Thursday, September 8, 2016

Five Failures of a Communicator

Communications is essentially a leadership discipline. Any individual who cannot communicate effectively will find it difficult to lead.

So, the task of the communicator is to support the leader to develop her/ his communication skills.
An effective communicator must understand her/ his leader, who is the leader talking to, what does the leader want to say, what matters to her/ his audience and what the audience wants to say to the leader. Very often, we tend to focus on the first two aspects. A communicator falls into the trap of putting what the leader wants to say at the centre whereas the audience falls in the periphery.

In the book ‘Power of Communication’, the author lays out the tenets of communication succinctly.

He defines communication as:
An act of will directed towards a living entity that reacts.

And what’s the purpose of communication: To build trust and loyalty towards the brand/ leader.
With this in mind, here are five communications ‘killers’.


This is precisely what happens when communicators lack clarity about the target audience, its preferences and its receptivity to the company’s messages. A journalist once told me – what’s a headline that needs to be explained. Spot-on. What’s a message that the audience has to crack its brains to understand. I agree that the audience isn’t always a homogeneous set but that is what makes the communicators role more strategic. In an era where business interests drive geopolitics, where heads of government openly bat for their home companies, can a communicator afford to take his eyes off various strata of audiences – from government to consumers. In a democracy, where consumer perception drives government thinking, can a B2B company say that consumers are not my audience?

It’s a communicators job to simplify and humanize the company’s seemingly complex product or service attributes. That would mean intense engagement with the business stakeholders, asking the right and sometimes “basic” questions as well as gathering and understanding customer/ target audience feedback.  Many a times, that would mean helping the spokesperson interpret the message in layman terms (eg. using analogies) without losing its impact. Of course, the communicator may face resistance. For instance, a leader may ask why he cannot be more direct and take the bull by the horns. In many cases, my response to such questions is that media, whether traditional or social media, is not the ideal platform to fight your battles. What will the audience gain from this battle? Are they even interested?

Sound understanding of the audience will help the communicator hold her/ his ground. A communicator should question everyday - How well do I understand my audience?


The best measure of a message is to replace the company’s name with that of its competitor. Does the message still hold true? If so, the communicator has failed to build the right proof points.
For communicators, messaging would be their raison d’etre. This is where communicators devote or ‘should devote’ a large part of their time. The rise of public relations came about because of the need for differentiation in a highly cluttered and fragmented market. As audiences evolve, flashy catch-phrases and celebrity endorsements are not good enough. Differentiation in messaging is core to brand positioning.

Also, we need to think how is my company being positioned in the larger narrative. If my arguments are not convincing, do I need to be in the narrative. Some communicators say that we cannot miss being in that story. My answer to that is what value have you added by being there. If you’re a tag along with the others, your spokesperson’s comment is simply a tick in the box for the journalist and for the audience, you are another one of the long list of me-too brands which they couldn’t care less about.

Communicators must make the message specific, contextual and structured to fit the audience, situation and purpose. Are we ready to make that effort or just getting the story out is good enough?

3.       MONOLOGUE

Because we’re shouting from the rooftop doesn’t mean that our audience is listening. Remember, we’re talking to a living entity that reacts. If there is no reaction, most probably, no-one is listening. Time to ask - Is the communication getting one-directional? A crucial metrics for success needs to be audience feedback, and more importantly “target audience” feedback. How many people shared your company/ leader’s comment? How many left comments and what were they saying? It's not a bad idea for most social media platforms to add a ‘boring’ tab for posts. That would be a more effective measure than the ‘like’ tab, at least for communicators.


In an insightful piece titled ‘As world becomes morevolatile & social, role of Communicator intensifies’ by Gary Sheffer,former GE CCO, he mentions how he misunderstood the CEO’s question on how to handle a possible crisis situation as how he would react to it whereas what the CEO was asking was whether he could address the cause so that the crisis wouldn’t occur in the first place. As communicators we tend to get into firefighting mode quite instinctively. Can we shift focus to helping prevent fires? Getting to the cause and addressing it beforehand is how the communicator wins the CEO’s trust. And we thought crystal ball gazing was only for wizards?   


Who wouldn’t like to be in front of the camera, giving bytes. The question is how many spokespersons are needed to talk on a subject to a finite set of media. Perhaps, the most crucial ability of a communicator is the ability to say ‘No’, with solid reason of course. The worst thing to happen to a company is to have every division/ function take the liberty to send out a message at whatever forum and in whichever way it deems fit. The chances of divergent messaging are high leading to confusion in the minds of the audience. So, what does this company actually stand for? Yes, a company can stand for many aspects depending on the audience set but the underlying positioning cannot be divergent. A communicator would do grave injustice to her/his role if she/he cannot ensure a coherent message across all business divisions and functions.

No-one said being a communicator is easy. More communicators fail, not because they are poor communicators but because they are poor leaders. A successful communicator must demonstrate the qualities of a leader, both internally and externally in order to command the respect that her/his role truly deserves.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What it takes to Build Brand India

Four credits and four discredits that profoundly impact Brand India

As per the Brand Finance Report released in November 2015, India figures as the seventh most valuable Nation Brand. Only three Asian nations - China, India and South Korea - figure among the top 20 most valuable nation brands. What stood out was that India's rate of increase has been the highest among the top 10 by brand value. Apart from the ‘Incredible India’ campaign aimed at encouraging tourism, there has been little concerted effort to build Brand India. So it’s worth exploring what can be behind this rise in the chart.

