Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The obsession with farmer suicides

The Press Council Chariman Justice Katju’s recent salvo has come over the front page coverage of actor Dev Anand’s recent demise. While Dev Anand’s demise may not have technically qualified for front page news, neither does farmer suicides (as was stressed upon by Justice Katju), particularly when there is little or no development in the issue. My piece on the Hoot stressed on this. It is reproduced below.

Farmer suicides and its poor coverage has become a favourite topic for the PCI chairman to reinforce the message of media’s insensitivity and warped priorities about news. Given the number of times Mr. Katju has mentioned this, either he has not understood why the media is unwilling/ unable to cover this issue or he knows something which the media does not. In either case, it is necessary we take a close look at the issue of farmer suicides.

A quick analysis of P. Sainath’s extensive coverage of farmer suicides in The Hindu reveals that debt is the key reason for these suicides. This debt is fuelled by three primary factors.

  1. Crop failure resulting in farmers borrowing from money lenders for their subsistence.
  2. Illness in the family resulting in loss of farm hands and consequently reduced productivity.
  3. Daughter’s wedding where dowry is an important component.

 At some level all these three factors need to be addressed by the government. Considering close to 70% of our economy is engaged in agriculture, it is the government’s job to make available alternate means of subsistence so that farmers are not driven to moneylenders. It is also the government’s job to provide access to quality healthcare for its citizens and ensure that any illness is curable and recovery is speedy. The government also needs to stress on women’s empowerment so that farmers are encouraged to educate their daughters and thus significantly reduce the burden of dowry.

What has the government done on all these aspects that the media can report about? Only two significant steps have been taken – providing farmers with seeds/ crops for free or at subsidized rates; and asking banks to waive farm loans. The impact of both these moves has been amply covered across business and general news media in the past.

Why then should the media cover farmer suicides repeatedly again when there is little development around the issue? How long should they harp on the same issues? Should we dedicate a portion of the newspaper or a segment of air time exclusively for farmer suicides and perhaps run the same stories because we have no new ones to discuss?

 While it is understood that media has a moral responsibility towards creating awareness about lesser known yet grave issues, it is largely a private enterprise and must be allowed to function as one, keeping in mind its readers and business prospects. To expect front page news to focus on a particular issue is just short of deciding what other news should go on the front page.

 If the PCI has serious intentions to sensitise the media about the key issues facing in the country, it should take the lead in working with the government to provide incentives to the media to publicise such causes as the farmer suicides. For starters the PCI needs to draw up a list of issues that can be considered serious enough for sustained reporting. To ensure that news organisations cover those issues some of the following incentives can be extended to them:

  1. Subsidy on newsprint – The so-called irresponsible (frivolous) section of the newspaper is often responsible for bringing in profits. Advertorials, news on companies and entertainment is what earns revenues from clients, not news on farmer suicides (unfortunately). Should organizations get a subsidy on newsprint, they would be happy to dedicate a page to farmer suicides and if possible hire dedicated correspondents in rural India.
  2. Tax waivers for news organizations that can show an annual coverage of a certain number of hours or inches of space towards critical issues. 
  3. Scholarships for journalists from those newspapers to pursue certificate courses and formal education on covering niche issues such as farmer suicides. Most correspondents of foreign media have undergone such courses before extensively covering key issues such as rural affairs, military and politics. 
  4. Travel grants for journalists to enable them to cover these critical issues. 
  5. Recognition for the media house based on the quality and quantity of reporting of grave issues.

 The current criticism against the media does not take into account one fact – the readers choice. Do urban Indians (or rural ones for that matter) want to read/ watch depressing news all the time? India’s former President APJ Abdul Kalam once recollected how an Israeli newspaper had decided to stop focusing on war [with Palestine] (considered the most critical issue in Israel’s existence then) and chose instead to cover success stories around agriculture, technology, medicine and livelihoods in general. The idea was to give hope to people that amidst all the conflict, there could be happiness. Today Israel is green and at the forefront of biotechnology and computing.

The Indian media is doing this in its own way by balancing soft, positive news and hard, depressing news. In that process, if it chooses to momentarily ignore the depressing news, should it be seen as being ignorant? Is it proven that constantly bombarding the news with negative , depressing pieces sees positive response from the government and changes the victims’ lives for the better?

Moral responsibility and moral obligation are two different things. The Indian media has a moral responsibility to its readers and not a moral obligation. Perhaps it is time the PCI chief realized this.

Friday, December 9, 2011

FDI in retail: Reportage and the Bill seem to be heading no where

Since the issue on allowing 51% FDI in retail was announced early this month, there has been a bipolar view of the issue with the media making no efforts to explore alternatives. In a bid to remain unbiased, the media seems to be reporting on the FDI issue without realising how the reportage is adding little value to the readers/ viewers.
My piece in The Hoot highlights this. It is reproduced below.
The Indian media seems to have made it a habit to promote cacophony and frenzy in emerging political situations with little attempt to independently analyse the scenario. The FDI in retail issue is no different. While one heard positive things about it last week, this week has begun on a negative note with parties doing an about turn and retail entities voicing “concerns” over the initiative. Amidst this yo-yo-ing, does the common man have scope to discover the real dangers (and potential benefits) of this executive decision? Not if the manner of reporting on this issue continues.

There are three fundamental gaps in the media’s coverage of the issue. For starters, there is no independent analysis of the various opinions shared by politicians, industry bodies and private parties. Almost every story is carefully crafted to include an opinion followed by three key reasons substantiating that opinion. The journalist fraternity seems to have been so busy collecting and appending these opinions that they did not have the time to question some of these points to elicit a reaction. If they did, those portions seem to have been too insignificant to include in the report. As a result most stories now read like school essays containing a “Pros” and “Cons” section followed by a conclusion which is so generic that it could have been avoided. Some of the smarter reports have stopped with just propagating one opinion.

Is FDI in retail a new topic? No. Is there dearth of international material on what have been the consequences of such a move in other countries? No. A google search on ‘FDI in retail China’ showed that there has been positive impact of opening up retail in China. There are several other documents such as this presentation that indicates how FDI in retail in India can be introduced in phases and how it will benefits all stakeholders. When there is such a wealth of information available, why are journalists sticking to cliché’s and not exploring possibilities?

Is FDI in retail a black and white issue? Do we have only two options – to accept it or reject it? Is there no third perspective that can suggest if this decision can be modified to suit the interests of all stakeholders? While political parties may foist their straight-jacketed views upon journalists, do journalists not get curious and seek a third alternative?

