is game you love.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Thanks for a detailed and objective feedback.
I really did not think that people read articles with such care.
it worries a casual writer like me.
But I value your feedback and sometimes when you have the limit of 1500 words, you sort of finish hastily, at least I do. Often I am just beating my deadline by minutes. And even as I speak , there is a cloud, for my next one is due.
Thanks I really appreciate your thoughts and views

Mayank said...

Very interesting article........ in fact if i may term, now-a-days media also 'blackmails' business houses and u never know what is cooking up............ the movie 'peepli live' is also a good example of how media can create hype..... in today's world, the role of a PR agency is very important especially when media has such close eye on the business operations and how consumers cn float complains on the internet................... media plays a very important role in creating public opinion, whether it was during the hostile takeover of Arcelor by Mittal or the present Vedanta story.......

in fact during the takeover of Arcelor by Mittal, the PR agency hired was in daily communication with LNM directly trying to create a positive impact in France...... (very well illustrated in the book Cold Steel)

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Yes the smarter companies are realising that a strategic PR consultant can and will make a big difference, particularly in the troubled times that we live in.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Thanks Anik.
Words of encouragement , always make us to continue, sometimes to the tension of readers!
Interesting comments though

KR said...

An interesting read.

Best crisis management was by Lord Krishna when Arjuna laid his weapons down.

Personally i think "crisis" can be a blessing or worrisome. Actions in the first few days of the crisis are more critical. Case in point is Tiger Woods group electing the "silence " approach and messing things up. Toyota vehemently downplaying what was found by an outsider. Incidentally Tylenol had another recall some time back.

Crisis helps since it delivers free advertisement, more people discuss and media thrives on it. It is only bad for a few days/weeks/months. As a society we are prone to forgivance, and we forget, we also conveniently go back to our favorite "Brand(s)". We are selfish in the sense that if it does not affect or touch us directly, we tend to overlook it.

Most CEO's forget that they are also expendable, and there are plenty who can get the same job done, if not, better.

Also, it is fun to discuss other;s shortfalls or mistakes, be it a person or a company in crisis. We are Humans...

g e muralidharan said...

What crisis? Where?
WHAT IF PRICES KEEP GOING THROUGH THE ROOF, Kashmir burning, Maoist gaining ground in East,CWG delay in construction?So much corruption everywhere-one shot answer - RAISE ALL MP'S SALARY FROM 15K TO 60K; MANMOHAN SINGH
How to appease MLA Seat seekers with limited seats FOR 2011 ELECTIONS? - Reintroduce Upper house.KARUNANIDHI
Unfortunate that police jawans were kidnapped and killed - Nitish Kumar.
YOUR ARTICLE IS VERY GOOD AND SPECIFIC,but I wonder when CEO'S AND OUR MINISTERS WILL REALISE THEY HAVE A CRISIS ON HAND.It is realisation / identification of crisis which itself is a crisis in these cases.