Every brand needs to have some inalienable features that define its identity. In Melissa Aronczyk’s book Branding the Nation, she defined nation branding as

“the result of the interpenetration of commercial and public sector interests to communicate priorities among domestic and international populations for a variety of different reasons”.

Nation brand building uses multiple different mediums (such as advertisement, public relations and public diplomacy campaigns) to achieve many different goals, whether it’s to encourage tourism or increase trading/ business. Here’s exploring four brand attributes that are defining today’s Brand India.

Talent Factory: India’s growing acceptance as a source of exceptional talent was first openly acknowledged in the 2011 article by Time magazine titled India’s Leading Export: CEOs, followed by many other pieces over the years including the BloombergView story titled Why Microsoft and Everyone Else Loves Indian CEOs. A big factor for the rise of Indians to head global companies is rooted in their multi-cultural upbringing. As an example, most Indian schools follow the three-language formula where every child is taught a minimum of three languages (Hindi, English and one more Indian or foreign language) in elementary school. This has a huge influence in a child’s formative years. Personally, I found it quite odd that most of my friends educated in the West would speak just one language fluently while I could speak three with equal ease. With language comes the ability to understand cultural nuances and different ways of thinking, dealing with people. Moreover, the stiff competition for limited seats at the top Indian colleges means that students have to try that much harder. New York Times carried a story titled Squeezed Out in India, Students Turn to U.S. on how it’s often easier to get into the Ivies than into India’s top institutes.

Technology and Space Research: As any headhunter looking for technology-related talent anywhere in the world would vouch, quite a few of the resumes shortlisted would belong to people of Indian origin. Another reason may be that most Indian engineers and scientists prefer working for global technology brands. The Indian companies that have gained global recognition are IT services firms. It begs the question - when will Indian entrepreneurs build a product brand like Samsung that can challenge the dominance of established players with cutting–edge technology or Tesla that can redefine the market? Most Indian unicorns are e-commerce companies that mirror the business models of successful American brands. Many argue that this isn’t real innovation. Indians have to move from technology services to building technology products. This is beginning to happen but the pace certainly needs to pick-up.

The one recent incident that brought India’s technology product capability in global view was India’s Mars Orbitor Project – Mangalyaan – which was executed at a fraction of the cost of similar projects by NASA. It made the global scientific community sit up. That’s what India needs to do more of to make a lasting impression.  This sort of frugal innovation needs a strong local ecosystem that encourages scientific research. The process has begun to gain momentum.

Costs of the Mars Missions by various countries & agencies 

 Indian Space Research Organization: Mission Control Centre for Mars Orbitor Mission

Brand Modi: Nations are known for their leaders. One can’t help but talk about the undeniable brand that Prime Minister Modi has built within India and more outside India. While Mahatma Gandhi is the most widely referenced Indian leader in diplomacy, Prime Minister Modi has also built a strong recall among the international audiences, fanned by the Indian diaspora. There is a definite rub-off of Brand Modi on Brand India. The lion mascot for ‘Make in India’ campaign, a brainchild of the PM, is gradually helping to move India’s brand persona away from a slow-moving elephant (often rebuked as symbolizing India’s slow bureaucratic processes). In international diplomatic circles, it had often been said that India talks but China delivers. With Indian government taking an active role at multilateral events and not shying from making commitments at key international forums, that perception is gradually changing.

Some say that it is by sheer luck that Modi is in power when India’s economy seems relatively bright in comparison to a grim global outlook. Even if we were to buy that argument, the fact is that the crucial steps have been taken towards enhancing the ease of doing business, helping re-invigorate India’s struggling infrastructure sectors and moving to meet fairly aggressive targets for building India’s energy security. It’s fair to say here that fortune favours the brave.

PM Modi talking to Elon Musk at the Tesla Factory in Fremont, California in September 2015

Culture and Spirituality: The healing power of Ayurveda and Yoga continue to lure many to India. While most Indians tend to take culture for granted, for a global audience, the cultural richness and indeed its extremes and contrasts are intriguing. In the words of the economist, Joan Robinson "Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true". Indian food is relished by people around the world, almost becoming a fad. I’ve seen Indian restaurants in the remotest parts of the world. It’s a separate aspect that at some of these places, I’ve seen the weirdest of dishes being labelled as Indian – which to me bore not the faintest semblance to any Indian cuisine in taste or looks.

And yes, Bollywood is another one of the many manifestations of the culture. Not many nations can boast of a cultural ‘soft power’ that India exerts on the rest of the world so it is only fair that this is one of Brand India’s defining features.

What’s pulling Brand India down?

Sometimes, more than the credits, it’s the discredits that determine a nation brand. There must be a concerted effort to address these discredits lest they negate the positive features of the brand. Here are some that India must overcome.

Pollution: While Chinese cities have been notorious for their high level of pollution, Indian cities are fast gaining the dubious distinction. Delhi has been rated as having the poorest air quality in the world. There have been steps to curb pollution but the battle is long, very long. As India strives to create more manufacturing jobs and improve quality of life, the ghost of pollution comes with it. The setting of targets for renewable energy generation and curtailing vehicular traffic in metros such as Delhi is a good beginning. However, it’s not a war we can afford to lose sight of.