This is the second gap in reportage – The absence of a third view that seeks to consider all interests. If the government or any other entity has such a view, it has not been sought by the media. In a democracy there are multiple solutions to every issue as was evident by the Supreme Court’s decision on the Ayodhya case, which left just about everyone stumped. I am sure finding alternate solutions to FDI in retail (considering that this is hitherto untainted by religious color) would be simpler. Talking to some retailers on how they want to tackle these fears of monopoly could have generated good ideas. Some suggestions on how the decision can be amended can include – retailers tying up with Indian/ foreign infrastructure players to build the back end supply chain infrastructure; setting development benchmarks for the regions from where procurement happens (this will ensure that farmers are not cheated out of their produce); limiting retail outlets to those parts of cities and towns with relatively less development (so as to grow that region); retailers to hire and train locals; and incentives for retailers supporting green practices.

The third gap noticed in coverage was the absence of a Vox-Populi (people’s voice). Reports have hardly sought people’s opinions to develop an independent perspective on the issue. While I read about Anju from Jammu and how she is comfortable with the existing retail system, I did not read about how the current stand will impact (if at all) her retail experience. Her opinion on the issue is cursorily sought and tied to a common sentiment - “if something is working, why tear it apart?” What about talking to the urban Indian who has experienced malls and hypermarkets? Or those who have shopped abroad at Wal-Mart? That will perhaps bring out three perspectives – The urban Indians want FDI; those in towns perhaps don’t care; and villagers fear job and loss of income if FDI is passed. Each of these perspectives can be explored to holistically build the pros and cons of FDI in retail and suggest possible amendments to the current executive decision.

A classic example of sensitizing people to the woes (and benefits) of a situation is by following P. Sainath’s work on farmer suicides. Similar stories across the retail supply chain can sensitise people to the pros and cons of the FDI in retail.

India is known as a country of shopkeepers. An issue impacting their livelihoods needs more definitive coverage.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Insider Reports : Baby Bachchan is delivered. Whew!

The broadcast media supposed refrained from covering the Bachchan baby’s delivery. What they did not cover was more than compensated for by the rampant reporting by their online divisions. The Hot featured my piece on this (http://www.thehoot.org/web/home/story.php?storyid=5597&mod=1&pg=1&sectionId=1&valid=true). For those who could not open the link, I have reroduced it below -
When electronic media decided to go easy on the Bachchans by excluding Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s delivery from news coverage, their online divisions went to town with a literal minute by minute analysis of the situation (considering the lack of any updates to report).

In the last one week, there have been over 4.3 Lakh mentions of the delivery. Of this, 601 stories were reported by leading news portals. From the speculation of the baby’s birth date being 11.11.11, hospital visits by the actress, fake news of the birth, betting on Baby B and the manner of birth, everything was covered the way a national crisis would be. Some portals even posted pictures of the family reportedly checking in to the hospital, perhaps in a bid to outdo the competition.

While the BEA Guidelines (Broadcast Editor’s Association) sought responsible and sensitive coverage, they seem to have turned a blind eye to the online divisions of their channels which participated in the coverage frenzy. Did the BEA not anticipate that such a loophole could be taken advantage of? Or were these guidelines issued to merely to pacify the new PCI Chief’s tirade against broadcasting celebrities and fashion? Surprisingly, while these guidelines were widely reported by the media, the BEA website itself carried no information on this.

For starters, the 10 point-guideline, as reported by the media, was shallow. No news organization highlighted this, possibly because they were in the midst of chasing the bigger story – Baby B’s birth. Let us analyse some of the guidelines that were reported.

1. No pre-coverage of the event – How do you define Pre-coverage? The broadcast media (and its online portals) have been actively reporting the Bachchan pregnancy since it was announced in June.

2. The story of the birth and baby to be run after official announcement from the family – Considering everything from what Aishwarya ate and wore to when she was admitted in the hospital was covered, what would be left of “the story of the birth”? The baby would obviously have to be born before anyone reported about its birth. As for official communication, only tweets sent by the father and grandfather were used in the news reports. Since when have we started considering tweets as official announcements? In the past there have been several instances of celebrity tweets being “mis-interpreted” by the media leading to “formal” clearing up of the air at press conferences.

3. No outdoor broadcast vans to be placed outside the hospital – The lady is not having her delivery in a government hospital. She has opted for a private fortress of a hospital in the full knowledge that 17 acres of land surrounded by considerable security and a massive entrance, will not allow any clear visuals for broadcast on TV. Even if one was to shoot the story via helicopter, they wouldn’t get visuals. Had OB vans been allowed outside the hospital, would journalists do a live broadcast of her admission to the hospital at 11:30 pm? Mostly not, considering it is way past prime time.

4. TV Channels can go for photos ops only if invited by the Bachchans – Unless you are signing an exclusive deal with a magazine for the rights of certain pictures, or want to be in the bad books of certain media, there is no way you can be selective about inviting the media. The Bachchans, having done it once before for the Abhi-Ash marriage, would rather not call any media than be selective. In that case, the Indian papparazzi would resort to other means to get pictures, like they normally do with any celebrity.

5. Channels to not run any astrology shows related to 11.11.11 – How absurd is this? What has 11.11.11 got to do with Baby B? We did not have a similar guideline banning astrology shows on 10.10.10 and nor will we have one for 12.12.12. Why this?

6. TV Crews and Cameras to leave the venue after 15 minutes of the event - What would be the event in question? A glimpse of Baby B or an interview with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan? Who will ensure the media leaves on time? The guidelines specifically says this is a self regulating measure to avert greater tragedy/ disaster and reference was made to coverage of the Ayodhya issue and the demise of Mohammed Azharuddin’s son. But Baby B’s birth is a happy occasion. Is it realistic to expect that the media would remain on ground only for 15 minutes? After all, the media would want to get some candid pictures also.

The biggest question remains – why were these guidelines issued specifically for the Bachchan family? Why not introduce better guidelines for general reporting? After all everyone’s dignity and privacy needs to be protected – be it the Bachchan bahu or India’s symbolic seven billionth child Nargis or a rape victim.

The problem with guidelines is that they show no clear benefit for the organizations complying with them. Their non-enforceable nature means that they are ignored in a bid to keep the organization as competitive as its peers. Because guidelines are not enforceable, they are vague and hence no one takes them seriously.

The solution is to ensure that the editorial and the advertising/ business divisions sit together and take a call on how they want to conduct themselves. Internal guidelines must be developed and these must be stricter, and clearer than those issued by external bodies. Moderation in coverage can be best met by self-regulation.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Earful!: Lessons from the Bachchan Baby

There are those try to be celebrities. Others have celebrity-dom thrust on them. And then there is the Bachchan baby (already christened Baby B). This one is for those of you who want to retain the spotlight without appearing cheesy. In other words, the art of telling all without actually saying anything.
1. Go reclusive – A good half year before your event (whatever that might be), stop going anywhere public or private. Avoid parties and get a pal or parent to say how reclusive you have become of late. Gentlemen, do promote that facial hair growth and get a scowl, it adds to the brooding image. Ladies, what can I say? You can pick any of the following options – turning up without makeup, wearing the same dress three times in a row, mimic Kangana Ranaut from Fashion, keep looking at the exit door or your cell phone and look through people. If none of that works, start a conversation about “How you don’t feel like talking these days…” or “How you feel tired all the time…”.

