India Needs a Communication Strategy

We have all watched with a mixture of upset and grudging admiration, the way Musharraf communicates to the world, via the media, far better than the way India does. While we clearly don't want to be like him or say the same things as him, surely an equally forceful, equally unambiguous, equally engaging and attention getting communication from India would help us in the eyes of the watching world?

We have a collective national disdain for what we call 'media warfare' and 'spin doctoring'. But it is a fact of life that communication received through the idiot box today shapes perceptions of not only idiots but of wise men, as well. And shapes views not only on the issue at hand but leaves a residual impression about the brand that is talking, which in turn shapes the way future communication from the brand is received. Think about the communication from America post September 11th. We may have a lot of disagreements about their specific positions on specific issues, and a lot of disappointments about the abandonment of objectivity by the US television media (who sometimes do seem like a glitzier version of Doordarshan in the old days!) But we cannot but admit that their position and 'brand personality' comes across with sledgehammer force and focus.

Contrast this with the way India communicated after the recent attack on our Parliament. While cover pages of magazines later screamed that India was 'outraged', the entire first round of communication that went out from India, via television, was wishy washy and meandering, to say the least. An interesting device is used by advertising folks to check what the total communication emitted as a result of all the television advertising and PR done for the brand over a year is. They take all the bits and pieces of communication, check how many people received each piece, and edit it into a 10 minute 'weighted by audience' communication capsule. Viewing the capsule then provides an easy to assimilate picture of what was beamed to consumers as a result of one year and millions of dollars. Was there a story at all? Was it clear and coherent? Did it leave behind a sharp residual impression of brand personality? Or was it a confusing array of images and messages that made no impact? If we did this exercise for communication emanating out of India, after the attack on Parliament, I suspect that we would get a very fuzzy picture. Was India communicating 'scared'? "Outraged'? "Philosophic'? 'Will avenge itself'? "Will wait and watch'? "cautious and mature'? All of the above? None of the above? In the 10 minute 'weighted by foreign audience' communication capsule, we will have at least 3 minutes of the Minister for Parliamentary Affairs saying that it is particularly significant and very clear that while the rest of the world had called this a terrorist attack, Pakistan's president had called it an armed intrusion. What exactly was he communicating about India's stand on this whole thing? What was our media communicating to the world about how India felt and what India was thinking, and how she would act? What was the residual impression created about India's 'brand personality'?

I am not going to quibble about the right or wrong of India's communication strategy. I just want to be reassured as a concerned citizen that (1) we have a communication strategy which is clear and coherent, (2) that it is not a well kept state secret but made known to all those who put out communication on the subject (including our television media and everyone who faces the TV cameras to air his or her opinion on the subject) and (3) that some thought and training is given to all concerned on how to execute against the strategy. Spin doctoring? Maybe that's one word to use. I prefer 'proactive perception management' as a way to think about this.

Does perception matter? Of course it does. Many of us have been in a situation where we saw an intrinsically good candidate being passed up by the interview panel, despite all his virtues, because he communicated so poorly. (I am told that the word for this is 'underwhelming', the opposite of 'overwhelming'.) And then, there is the good candidate that you wanted to hire but hesitated to, because he communicated profusely, but inconsistently, signaling different things about himself at different points in time, and in the process, came across as confused. The same applies to brands with badly designed communication. Either no one takes them seriously because they don't make a clear and forceful statement about themselves, or they send out so many different values and personality signals, that people wonder for a while what they are all about, and abandon the effort to figure it out.

I am suggesting that an India Perception Management cell be created, which strategically manages the India brand perception, so that we influence the world in terms of how they see us, rather than feel 'had', later. As with all good sounding ideas, this one too has a fatal flaw - how on earth will it get implemented? I once heard a speech by Dewang Mehta who said that India's successes in IT and Beauty were because these were the two areas where we did not have a ministry! Maybe the CII along with the advertising / public relations / market research fraternity can take this on? Maybe the answer is not to create a managing entity but to create an opinion wave, do surveys about how our communication is received abroad, provide customised feedback and training to all concerned, so that being sensitised, they will do a better job when communicating about India to the world.

I think the good part here, is that there are no vested or conflicting interests. We are all on the same side. We as Indians, don't want to steal our own thunder and accept less than our entitlement -- warts and all, we still make a pretty picture and have a compelling story to tell for ourselves -- because we haven't managed our communication well. And we don't want the world either thinking that we don't know what we are doing, or that we are a lightweight, pushover nation. And we certainly don't want to, by default, speak in so many ways, that people around the world puzzle and say about us, to borrow from Ogden Nash, "tell me Octopus, I begs, which is arms and which is legs?"