Women’s Safety Issues: The issue grabbed global headlines after the gruesome gang-rape incident of December 2012. The incident shook the consciousness of the nation and tarnished India’s image. Most of us believe that this is a self-inflicted wound. Safety for women is a key tenet of any society that believes in law and order. The increased sensitivity to the issue of women’s safety within every layer of society and the law enforcement agencies is now visible. It is a battle that is still being fought every day. However, we still have a long way to go. As per a recent study by World Economic Forum on cities that have the most dangerous transport systems for women, Delhi ranked at No. 4- certainly not the desired company to keep for the capital of a nation that aspires to be viewed as a rising power. Let’s begin with ensuring our public transport and roads are safer for women.

Compliance & Ethical Issues: In a classic case of how one company's mess can hurt a country, the recent crisis faced by automaker Volkswagen has not only affected Germany's brand value but also cost it its position as the world's strongest nation brand, according to the Brand Finance Report. Many Indian brands too are not viewed favorably on this aspect. It stems from lax compliance systems within many companies/ organizations and scant regard for its implementation. The longer-term impact of this oversight can be disastrous for Brand India. If we take the example of the Indian Premier League (a professional sports league bearing the country’s name), it has faced many ethical and conflict-of-interest issues in less than a decade of existence.

In an increasingly protectionist world, compliance loopholes are the easiest way to pin down any company or organization. Indian companies need to build their reputations on ethical practices if they want to stay competitive in the long run. And needless to say, it is upon Indian people, whether working in India or abroad to conduct themselves in an ethical manner that commands the trust of their fellow workers.

Racism: In a country where the fairness of one’s skin is advertised as a criterion for a prospective life partner, the obsession with skin colour couldn’t be more obvious. It's surprising that such notions continue to exist in as diverse a society as ours. Add to that a rapidly globalizing economy where people from many nationalities now come in search of education, livelihood and medical treatment. Recent incidents of racist attacks by Indians on other Indians belonging to different regions of the country (North-east) and on people from other countries have made headlines. It’s quite ironic that a nation whose freedom struggle owes its genesis to the racial discrimination borne by its founding father (Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa) is witnessing similar racist discrimination being conducted by its own people towards others. Some argue that these incidents are sporadic and dwarfed in comparison to what’s happening in other parts of the world. Such an argument is untenable. A strong public education drive on the issue is needed. Many in India have lived in denial on the subject. That’s beginning to change albeit slowly, very slowly. Unless we are waiting for a big incident to happen on our soil which can prove to be the next blot on our brand image (similar to the women’s safety issue), it’s important to nip the issue in the bud.

While the government led by the Prime Minister has an unmistakable role in shaping Brand India, at the end of the day, it is how the people behave within and outside the country that determines if the nation’s brand will rise or fall in the hall of nations.

Brand India has so far punched below its weight. It’s time to be more assertive, show an action-oriented approach to nation branding. If we don’t brand ourselves in the desired manner, rest assured that others will brand us in the manner that we may not like.

Quoting one of India's greatest thinkers and leaders, Swami Vivekananda who did not mince his words when he rightly said

Sunday, January 24, 2016

2016: A Communicator's Role in Times of Brinkmanship

Donald Trump is making headlines all over the world for what many call his blasphemous remarks. And if the primary polls are any indication, those remarks seem to be working in his favour. Well sure, they won’t win him the Nobel Peace Prize but he doesn’t care as long as he gets the votes.


And look all around us on what is making news. Media outlets in many countries are choosing sensationalism over pragmatism – a phenomenon referred to as the tabloidization of news. The fact is that it’s getting them more eyeballs. So should Trump’s popularity come as a surprise?

Welcome to the age of brinkmanship.

What does this mean for communicators. The high priestesses and priests of communications have often advocated the need to be politically correct. It is conventional wisdom and has saved many from needless controversies.

But is that what the millennials expect from reputed brands – to act as bystanders? They would prefer to follow a leader who is decisive, direct, ready to stand up for what she or he believes is right. Let diplomacy be left to the diplomats. These indications are clear from the millennials support for taking contentious issues head on – whether it was the support for a clear majority for Narendra Modi in India in 2014 general elections or the support for the laws protecting gay rights in the United States.

Being direct does not mean being abrasive. As long as the argument is based on hard facts and the tone isn’t condescending or disrespectful to those who oppose us, there is no reason for one’s opinion to be perceived as harsh or insensitive.

Communicators can lead the charge in 2016

Can corporate reputation be built on being unabashed about what the company believes is right for the larger good. Most communicators would say – yes, of course. But are we, as communicators, ready to lead the charge? That’s a question many of us need to ask ourselves.

For instance, how many corporates in the United States have come out to speak on the gun control debate inspite of the number of shooting incidents in the last year? There have been voices but those are primarily of non-profits. Walmart CEO, Doug McMillon was among few in corporate America who spoke up. 


Some would argue that a person or company’s directness may be perceived by another as brazenness. It’s true that this may be a cultural phenomenon. For instance most Asian cultures believe in being more discreet about one’s views if it’s likely to lead to even the slightest opposition. But what that has done is to embolden the extremists because they believe no-one has the guts to stand up to them. The voice of reason has to be as loud if not louder than the voice of the irrational and the radicals.
As communicators we have a responsibility to society. We often let the fear of being dragged into any unnecessary controversy cloud our thoughts and weaken our efforts.