2. Use social media to go asocial – Talk to your family and friends by tweeting once in a day. The most obscure the tweet, the better. Take a cue from Big B’s “Another day of waiting..But yet again.. The lord had his ways…” Considering there are just 140 characters to mess with, start with “What a day! Don’t know where to begin…” As you master this game, you will realize you can keep repeating the same messages in a loop without anyone noticing…(Psst –It might be worthwhile looking through Big B’s tweets for ideas, avoid Shahid Kapoor’s Mausam outburst though)

3. Show, don’t tell – Assuming you have followed points 1 and 2, start making fleeting appearances and don’t speak a word. Let the public put together a morose look and a tweet that says “Feeling tired”. The lesser you show the better. Aishwarya appearing at Manyata Dutt’s Mata ki Chowki for 20 minutes led to the breaking news of her having twins. Or Rani Mukherjee appearing at the Durga Puja pandal in a saree and big red bindi, looking like a resplendent Bengali housewife, leading to rumours of her marriage. Well, what do you care? This kind of sensational stuff will withstand a week of you not tweeting.

4. Get quirky – Ask whoever you meet (hopefully this should be just parents and close pals) to get you weird stuff, like pencils or a night lamp. The fact that you no longer use these items but are now asking for it, will arouse interest. Did Aishwarya Rai not ask for Dhokla and Dahi Vada – all to satiate the hunger of the twin babies?. Didn’t we hear that Aamir Khan had lost his marbles and was sporting a weirdly criminal hairstyle before Ghajini released? What about Imran Khan’s often talked about “wicked humour” on the sets? Quirkiness is the way to go

5. Make the friends talk – We all know how reverently the media looks at celebrities’ “close friends” as news sources. Before D-Day arrives, make sure to start sharing different info with different friends. That way the media will fall over one another to keep breaking news every 30 minutes. Enterprising journalists may actually feed you fodder for further news. Remember the frenzy when 11.11.11 happened? Multiple stories on Baby B were generated – of the twins being born on this date, the BEA issuing guidelines allegedly upon Big B’s request, astrologers talking about Baby B, Seven Hills hospital’s nurses featuring in the news etc etc. If you want a simpler case to understand, how about Anushka Sharma crying hoarse that she was not seeing Ranveer Singh, followed by news of his trying to date Sonakshi Sinha, followed by news of how she was avoiding him? What are friends for if they don’t help you succeed in your objective?

What do you do after all these steps have been followed diligently and met with success? For that, we will have to wait for the first pictures of Baby B.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Insider Reports: Ra.One - the role of media in its failure

I was looking forward to watching Ra.One until I saw Enthiran (albeit half way - due to some technical issues). Since then I have wondered what response the film would garner. Thanks to the barrage of reviews, now I know. As Shah RukhKhan got pulverized for everything he did (and did not do) in the film, I wondered if he is the prime reason for the fate of the film. On introspection, I realised, perhaps not. Who is?

The Hoot published my views on http://www.thehoot.org/web/home/story.php?storyid=5580&mod=1&pg=1&sectionId=14

I am reproducing the content here in case the link does not open.

Two weeks ago, the much awaited film Ra.One released to mixed reviews. It faced criticism from popular film critics such as Rajeev Masand, Saibal Chatterjee, Raja Sen, Mayank Shekhar and Baradwaj Rangan, despite all the publications they write for carrying positive pre-release news over the last three years on the various facets of the film. Even after breaking box office records, the movie is still not being called a hit. This is a confusing outcome for the public who relied on print and online publications to gauge if they should watch the film. The media should perhaps introspect whether it promoted a poor product and misled the public.

When a product is heavily marketed, especially through editorials in media firms of repute, consumers tend to try it with a positive mindset. In case the product turns out to be bad, the disappointment is a tad bit more because the consumer trusted the media’s judgment of the product. Ra.One is no different. People awaited the movie with anticipation mainly owing to the media’s extensive coverage prior to its release. Had the media been more prudent, the public would have perhaps watched the film with realistic expectations.

Even before the film went on the floors, the media began discussing it. Since then every aspect of the film has been widely discussed without even seeing one screen shot. The actors finalized for the film, director, production spends, visual effects, story line, involvement of Hollywood technicians, release dates and rivalry – everything was reported with little scrutiny.

Is so much information necessary, considering most of this is nothing short of hear-say? Does the reader need to know that around Rs 150 crore was spent on a film? I don’t think so because it raises their expectations from the film and makes them want to see it as soon as possible contributing to the “initial” that the film rakes in. In case the reporter deems it necessary to quote such figures, he/she should also ask how the increased investment will translate into better experience for the viewer and whether such extravaganzas have paid off in the past. That would bring balance to the piece.

Post the movie’s release, publications that contributed to the hype around the film, pulverized it. For example, The Times of India has published two conflicting reports on Ra.One – One mentioning how the special effects have set a new benchmark for Indian film industry and another saying how the special effects fizzled out. What can one make of such reportage?

Some may argue that a film is a mass entertainment product and scrutiny into its business aspects are best avoided. I would differ on this point. In an age where film production houses are increasingly getting publicly listed, as also many have been discovered to have unscrupulous sources of funding, it becomes important for the public to become aware of where they are putting their money – even if it means shelling out a measly Rs 300 for a first day first show. Financial newspapers are already reporting on such data pertaining to film businesses. Why would film journalists want to go soft?

A film should be treated like any other consumer product. While covering products in any other industry, reporters do not quote unverified figures pertaining to investments in product development or discuss the product’s features without trying them out. Similarly, it is flawed to discuss any technical/ visual/ performance related aspects of a film without seeing a single shoot schedule or a rough cut.

Reporters covering the media and entertainment industry need ask questions that seek to provide a balanced perspective of their subjects. Not merely mouth the lines spewed by the actors, directors or film publicists. While the film review post release can be restricted to a critique of its storyline or acting or visual quality, one can ensure that other coverage can include aspects such as:

A) The distribution strategy and box office collections – For eg: Ra.One was released across in 4,600 screens and that is a key reason for it raking up high collections (Rs 170 crore and counting). Bodyguard which released in 2,700 screens made less money (around Rs 130 crore) in the same period. This is fairly simple arithmetic – the more number of screens you release the film in, the more revenues it is likely to generate. Reporters should instead focus on whether such a strategy is viable for long term and point out instances of other films where a cost effective distribution strategy has helped generate similar revenues. A case in point is 3 Idiots, which was released across a little over 2,000 screens and grossed over Rs 100 crore in the first four days.

B) Funding for films – When a film is made for public consumption, the public perhaps can be allowed to know how the film was sourced.

C) Project management of the film – Does the consumer really care if the project overshot its budget? I would like to draw comparisons with the Commonwealth Games here. The public perception of the games was poor due to the media’s coverage of the financial mismanagement and poor quality of infrastructure. In contrast, the public perception of the recently concluded Formula One event was positive because the management reported on the milestones from time to time and there were no reports on any budget overshoots or completion delays. Both these events are focused on public entertainment. When media coverage in both these cases can shape public opinion, is the same not possible with films?

Marketers will oversell products which don’t necessarily live up to their praise. However, the media must moderate whatever it publishes so that the public is not blatantly pushed towards consuming such products. How should media houses ensure that they don’t contribute to the hype surrounding films? Some of the following aspects can be considered.

The editorial must keep a tab on the number of stories it publishes pertaining to a film. This will ensure that only notable developments get covered and the quality of stories is retained. Additionally an arrangement can be reached with the advertising department of the publication to strictly not seek any favors from the editorial for biased publicity.

A strict policy needs to be developed on what aspects of a film will be covered prior to its release. Aspects bordering on speculation such as spats between the co-stars, leakage of storylines and budgets need to be clarified from multiple sources before validating if it is worthwhile to report on it.

Reporters must be cautious of films produced/ ghost produced by the lead actors as in such cases it becomes difficult to draw a line between the acting and production capabilities and hence evaluate both roles objectively. For eg: in Dabangg, the film’s production capabilities were compared to that of the lead actor Salman Khan’s ability to produce blockbusters. In case of Ra.One, reporters were seldom able to report on Red Chillies Entertainment (the production house) without reporting on Shah Rukh Khan.

Greater scrutiny of the film business is necessary so that film makers judiciously use the media for their promotions. In addition to some of the questions listed earlier in this piece, publications can try to randomly pick a layperson from the public and provide a joint review of the film. Alternatively, a movie buff can be asked to contribute a blog on any technical aspects of the film which the reporters are unfamiliar with. These measures will ensure that any bias by the reporter is suitably balanced by the public representative.

Reporting on films and the entertainment industry is difficult and often subjective. However, with proper guidelines in place, the media can give the public an informed perspective.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Office – Office: Performance Evaluation

There are only a handful of activities that every HR team is passionate about. Performance evaluation is one such rabid activity.
The lame corporate employee thinks of this no differently than a pay per use toilet – You pay (in this case fill up numerous similar looking forms) and get relief (promotion/ increment/ bonus). In many cases, you realize the toiler is far too dirty and decide to hold in the relief. Corporate life is no different – those who cannot navigate through the maze of office politics do not get any relief, sorry promotion/ increment/ bonus.
However, the HR professional sees this exercise as no different from organizing and attending a an elite Carnatic music show. The pre-event buzz is created by handing out pamphlets, offering refresher courses and ensuring that the employee knows the last day for submitting completed forms.
As the show begins, HR makes itself inaccessible. Those junior HR team members who are available on their mobile phones are chided for being upstarts (much like the septuagenarians "Shhhh"-ing the 20-something making remarks about the Tambura being out of tune).
Once the completed forms are submitted to the HR team, there is a freeze on activity, much like how it is when Aruna Sairam or Hariharan take their singing to the next stage. A month or two later – results are announced. Some get relief, many don't. Questions are asked and a debate ensues akin to one that goes on the lines of "Who showed better ragam tanam pallavi – Santhanagopal or Gurucharan?" ensues.
Predictably, there is no conclusion to such debates. Performance evaluation is subjective, says the HR. "It depends on which peer group you were put in an evaluated against. Ratings are relative to the peer group. If you are unhappy, please take it up with your HR relationship manager." Spoken like a true rasika without any conclusive opinion!
Needless to say, the HR relationship manager shows little more than sympathy for your situation urging that you escalate any unfairness to the HR Committee (incidentally no one knows who are the members of this committee, much like the committee that chooses which artists will feature in the Kutcheri season). Like all mail boxes, you receive no response from the committee.
Before long truth dawns – Nothing can be done. And like the faithful rasika who doesn't get tickets to the Kutcheri season, you look forward to the next season and hope you get lucky.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Insider Reports: Media outside its comfort zone

Should media houses lend their brand name to activities which they cannot positively influence? I was prompted to ask myself this question upon seeing the results of the recently concluded ET Young Leader’s program. Leadership has become a stereotype that is often associated with a business suit, degrees from ivy-league institutions and sporting an elitist attitude. The ET merely promoted this stereotype instead of taking a more holistic perspective like the media often takes on other issues. My piece, co-authored with husband, appeared in the Hoot. The link is as follows


For those who unable to read the link, here is the full piece –

Last weekend results of the much hyped ET Young Leaders program were telecast announcing 22 leaders, all of who would be eligible to enroll for short term executive programs from the Indian School of Business (ISB). On closer observation, the results turned out to be disappointing. The program had picked candidates who fit the stereotypical version of leadership.

Why did Economic Times, a market leader itself and one that has time and again identified unconventional leaders and given them their fair share of exposure, allow such skewed results? Was ET merely associating with this program to drive visibility, mileage and potential revenues?

While there have been many commendable corporate backed programs aimed at finding leaders (such as The Aditya Birla Scholarship and the Tata Smart Manager program), The Economic Times is the first Indian media to undertake such a corporate focused initiative. Predictably the program generated much interest, primarily because one expected the media’s perception of a corporate leader to be different (and broader) from the corporate perception of a leader.


 The results, however, re-iterated what the CAT exam- B-School- Corporate nexus has always told us – that to be a leader it is important to have studied at a Tier I B-School and to be working in a Tier 1 company in a leading industry. (For more details please see the end of the piece).

For a brand like ET to promote such myopic thinking, does not augur well. The media in India has shaped people’s opinions, given voice to those not heard by the establishment, and identified heroes from unconventional backgrounds. In this case, ET seems to have merely promoted the corporate belief of leadership and not taken a greater role in monitoring the selection process and including candidates from diverse backgrounds to ensure all forms of leadership are promoted.

This brings us to the much debated question – Should media houses lend their brand name to initiatives that they cannot positively influence?


 A quick analysis of the leading English news organisations from the around the world indicates that many organizations lend their brand name to only those initiatives that are in some way aligned to their core business or where they have subject matter expertise. Common initiatives include:

1. Events/ Conferences - Many news organizations lend their brand to events which they sponsor as a way to create greater awareness of the issues impacting their readers. Leading journalists from the organization are invited as speakers to facilitate and drive meaningful discussion and ensure that the lesser heard voices are heard. The topics discussed are often familiar to the journalist and could be widely reported by him/her.