An interesting example is that of Facebook in India which is in the eye of a storm for speaking up on what it believes is right for mass penetration of the internet. Its Free Basics offering is being attacked in India by those who claim that it contradicts the principle of net neutrality. Personally, I believe consumers are intelligent enough to make their choice for accessing the internet as long as all the facts are placed in front of them in a transparent manner. Without getting into the net neutrality debate, the point to emphasize is that companies should stand up for what they believe is right not just for their customers but for society at large.

That would only add to the credibility of communications as a function. Some believe that it’s too big a reputational risk at stake. However, communicators should feel empowered to lead the charge in advocating the cause of societal reform both within the company and outside. 

Perhaps 2016 could be the opportune time when communicators step out from the shadows and play a more visible role in championing societal issues.

Friday, November 13, 2015

A Communicator’s Takeaway from Bihar Election Verdict

Source: The Indian Express

The defeat of the BJP in Bihar state elections has sent shock waves through the Indian political system, the reverberations of which are being felt in many boardrooms outside India. Never before has a state election been followed so keenly by media outside India. From New York Times to The Guardian, there have been editorials on the implications of the Bihar results.

While there are many conclusions being drawn, the high-stakes election provides a rich source of learning for communicators who often have to win over audiences in a fiercely competitive, regional market with well entrenched incumbents. 

Bihar, India’s third most populous state, is one of the country's most rural societies undergoing rapid economic growth. The really interesting piece is that close to 58% of Biharis are below the age of 25, which is the highest proportion of youngsters of the population of any state in India and indeed anywhere in the world.

Prime Minister Modi is seen to connect well with the youth and in the 2014 national elections, the BJP swept Bihar. So what led to the party's dramatic defeat in 2015? There are multiple factors including a united and superbly coordinated opposition which played the arithmetic game all too well. However, there were some inherent shortcomings in BJP's communications campaign which are now clearly visible in hindsight.

Templatized and undifferentiated messaging: BJP’s messages seemed a copy paste of what would have been said in most other states, as though set into a template. PM Modi talked about the need for change without outlining a clear agenda. He promised electricity access in rural areas which incidentally was the opposition Chief Ministerial candidate, Nitish Kumar’s biggest achievement in the last few years of his reign. This is a clear case when Modi’s research team let him down. The promise of a huge economic package was an in-your-face bait. None of BJP’s messages were cutting ice and the party realized this half way through the five-phase election.

Source: The Financial Express

Lack of local insights and social context: No matter how strong a national brand may be, without insights of local issues and context it will find it tough to influence and ultimately win over a highly segmented audience. Brand Modi continues to be the single strongest political brand across the country, particularly with the youth. So, people did turn up to attend his rallies but those did not convert to votes. For conversion, the strategy needs to be based on local insights which can only come from foot soldiers.  

Source: Business Standard

For instance, BJP leaders kept talking about the return of anarchy (Jungle Raj) to the state if the opposition regained power whereas for most of the electorate the incumbent Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar was the symbol of law and order, thanks to his track record of the last ten years.
Empowering local leadership, who are the source of insights, is paramount. Every region has its well-entrenched influencers. One has to engage with these and turn them into advocates. Since the fight was between locally appealing brand/ personalities (Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad) and an outside one (Narendra Modi and Amit Shah), the outsiders had to put in far more effort to connect with the audience. Without local advocates, even the strongest national brands will find themselves on a very weak footing, as was the case in the BJP campaign.
A negative narrative: When one’s narrative is primarily targeted at maligning the opponent, the chances of it backfiring are very high. The local leaders (Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad) are seen as sons of the soil who have been working for their state for decades. Modi and Amit Shah have precious little to show for their contribution to the state. Attacking locally entrenched leaders without having one’s own track record in place is fraught with risks. The opposition returned fire with fire in a well-coordinated battle which played out in every district of the state. Also, the opposition matched BJP's advertising blitzkrieg with its own, well planned campaign which actually saw the outdoor advertising campaigns going head to head.

Modi's silence on divisive issues: What baffled many of Narendra Modi’s supporters, including myself, was his silence on divisive issues being debated in the country. Even if law and order is a state subject, we expected the Prime Minister to come down hard on hate-mongering. The youth are particularly sensitive to such issues. The opposition played the PM’s silence to its advantage.

While recent national opinion polls have held that Modi continues to be the most preferred choice for PM, it is clear that there is a lot more that people expect from him. Can Bihar outcome be generalized to the whole country? There is no data to suggest that and those making such suggestions are pushing generalizations too far. Moreover, a strong and ‘responsible’ (the word to note) opposition is much desired in any thriving democracy as is the need for strong competition in any ideal market scenario.

This election will prove a milestone for political communications in India. As communicators we are all richer from the experience of one of India's most followed state elections in recent times. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Yes, you are a Leader !

Modern thinkers believe that every human being has leadership qualities. It is about nurturing them and working on one’s weaknesses so that they don’t derail those qualities.

In the words of John Donahoe, CEO & President of eBay, “Leadership is a journey, not a destination. It is a marathon, not a sprint. It is a process, not an outcome.”

So, while embarking on this journey, it would be good for aspiring leaders, like us, to keep measuring ourselves against key tenets of leadership.

Here are some questions worth asking oneself.

What is my leadership impact?