A case in point is the Economist, which organizes conferences to bring policy makers, businesses and citizens together for a common cause. Another example is the American City Business Journals Group, which has around 40 newspapers focused on small and medium businesses, and holds breakfast events to help connect small businessmen with speakers they would like to hear from. The organization uses its relationships and/or influence to get those speakers who are otherwise inaccessible to its readers.

2. Blogs – This is a common section today in most news organization websites where journalists, eminent personalities as well as readers can post their views. At times, issues emerging from such blogs have found their way into news. Seattle based Post- Intelligencer, in fact stopped brining out its newspaper and changed it business model to blog-based aggregation of news where reporters in combination with bloggers provide extensive news coverage.

3. Job sites – The Economist recently started a job site that specially focuses on recruitment in sectors such as Development sector, international public sector, NGO, Academia, Humanitarian and charity jobs. This reflects the jobs advertised in the print version of the magazine and gives an opportunity for many job providers to take their advertisements online to reach a larger audience. Most general news dailies either have an online section that lists the jobs which have appeared in the print editions or have a separate division that runs a job site.

In India, quiz contests are a popular activity for news organizations to promote. Quiz contests are aligned to a newspaper’s core competence – sharing knowledge. Many a time, most of the questions can come from reports / features in the newspaper. The Hindu Group sponsors two Quizzes – The Young World Quiz and the Business Line Ad Club quiz. Business Today till recently used to run a Quiz (and a Debate) competition for B-school students and corporates called ‘The Acumen’. The entire quiz planning and execution is outsourced to specialist third parties to ensure independence. Only the event funding and part of the prize money is provided by these organizations. Incidentally, ET has been organizing the Brand Equity Quiz competition, hosted by Derek O’Brien for 20 years now.

What comes closest to the ET Young Leader’s program is The Hindu MetroPlus Theatre Festival. The festival has looked beyond the National School of Drama and its alumni and picked lesser known talent from amateur theatre and given them an opportunity to enter professional theatre. By doing this, it has indicated that talent and leadership in theatre can be found outside of professional institutions.

Does the ET Young Leaders programme have similar potential to identify less known leaders? It does, provided it takes greater interest in broadening the scope of the program to give confidence to a wider range of youngsters to compete and win. Merely outsourcing all elements of the process will not help.

For now, ET has in some way benefited from the Young Leaders Programme. It now has a database of young achievers and future business decision makers (those who registered for the programme) who it can target for selling other initiatives/ products. It also has strengthened contacts with potential big ticket advertisers, namely the companies that the winners and panel of leaders represent. Given the business savvy minds at work in the ET’s corporate office, one cannot rule out a televised version of the ET Young Leader’s Programme in the coming years.

   ET Young Leader’s Program – Highlights
  • 22 leaders were identified, all of who would be eligible to enroll for short term executive programmes from the Indian School of Business
  • Two thirds of the winners come from just three industries – Financial services (5 winners), management consulting (5 winners) and FMCG (4 winners). 
  • 17 out of the 22 winners are employed at leading firms in their respective industries (ITC, IBM, McKinsey, Dr. Reddy’s Labs etc), where there are many such talent recognition and grooming programs.
  • Over two-thirds of the winners have an MBA degree from a tier I B-school (including 7 from IIMs, 2 from ISB and 1 from XLRI). – Source: http://www.linkedin.com/
  • Over one-third of winners have a sale and marketing background while there are few winners from finance and IT functions and none from human resources.
  • There was only one winner in each of these sectors – public relations, retail, telecom, construction and engineering, pharmaceuticals and health care.
  • The programme was monitored by a panel of 8 industry stalwarts – Anand Mahindra (Mahindra and Mahindra), D Shivakumar (Nokia), Harsh Mariwala (Marico), Kalpana Morparia (ICICI), Nitin Paranjpe (HUL), Pramod Bhasin (formely Genpact), Vineet Nayar (HCL) and Adil Zanulbhai (McKinsey). Incidentally, more than a majority of the 22 winners are either from the companies that these stalwarts represent, or from their alma mater.
  • The assessment for the ET Young Leaders program does not take into consideration results (as achieved by one in the course of their employment) in the preliminary levels of the selection process. The program assesses job competency, personality, verbal and numeric reasoning and only looks at results through group tasks and role play at the penultimate stage of the program.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Insider Reports: For Anna or against him? Do I have a choice?

Should the media always take a stand on every issue? At the end of my first journalism class one message was drilled into my head - "Journalists report. They do not give opinion." While I have considered this sacrosanct and tried to support views with facts for every story I have written, most of the media fraternity today seems to think it is their birth right to voice their views.
Media reporting of the Anna Hazare campaign is testimony to that. My piece in the Hoot attempts to highlight this new trend. The piece can be read at http://www.thehoot.org/web/home/story.php?storyid=5458&mod=1&pg=1&sectionId=1&valid=true.

Those who are unable to read it, please find the complete version below:
The Indian English media (mainly TV), perhaps influenced by the American media, seems to want to take sides on every issue worthy of public consumption. Covering the Anna Hazare campaign has been no different. Every prominent English news channel has resorted to taking sides on the issue to such an extent that journalists are falling short of putting words in the mouths of the guests they interview. The frenzy on news shows could rival the emotions on display at the Ram Lila grounds.
A glance at the reportage of the last 10 days indicates that most news organisations felt compelled to take a stand on the issue, perhaps without adequate thought over whether this was sustainable.
CNN IBN's Karan Thapar in his last interview with Digvijaya Singh on the JanLokPal Bill in April, conducted a fact based interview that was surprisingly devoid of any frenzy. Perhaps Mr. Thapar for once did not want to take sides? Or was he going gentle on Singh because he, like Singh, believed that the Anti-Corruption movement would not reach the proportions as it has today?
Then Thapar hosted a show on Aug 19th to analyze the media reporting of the Anna Hazare Campaign. Perhaps taking a cue from the discussion there, which indicated that the media had made Anna Hazare an icon without attempting to delve deeper into the issue that he was standing for, Thapar launched an Anti-Anna tirade in his show Devil's Advocate on August 21st. He attacked (which is now considered his style) Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan with questions whose answers were available in the Indian constitution and in the beginnings of the Anna Hazare movement in December last year.
 To make up for the lack of thought-provoking questions, Thapar kept interrupting Kejriwal and Bhushan while they tried to respond to him. From taking a neutral (almost disinterested stand) in April to going anti-Anna now, I am not sure if taking sides was necessary.
NDTV's Barkha Dutt on her program We The People on Aug 21st attempted to re-establish that the Anna Hazare campaign was a largely middle class driven movement. How this piece of information would help or disrupt the protests is unknown. However, instead of spending one hour debating on the issue, taking a look at the way the campaign has progressed would have yielded results. The movement encompasses the middle class and grass root society (those taking to protests on road, fasting and galvanizing others) as well as the upper middle class and elite (showing support via social media such as Twitter, Blogs and Face Book). Strangely, in April this year Dutt aired a two hour special show where through a Vox Populi she established that the LokPal Bill would change the lives of middle class Indians.
Had the Jan LokPal Bill progressed beyond the stage of protests, say for enactment or dismissal, Dutt's stand on Aug 21st, in retrospect, would have been fruitful in determining how public sentiment (or social strata specific behavior and attitudes) can mobilise a cause. That in turn, could provide some insights into consumer behavior for entities (media houses, government, corporates etc) to improve their relationship with the consumers. An example of this is the Enron scam in the United States that was extensively reported and garnered public sentiment for 'zero tolerance to fraud'. Post Enron, the US has seen good models of corporate governance emerge and increased conviction of cases involving white collar crime.
Times NOW took a clear pro-Anna stand with Arnab Goswami not taking kindly to any comments against the Anna Hazare campaign. His discussion with Abhishek Manu Singhvi basely accused the government of procrastination. Further on a debate titled 'Pro and Anti-Anna", when all panelists on the show agreed that perhaps galvanized by raw emotion people were failing to focus on the larger implication of what the Bill would achieve, Goswami accused them of being unable to empathise with middle class sentiments and hence the Anna Hazare campaign as since they were not from that strata of society. A news channel taking such an objection to individual (or perhaps collective) opinion is in bad taste.
Leading English language newspapers too have taken sides in the Anna Hazare campaign, albeit in a more dignified manner (perhaps the lack of a camera and a collar mike does make a difference).
On Anna's arrests, the New Indian Express said that democracy was defiled and covertly indicated that the government would have to pass the Jan LokPal Bill, in order to reverse the damage of reputation.
The Times of India was more restrained while the Hindu indicated that the UPA government was on its way out. The Statesman likened Anna Hazare's arrest to the government's cowardice and pronounced the Government's version of the LokPal Bill to be ineffective and one that would not deliver the results sought by the people.
Subsequent editorials have focused on the need for the government to get its act together and focus on dialogue with Team Anna.

What has this tangled mass of reportage resulted in? A friend recently told me his driver was wearing a 'support Anna' T-shirt. On being asked what he felt about the Jan LokPal Bill, the man answered, "That I don't know. But I know Anna is against corruption and so am I".
While the media reportage has largely focused on the Anna-Government stand-off and the manner of protests, it has not shown as much enthusiasm to peruse the nitty-gritty of the Bill itself. Aside from the points of discontent (such as the inclusion of the Prime Minister and the Judiciary), there has been little else highlighted.
Is this is the only Bill of its kind? What will be the real implications of this Bill from a law and order point of view? Would the scope of this Bill include NGOs, corporate and other entities? Will the enactment of this Bill negate the reasons for us to look at other existing legislation such as the Prevention of Corruption Act or the Prevention of Money Laundering Act? Aside from the Anna version and the Government version, could there be a third, more amenable and still as effective version of the Bill that can be enacted? Will India have the manpower to deal with cases brought to notice through such a Bill? What additional resources would we need to fulfill any gaps?
Such questions have largely gone un-debated. Perhaps a look at similar Ombudsmen provisions across the globe and their effectiveness would have helped develop a more holistic perspective. After all, many developed nations such as the Scandinavian countries, Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong have an Ombudsman with varying degrees of power. The effectiveness of such Ombudsmen is also well documented through annual reports at the respective websites.
The role of the media in a democratic nation is to make people more cognizant of issues, focus on facts and provide a variety of perspectives, irrespective of whether or not they agree with those perspectives. By focusing on only the means adopted for the protest, many senior commentators  such as Arundhati Roy seem to indicate that they have no opinion (and perhaps little knowledge) whatsoever on the contents of the Bill, leaving it for the likes of lawyers to comment upon.
It is the responsibility of news editors to pick and publish (or air) perspectives that are holistic and balanced. For every article that criticizes the way the protests are being conducted, there could be another that lauds that same. If someone supports one of the provisions of the bill, a report objecting to the same should also be voiced so that users are left to shape their opinions while being aware of both sides to an issue.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Earful!: Designer mint candy

Last night I saw a TVC for Polo mint. It was bizarre.

The punch line "The Mint with a hole" was missing.  The Ad had models walking up and down a makeshift ramp with the camera zooming in on the curves and clothes. At best it could have passed for a clothing retailer's Ad. And then I spotted him. Fashion designer Wendell Rodricks, doing a jig.

The next 10 seconds were a blur as the ramp quickly seemed to morph into a Polo packet of myriad colors.  Polo and Wendell?  Yes. Wendell Rodricks has designed the packaging for four new Polo flavours.  This is a first for Polo and certainly for Wendell who has been selective of his partnerships.

What does this mean for brand Polo and brand Wendell?

Let me tackle Polo first. It is widely acknowledged that consumers first buy a product and only then use it. Therefore a product needs to be attractively designed and packaged at the point of sale. But will revamping the design and packaging significantly alter mind share and market share for an item priced at Rs 5?

A look at the mint candy market will show that three primary product designs dominate– The sachet pack (Minto-Fresh, Mentos, Chlor-Mint), the stick pack (Polo) and the box (Tic Tac). Polo's stick pack and its colors (green and blue) have been integral to every Ad as they complete the experience of tasting a Polo candy. Now, the same stick pack has more colors on it, presumably signifying fun and merriment.

Do teenagers care for color? Considering this is not a cool item, perhaps not.  Will the flashy design attract young children? Maybe, if they went grocery shopping and realized Mommy wasn't looking. In that case, they would pick every color of candy on the shelves. The middle-aged are switching to Orbit gum.  And the old don't care much – with or without Wendell.

That brings us to Brand Wendell.

Fashion designers have, as a brand extension, often lent their names to allied ventures such as home furnishings (JJ Valaya), car interiors (Valentino for the Limited edition Lincoln Continental), Jewellery design (Rohit Bal for Kirtilal's), Bollywood costume design (Manish Malhotra, Sabyasachi Mukherjee) and photography (JJ Valaya). Few such as Versace have even designed Mobile phones. All these products reflect the style of the designer.  For instance, JJ Valaya's photography, much like his clothes, reflects the glory of a by-gone era.  

Wendell Rodricks' fashion is far from the garish stuff the models strutted in, in the Polo Ad. His style is defined by three key elements – fluid, earthy and natural. The Polo packaging reflected none of this.

Fashion designers have traditionally worked on limited number of pieces so as to enhance the brand value of the product through their inputs. By designing for Polo, Wendell has overturned this covert rule.  What did Wendell see in Polo? I am not sure. Is he looking at re-positioning himself as a colorful chap? I hope not.

It will be worthwhile to see if this advertising translates into sales.