My impact has to go beyond domain knowledge, accomplished goals and merit. No doubt that these are important but they will merely take a person to the threshold of leadership (at best be seen as an average leader). To cross the threshold of true leadership, one needs self-regulation. To what extent am I able to regulate my words, my actions and importantly, my emotions? Ultimately, it is these factors that would determine the rapport, trustworthiness and high morale that I am able to generate within the team.  

Always bear in mind – Leaders don’t react, they respond.

Do I command the complete trust of my team?

You bet, trust won’t come easily. It means team members admitting to mistakes, receiving/ providing feedback, asking for help, challenging the leader’s and each other’s ideas and, importantly, be willing to engage in difficult conversations. The leader has to lead by example on each of these. 

Another significant role that the leader would have to play is to limit background conversations by bringing them to the foreground. Background conversations can wreak havoc on a team’s morale.  Building such a culture needs clear ground rules to be set in advance.   

An article in Inc magazine titled 9 Ways to Win Employee Trust throws more light on the subject. To demonstrate the style of moving from commanding to coaching, Forbes magazine carried an interesting article titled The 13 Questions Great Leaders Ask Their Teams

How well am I able to manage conflicts?

Firstly, not all conflict is unproductive. Some conflict is inevitable and even desirable but the aspect to keep in mind is ‘constructive conflict’. The moment conflict begins to get personal or leads to non-cooperative behaviour, the leader has to step in and quickly. The five modes of handling conflict as articulated by Thomas Kilman are worth considering -

·         Competing: “My way or the highway” – Least desirable; only to be used in situations that need quick action and involve vital issues
·         Collaborating: “Win-Win” – Most preferred but involves time commitment from both sides
·         Compromising: “You lose some, I lose some. Let’s make a deal” – usually for temporary solutions
·         Avoiding: “Can we talk tomorrow”- basically meant to buy time, but the issue will have to be addressed eventually
·         Accommodating: “Giving in” – for low importance decisions till it does not start getting perceived as a person’s weakness

A leader needs to understand which mode to use at what time. In most cases, that is the leader’s toughest test. Some useful techniques to consider here are
  • Bringing emotional levels down first
  • Refocusing the group on the goal of the conversation
  • Generating options
  • Attacking issues, not personalities
  • Paraphrasing agreed upon actions  

Have I helped create more leaders?

A barometer that I’ve often held for leadership is “True leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders”. The surest way to do that is through motivation and empowerment. Motivation is closely related to the three innate psychological needs – Autonomy, Relatedness, Competence - as defined in the self-determination theory.

  • Autonomy: Is the universal urge to be causal agents of one's own life and act in harmony with one's integrated self; however, this does not mean to be independent of others
  • Competence: Seek to control the outcome and experience mastery
  • Relatedness: Is the universal want to interact, be connected to, and experience caring for others

True leaders understand how to meet these motivational needs of their followers and gradually move them to becoming leaders.

The journey of leadership essentially involves behavioural change.  Any behavioural change has to begin with self-awareness, move to self-evaluation and end in self-improvement. Self-evaluation drives the process of self-regulation, which determines how people control and direct their own actions.

My personal experience has been to learn leadership lessons by studying and analyzing the lives of great leaders - Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, among others. These are perhaps some of the best examples of leadership in action. A common thread that I notice among all great leaders is that they have had their weaknesses but they learnt to deal with them in a way that those don’t become roadblocks. Their focus has been on nurturing and making optimal use of their strengths.

Also, I’ve noticed that most successful leaders developed their leadership abilities much before they took any leadership positions. In fact, many leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa, never held any formal leadership designations in their lives.

I believe that’s another important lesson for aspiring leaders. Move out of the trap of looking at leadership from the lens of a formal position. Leadership is using the power of one’s influence.  

An instance that I hold quite apt for leadership by influence is when Mahatma Gandhi was asked by a reporter to give his message to the people of India. His response was in five words – “My life is my message”. For me, that’s the most powerful message a leader can give.

Becoming a fully effective leader, by learning to exercise influence, is difficult and requires years of personal development. So the sooner one embarks on the journey, the better.

I've started. Have you?

As I publish my post, I'm saddened to hear about the passing away of one of India's most inspirational leaders, former President, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. He embodied many of these leadership traits especially the last one of creating leaders through his tireless work with students. He breathed his last while addressing students at one of India's top B-schools. I dedicate this piece to him. RIP - Dr. Kalam, 'The People's President'.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Narendra Modi and the Art of Decisive Messaging

If there is one aspect that has stood out in Narendra Modi’s election campaign as well as his one year of governance, it’s been the decisiveness of his messaging. His detractors have termed it as a reflection of his arrogance but it seems to have worked in his favour, time and again. And the reason isn’t too difficult to find. Indian voters gave a decisive verdict in the 2014 general elections and so they expect the same decisiveness from their leader. Indian voters are fed up of ambiguity and uncertainty. Prime Minister Modi caught the pulse of the people. His direct and, in some cases, iron hand messaging is a key component of his leadership style.

After a year in office, Modi’s approval ratings have remained fairly high, ranging from 66 per cent to 82 per cent according to various surveys.

Messaging can surely take some credit for such high rating. Prior to Modi’s victory, the atmosphere of uncertainty created by multiple voices and veto powers within every strata of government had brought governance to a grinding halt. Indians, particularly the youth, cannot accept it any more.
During the election campaign, Modi himself was the message because he seemed to personify the change that many Indians wanted. After his victory, his messaging began to evolve on various fronts - political and economic; domestic and international. 