While the Ad itself may not have impressed me, it brought back the question I have asked brand/ marketing managers many a time – Do you need a celebrity association to sell/ endorse you product?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Earful! : Diesel - Fuelling dreams in all sizes

 Size and cost have always mattered to Indians. Ask any uncle who retired from a government job and owns a Maruti 800 as old as his service. He will wistfully eye that "big" car, every time it passes by the house and know he will never buy it.


My dad is no different. For the last 3 years he has been wanting to dispose off our 10 year old Wagon R to fulfill his desire to buy a "big" car. What is stopping him, you ask? The cost of buying and running such a car. A litre of petrol will soon cost more than three square meals. If you are a pensioner just thinking about it could give you heart burn.


"Big" cars are big fuel guzzlers.  Many uncles spend most of their time in the mechanic shop trying to figure out how to get their midget sized cars on diet.  Try uttering the D (D for diesel) word and you will have woken the analyst in them. "Noisy" ,"Jerky", "Parts will get worn out", "tough to drive" and as an afterthought "ladies don't like," are some of the justifications given to conclude that a diesel vehicle is not a family car (unless your family includes poultry).  The truth of course is the reverse. They would all love to drive a diesel vehicle provided someone took care of the servicing.


A family friend recently offered my parents a lift in their brand new sedan. The 30-minute drive was "very nice" by my father's admission. And how was the diesel engine behaving, I asked. "DIESEL?", shrieked my dad, half out of fear and the other half out of shock. The man had not realized he was sitting in a diesel vehicle.  Many phone calls and an internet check revealed he had indeed traveled Diesel class.  What's more the family friend told him it needed no more services than a petrol vehicle and the power steering was gentle enough to respond to his wife's driving. What is more, you could stand away from the bleary eyed truck drivers and ask proudly for HSD (High Speed Diesel).


That was the turning point.


My dad has ever since found his poison. He talks about the "big" car with vigor, sans the zillion creases on his forehead. Not to be left behind, my uncle's 5 year old grandson talks of driving only buses, trucks and trains – all on HSD (or so he thinks). Not to be out done, Gen-X (or is it Y?) is buying diesel sedans by the dozen.  Our apartment complex alone must have half the diesel sedans made in Bangalore.  Even as you read, the Nissan Micra Diesel and Chevy Beat Diesel are being launched. I won't be surprised to see Tata Nano Diesel one day.


Diesel has arrived.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Insider Reports: News of the World scandal and why the media should consider getting corporatized

First it was the Niira Radia tapes where journalists did more than seek news. Then came the phone tapping scandal where News of the World reporters aimed at bettering the quality of their scoops by illegally tapping into the voice mail systems of a quite a few people - celebrities and otherwise. Is there no other way journalists can improve their craft?

My latest article in the Hoot outlines why it is time for the media to look at adapting some aspects of corporate culture inorder to gain the public's respect and evolve as professionals.

The story can be read at

In case the link above does not open, please see the gist of the story below:

Early this month, the News of the World, a British tabloid famed for exposing celebrity scandals closed down, ironically after being involved in a scandal. The Rupert Murdoch owned entity and some key journalists were charged with illicitly hacking into the voicemail messages of prominfent people in a quest to find exclusive stories. (Updates on the case can be read at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11195407 )

The episode bears resemblance to the Niira Radia tapes controversy that led to the 2G spectrum scam. The only critical difference being that none of the journalists associated with the Radia tapes were convicted, nor did they step down from their positions. The Indian courts chose not to scrutinize any stories reported by these journalists during the time period that these tapes were recorded, thus saving them from any charges.

The Radia tapes and the News of the World incidents saw questions raised on ethics in journalism, the nexus between politicians and journalists, and possible repercussions on the business of news. Sadly, no discussion focused on how these concerns could be practically addressed. Predictably, there has been little or no “repercussions”. Few media organizations issued apologies, even fewer journalists defended themselves. And business went on as usual.

To prevent such incidents becoming common place, it is essential that news (and views) organizations consider imbibing certain elements of corporate culture in their operations. The following are my suggestions to help build trust in our news.

1) Institutionalize an induction program – In my five years of exposure to leading English language print and television organizations, none have a formal induction program that takes recruits (freshers and experienced candidates alike) through topics such as the culture of the organization, best practices to be followed during news gathering, ways to collaborate with colleagues on stories, recommended sources for news gathering, ethics and media laws that can impact their careers. This should be followed with a test of their knowledge and understanding. Candidates failing to pass should not be allowed to work on any stories.

Currently, the onus of educating candidates is left to educational institutions, where some of these topics are dealt with to purely satisfy academic requirements. This ensures that future journalism professionals are not fully aware of the liabilities they can face. In one instance, my friend’s opinion piece published in a leading business daily was plagiarized by a 21-year old journalist (incidentally working for another leading daily) who changed a few words and published the piece under his name with no reference whatsoever to the original piece. When confronted, the piece was removed without any formal apology to the original author.

In comparison, organizations such as Infosys, Wipro and Accenture have induction programs lasting between 2 days to 15 days. Organizations working in high risk sectors or highly regulated industries such as financial services or healthcare usually conclude their induction programs with a series of tests so as to assess the readiness of the candidates to be put on the job. The widely publicized Infosys induction programme for freshers lasts between 2 months and 6 months and candidates are routinely assessed and eliminated based on their performance in these evaluations.

2) Considering ethics as part of the performance appraisal process – Performance appraisal remains a fairly unstructured process in many media organizations, with the final decision making in the hands of few senior journalists. While the number and quality of stories done by a journalist is a reasonable estimate of his/her capabilities, it is important to also include an element of ethics in the analysis. What are the sources considered by the journalist? Are any of these sources copyrighted? Has the journalist been open and honest with an individual he is intending to use as a source? Has the journalist sought permission from such individuals to quote them? Is he/she comfortable involving a colleague to add value to the story?

Although this seems like a tedious task, editors and chiefs of bureaux can make a start by randomly picking one story per journalist and analyzing such details. Any discrepancies can be noted and mentioned in the appraisal report.

The objective of such an exercise would be to demonstrate zero tolerance to unethical practices. Many news organizations, perhaps unknowingly, follow a similar process when it comes to investigative stories. Developing a robust approach to analyse all stories is therefore not undoable. Consequently, journalists would start seeking and saving tangible proof (emails, paperwork, recorded conversations etc) to back their stories.

Leading global firms operating in countries where the risk of corruption is high, have a stringent policy on ethics. Consulting firms are at the forefront of such activity. Recently, the global conglomerate Siemens started a programme whereby they would share ethical practices and warn other firms (including competitors) about the perils of doing business the wrong way (such as prosecution and loss of reputation). Additionally, all Siemens employees are periodically briefed about the program. Those facing the highest risk of being involved in unethical practices such as those in sales, procurement and other external facing roles are specifically evaluated based on their conduct.