Message to the political satraps

For most political satraps, Modi’s style has been a culture shock since they were used to dealing with a rather timid PM at least for the last decade.

As expected, Modi’s political detractors termed many of his actions such as the Land Ordinance as unconstitutional.  Some chief ministers termed his actions as harming the federal structure. But they forget or rather chose to forget that while laying out India’s federalism, the Constitution of India gives the federal structure a strong bias towards the union government. India’s founding fathers foresaw that a weak Central government would have dire consequences for the country, examples of which were visible in the UPA II regime where Chief Ministers began to behave like Prime Ministers of their states. They went to the extent of trying to dictate India’s foreign policy towards neighbouring countries. Modi is spot-on in his messaging to the states – Ready to forge a stronger partnership but remember your boundaries.

It has taken a year for most non-BJP chief ministers to recalibrate their relationship with the Centre. Those who are yet to come to terms with this can already see the writing on the wall.

For his internal audiences comprising bureaucrats and government officers, Modi’s messaging has perhaps been the most authoritarian - Show results or be shipped out, period.

Many bureaucrats and ministers have tacitly acknowledged the sword hanging on their heads at any given point of time. In fact, a chief minister who was handpicked by Modi to lead a key union ministry was seen asking some of his friends in the media to pray for him as he stepped into his new role reporting to the PM. Modi’s message of being a hard taskmaster has certainly been welcomed by India’s impatient voters.  

Economic message – the key

This has been the area of focus and the one that has delivered the most success.  The ‘ease of doing business’ message was perhaps the most eagerly awaited and widely accepted. For businesses, uncertainty is death. Modi’s firmness in resolve and action has helped rebuild confidence. This also formed the core of his messaging to international audiences - A Resurgent India that is keen to do business with the world.

The results have begun to show with the economy having turned around. While it may have given his detractors a reason to equate his pro-big business stance with being anti-poor, the people aren’t buying the opposition’s argument.

According to Mint InstaVaani poll, over 80% of people in the metros and 74% people in non-metros approved of Modi’s handling of economic development. Some economists dispute the latest GDP numbers as inflated but for the people on the streets, jobs are all that matter.  As jobs increase, that’s what 90% of the Indian voters care about and Modi understands that very well. His ‘Make in India’ message connects perfectly with the working class.  

Clearly, economic messaging has been Modi’s biggest success so far.

When the medium becomes the message

Modi’s choice of Hindi as the defacto language for governance is aimed at reinforcing his message of being closer to the common man. The Nehruvian legacy of using English as the language of governance is being questioned. During Nehru’s tenure (1947-62) Hindi was far less prevalent in India than it is today. Even the Eastern and Southern states of India which were traditionally been reluctant in accepting Hindi, have witnessed growing acceptance of the language. So, perhaps India is far better placed today to have Hindi as the language of governance than it ever was. Not surprisingly, Modi’s approval ratings seemed to be fairly high in the cities of Southern India. Bangalore and Hyderabad have shown higher approval ratings than Delhi and Mumbai.

Modi has also tried novel ways to engage with the people be it through social media (targeted at youth) or radio (aimed at rural poor).

According to a mood-of-the-nation survey by Axis-My India for IBN News, mass media (primarily newspapers) is viewed as the key platform for Modi’s communication. Despite all the hype around his social media push, just 20% say social media has been an effective platform for Modi to communicate. 30% and 23% feel Modi communicates effectively through radio (Mann Ki Baat) and TV respectively. Only 17% feel Modi reaches out best through public rallies while 4% say he reaches out effectively through interventions in Parliament.

Modi has converted almost every public platform into a mass media one – be it in India or abroad. So inspite of having given very few direct interviews to media, he has used them to deliver his message. However, there are strong voices within the mass media stating the Modi needs to be more open in his engagement with them. His one-way communication style may not yield results for too long.


The opposition continues to claim that Modi’s support base is fast eroding. The truth of these claims will soon be visible in the state elections. But it’s interesting to see how the electorate continues to react to Modi’s messages and to his style of message delivery.

So, are the so-called argumentative Indians being replaced by the impatient Indians? For now, that does seem to be the case which in turn means that decisive messaging is here to stay in Indian politics.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Five questions to ask yourself if you aim to be a good writer

As communications and public relations professionals, a question that we must constantly ask ourselves is that if there is one thing that our stakeholders/ clients respect us for what would it be? 
With the growing significance of owned media and social media, a sustained career in communications will increasingly depend on content writing skills – be it on the agency side or on the corporate side. I agree that content is not limited to words, but in this article I’m primarily looking at the use of words.   

So if anyone wants to inculcate good writing skills, particularly business or technology writing, here are some questions to ask yourself everyday:
  1. Am I reading the right content? I know of people who skim through newspapers, multiple sites including Twitter and FB looking only for their company or sector information. This knowledge may get them news/ information but does not usually improve writing skills. One has to set dedicated time aside for in-depth reading such as Op-Eds, business analysis/ technology trends (in print or online) that provide the larger perspective and use the appropriate terms. And despite the work pressure, stick to the reading habits. It’s this knowledge that would help bring depth into writing. Communicators often have to work directly with CEOs/ senior management. CEOs only value a perspective if it’s backed by facts and data. No matter what the form of writing, it’s super important that we are thorough with the facts and can prove our point, else we could gradually lose credibility, not just as an individual but also as a function.                                                                                                                                            
  2. Is this the right word in the given context? As a communications professional, one is expected to understand how every word fits into a context and makes a difference to the sentence and the overall piece. In the Roman Jakobson model of communication, context is one of the core functions of communication. Keep questioning- Is this the right word for the thought that is being expressed? Of course it comes with experience, but don’t let that be an excuse for not trying hard enough.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     
  3. Are my thoughts flowing from the core message/s?  A good writer has to be a good storyteller. A mistake that we tend to make is to stuff too many thoughts into one paragraph thereby losing the reader’s interest. A rule of thumb is not more than three key messages in any article/ story else we’re wasting our time and the reader’s. Frontload the message and use the rest of the article to give supporting arguments. But again, a bunch of statements/ arguments in any random order don’t make the content convincing. The arguments have to flow, one leading into another. Many a times, getting the flow in place takes longer than getting the right words.                                                                                                                                                           
  4. How many words can I cut out keeping the message intact? Today, it’s about saying more with less. The best way is to notice how one speaks. If one is able to convey the thought in the first 30 seconds in as few words as possible, the person is usually close to being a good writer, if he/ she isn’t already. Tear down the mansion of words (and jargons in technology writing). Sometimes, one needs to be cruel with one’s own writing because in the end, the content is not for me, it’s for my reader and at no point can I afford to forget that.
When I first read Mark Twains’ letter to one of his students dated 1880, the following quote stuck to my mind.

“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”
His words couldn’t be more true in today’s shrinking attention spans and information overload.                                                                                                                                                
5. Lastly, is my content shareable? The platform and the tool used to deliver the content goes a long way in determining whether it is engaging, easy to share and to search. Use of visuals, videos, anecdotes, cross referencing and linking to other websites as well as allowing reader comments are all useful in making it worth reading. Sometimes, an infographic can explain what 1000 words cannot. Good writing is about making good choices with respect to the tools that you want to play with.

I’m sure there are some more tips and perspectives that readers can add here and I would love to hear them.

In the words of Stephen King, “At its most basic we are only discussing a learned skill, but do we not agree that sometimes the most basic skills can create things far beyond our expectations? We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style . . . but as we move along, you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic.”

So are you ready to create magic with your writing?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Disastrous Impact of Women's Safety Issues on India's Culture and Image

Ever since the Narendra Modi government has come to power, one can clearly see an agenda to improve India’s global image.

However, continued global media reporting on violence against women in India coupled with the Brookings India paper titled Necessity of a new conversation on Women in India published on June 23, 2014, brings the spotlight back to a glaring gap that stands to tarnish India’s image. As Indians, we do take immense pride in the diverse cultural fabric of our society. That fabric is held together by the women of India.

On talking to my expat friends, the question of violence against women in India tends to inadvertently come up. When I begin to explain that its roots lie in the weak law enforcement (as is the case with most crimes), I say it with degree of trepidation. The next question I would get asked is on the kind of outrageous comments that some influential Indian politicians have recently made, including the most infamous one by a former chief minister that stand to trivialize rape as a mistake.

Images from 'Abused Goddesses' campaign of Save The Children India

Clearly as a PR professional, I understand how deep an impact such incidents and comments have on India’s image.

So, the fact that the issue of women’s safety was completely missing from the Prime Minister’s 10-point agenda and was brought up as a reaction to the politicization of the Badaun incident in the Indian state of U.P., was not really the best way for a new government to tackle such a socially critical aspect.

Can India really improve its image without addressing the issue of women’s safety? We would be deceiving ourselves by believing so.

Some argue that by putting women in key ministries, the present government has sent out the right message. While it’s a welcome step but we must not forget that India has had a woman PM for over 15 years (Mrs. Indira Gandhi) and most states have had women Chief Ministers. In fact, the state of U.P., which recently witnessed the most heinous crimes against women, has had two women Chief Ministers, Sucheta Kriplani (also India's first woman CM) and Mayawati. Sheila Dikshit was Delhi Chief Minister for 15 years till 2013. Yet the situation of women’s safety in India has deteriorated over the years.

So what’s the way forward?

Some people point to the re-introduction of the long-pending Women’s Reservation Bill as well as reservation of jobs for women in public and private sector as a possible solution.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook and the author of "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" in a recent interview to CNBC TV18 said that quality should remain the key criterion for women (or men) holding any office. She gave the example of Norway which has a 40% reservation for women in parliament since 2003 yet only 3% of CEOs in that country are women. She argues that we need to get rid of the inhibitions on women, in personal and professional life, rather than trying to provide any preferential treatment. Most of my women colleagues have often voiced their dislike for any sort of preferential treatment being offered  to them in public life just because they are women. 

When we compare that thought to our experience with reservation or reserved quotas for certain sections of society in India, it’s very similar. The beneficiaries of most reservations have always been the creamy layer even within the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST). Had the focus been on providing better quality education in government schools and colleges rather than solely relying on reservation for SC/ ST, their situation would have been far better. In fact, reservation often makes these communities a subject of rebuke.

So, if the Women’s Reservation Bill does get passed by the Indian Parliament, it may get us some good media coverage but little results for the majority of women. It is most likely to benefit women belonging to higher strata of society or wives of existing politicians who would be fielded by their husbands to take advantage of the reservation, as has been the case so far.

There is a dire need to encourage more women in cities and particularly in villages to come forward and actively participate in public life. But for that to happen, women’s safety is the most basic pre-requisite.

If we look at other countries facing women’s safety issues such as Nigeria (in the limelight owing to the Boko Haram abduction of over 200 girls), there is a common thread – weak law enforcement. Having lived in Nigeria for over 12 years, I can say that for things to have reached such a low point, it reflects the extreme situation that can happen with the breakdown of an already weak law enforcement machinery. It’s a word of caution for Indian governments that the women’s safety issue, if not addressed with the utmost priority, can lead to far more serious crimes at a scale and severity never seen before. 

When governments lose their grip on law enforcement, anti-social elements take the law into their hands with a sense of impunity. For instance in the case of U.P., there is little that one expect from the state government in managing law and order, an aspect that the Samajwadi Party is notorious for messing up, thanks to its own unruly party cadre. Only pressure from all sides – public pressure combined with Central government pressure, can make it deal with law enforcement seriously.

Of course, there is a need for a mindset change which I addressed in my earlier blog post Women’s and children’s safety is impossible in a society that eulogizes aggression. However, that may take a generation to fully address so let’s start with what we can do on an immediate basis.

If there are people who still believe that the issue of women’s safety is not critical enough to figure in the top 10 priorities of Central and State governments, it may just be too late before we realize the damage to India’s culture, to its youth, to the economy and, obviously to India’s image in the world.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Are you a data-literate PR practitioner?

Chances are that very few of us would have asked ourselves this question. Surely we’re PR professionals, not analysts, right?

Well, it’s time we realised the difference that data analysis skills can make in our careers.

All over the world, public relations and marketing teams try hard to garner a greater share of senior management attention. In most cases, marketing fares better as it is viewed as broader in scope and directly impacting business outcomes (read sales) whereas PR’s scope is labelled as media relations. Many CEOs (who usually hail from a sales background) believe that while marketing leads the charge, PR continues in the background coming to the fore during instances such as crisis communications.

So where did PR lose the plot?

To put it simply, armed with customer data and insights, marketers have done a fairly good job at marketing themselves within the company (and more power to them) but alas, PR practitioners have done a terrible job in shaping their own perception.

Let’s take a common scenario – the management asks marketing and PR teams to present proposals on how to position and launch the company’s first consumer product or service offering in a new market segment.

The marketing team is likely to undertake a consumer segmentation study to understand the behavioural patterns of the various consumer segments. Based on the data from study findings, key differentiators would be identified that would appeal to an existing or latent need of key customer segments.

The PR team’s approach would be to conduct a media audit and competition coverage analysis and present some top comments as media perception of industry and competitors.

When each of the teams presents its strategy to the senior management, does the PR approach even stand a chance? It’s not surprising that behind their backs, many PR teams get mocked at for the shallowness of their customer and stakeholder understanding. The outcome would be that the PR team would be asked to toe the marketing line and revise its tactics according to the marketing plan.

What made the difference?

The audience and competitor insights gained through research can make up to 50% of the marketing proposal whereas the best research a PR plan would have is a few slides on media perception and environment audit, usually based on secondary research.

Advertising firms realised the need for an account planning department early on, with the primary function of finding consumer insights that help the creative teams to produce highly relevant and engaging campaigns in the marketplace. The account planner spends time observing the consumer's path to purchase, by using research such as ethnographies, focus groups or quantitative/social studies among others.

In comparison, the research undertaken and insights presented by PR teams is laughable. Most of them would not even know how to frame appropriate questions for a consumer survey in a manner that brings out the desired insights.

The key to changing the PR approach is to inculcate analytical skills among PR practitioners. If it means that PR firms and in-house PR teams need to hire account planners, analysts and statistics graduates, so be it.

The consolidation among advertising firms provides an excellent opportunity to hire account planners and marketing research experts. Many global PR firms have already begun setting up data analytics departments and imparting such skills to the larger teams. However, the model is still being tested at a hub level without having penetrated into markets.

Unless PR practitioners begin to actively seek and generate data (by commissioning surveys if necessary), understand data analysis and develop the ability to derive stakeholder insights, they will find it increasingly difficult to enhance their own perception with clients, in general and client senior management, in particular.  

 So, for the PR practitioners, the takeaways are:

  •  Don’t be overwhelmed by data. Identify the relevant pieces that validate one’s perspective/ opinion. And the same ‘boring’ data can be represented visually through an infographic which could make a press release more appealing. Be on the lookout for creative ways to represent data.
  • Being data literate is only the first step to developing analytical skills; another key step is to read, read and read in order to gather various perspectives and understand macro-level trends. Then build one’s own perspective based on trusted data source/s. One’s assessment should reflect in documents such as story pitches, opinion articles and in every form of client counsel. Analytical skills can truly position a PR practitioner as a consultant to the client.
  • Before conversing with a CEO, be armed with data-driven insights that help decipher relevant trends; without hard data, no arguments can convince a CEO.
  • Don’t be misled into believing that analytical skills will inevitably come with experience or with an MBA degree; the ability to decipher data needs to be cultivated on the job and preferably early in the career. 

If PR has to become a management function, it must learn to make sound data understanding its bedrock. So, next time you come across a piece of data, try to see if there exists an underlying trend relevant to your client. We’ve often been told to read between the lines, it’s now time to read between the data points.

This piece is reproduced from my byline with the same title appeared in dated April 14, 2014