3) Develop guidelines for seeking news - The only piece of advice I received to improve my reporting was a blog post shared by my boss. Written by John Heylar, then senior writer for ESPN, it was titled “Six Rules for the business writer’s craft” and listed some guidelines to source news so as to make your copy more interesting. Over the years I have honed my writing (and reporting) skills by reading many such gems of wisdom from blogs. Regrettably, none of the organizations I worked for had any such information in their archives.

For cub reporters the lack of such guidelines means going about the job in a haphazard manner and at best copying the way in which the boss writes/ reports. For seasoned journalists, this means limiting the scope of the story to familiar territory. In either case, the journalist’s evolution is stymied and eventually the quality of the organisation’s content is affected.

How can organizations develop such guidelines? Unfortunately there is no equivalent of a stylebook/ style guide to adopt. Organisations need to develop their own guidelines by talking to employees, fellow journalists and doing research. It can start as a series of short notes on topics such as what sources to avoid contacting, tips for better recording of interviews, how to use the internet for research and how to ask probing questions. Over time, these notes can be consolidated and compiled.

In stark contrast, many corporate firms in India have a knowledge management portal (part of the Intranet) that details aspects such as how to approach a client (database of client relationships), best practices in report writing, customised templates to make presentations and data sharing avenues (internal blogs focused on a problem area or a new solution, white papers, virtual discussions etc).

4) Rotation of journalists – The current industry norm is to align journalists to a beat. At best, most areas covered by the journalist would fall into one or two broad categories. For example, a journalist covering Financial Services would cover banking, insurance, NBFCs, personal finance, investment banks, mutual funds, etc. He would very rarely cover an area such as healthcare. Similarly another covering the municipality would rarely volunteer to cover a political rally or report on crime. This results in a journalist getting extremely comfortable with one beat, cultivating and using the same set of contacts for each story and eventually unwilling to collaborate with colleagues on larger stories. This comfort zone can make journalists extremely territorial and unwilling to question their modus operandi.

This can be avoided if a journalist is assigned two or more very different beats. This means for every beat there would be more than one person with varying levels of experience. When two or more people work on a similar beat, it becomes difficult to follow unethical practices to seek and close a story.

If assigning multiple beats per person is not feasible, then journalists must be rotated every 2-3 years to take on a different beat and transition the existing beat to their colleagues. This way the journalist remains keen to learn about new areas and puts in efforts to seek synergies/ linkages between various areas. (Eg: A former political beat reporter now reporting on economic issues can draw linkages say between inflation and political agenda, to make the story relatively more comprehensive).

The Tata Group follows this approach by rotating employees at least every 2 years to other divisions or sister companies. IBM does this every 18 months, while GE and the Mahindra Group have leadership development programmes where good performers are made to work in every major function for 6 months before deciding on where they would like to settle. Little wonder then that the rate of attrition at these companies is relatively low.

5) Acting on reader comments –  Corporations are built to make profits. To do this, they constantly engage with clients and seek feedback. The learning from every project/ client is captured internally (in a de-briefing report) and applied to other projects wherever relevant and useful. The global consulting industry and the Indian IT industry have been able to build efficiencies solely through this model. Private banks use this principle to figure out which customers are more likely to buy new services.

There is no reason why media firms cannot adapt this model, especially when revenues are dropping. Newspapers and TV news organizations not only filter reader/ viewer comments for publishing, they also seldom choose to act on any of them. Organisations mostly defend their stand, some publish corrigendum, few issue apology notes. Beyond that there is no process to incorporate reader suggestions into improving the quality of content.

For starters, journalists must be informed of the comments to their story. Any adverse comments questioning the veracity of the story should be discussed between the reporter and the Chief of Bureau to understand why such a question was raised and what can the reporter do to prevent such a scenario in future. (In many cases it is lack of clarity in the language used by the reporter that gives rise to such a comment.).

The number of times a story has been talked about by readers/ viewers (through their blog, tweets, visits to the story’s page etc) can be used as another input to a journalist’s appraisal process.

As social media gains prominence, journalists have begun quoting views (in some cases generating entire stories) for their stories from the public at large. While media firms are discouraging this trend, journalists can make use of these public posts/ comments in another way – to gauge response to a particular topic and picking leads for developing/ investigating into stories.

Will following these guidelines see a new and improved world of Indian media? Perhaps not immediately. But it will certainly help organisations differentiate from competition, attract superior talent, build a positive reputation and prevent unethical practices.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Insider Reports: Management Lessons from Harry Potter

The first time I laid hands on Harry Potter (the book, of course) was in 2002 near the Pune Railway station. A man was selling pirated copies of the first 3 books for Rs 120. With nothing better to do, I bought it. The set of books came with me to Chennai , remained locked in my bookshelf for 2 years and then followed me back to Pune (where I went for post graduate studies). I read the three books in quick succession and soon after bought all successive books legitimately from the bookstore.
Now, after 10 years, I continue to re-read the series, discovering a new perspective each time.  This time my husband Vikram pipped me to the idea. We have jointly written an article on Management lessons from Harry Potter and Silicon India, a management and technology site, has published it.
In case the link does not work, please see below the article.
Harry Potter is one of the best loved books by children and many adults alike. Some attribute it to J.K Rowling's vivid imagination, unraveling mysteries more complex in every progressing book. Others say it was good marketing fuelled by the reach of the online medium. For me the most compelling reason for being a Harry Potter fan is discovering something new every time I re-read the series. This time it is the parallels I can draw between the worlds of Death Eaters & Charms and business management.
Imagine Order of the Phoenix (OoP) to be a company. It would be one where the visionary (Dumbledore himself) sets clear goals and like minded employees are inspired to join. Irrespective of age, race or skill levels, recruits are hired by their commitment to the vision (in this case – a world in which wizards\witches and Muggles (Non magic people) live in harmony) and trained to become capable for doing their job.
The competitor to the Order of the Phoenix is Deatheaters Inc, led by Lord Voldemort. Employees are coerced to join and are afraid to leave. Predictably most are picked based on their race (or blood status) and are more or less of the same age with similar skills. Not very different from the real world, where companies often prefer to choose candidates from pedigreed backgrounds (IITs, IIMs, Ivy league universities or prominent family backgrounds) having more or less the same kind of skills and interests ("standards" is the word used by most recruiters).  Consequently there is little emphasis on training and skills up gradation and most of the work that matters is done by the owner, Voldemort, himself. In most promoter driven firms in India, this is the case.
While Deatheater's Inc works as a centralized business unit to ensure that all decisions are ultimately take by Voldemort, OoP believes in delegation and empowerment. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the last book where Ron and Hermione destroy a horcrux (and so does Neville) when Harry is otherwise expected to do the job. The element of surprise catches Voldemort unawares. The OoP also incubates a smaller organization consisting mostly of students from Hogwarts called Dumbledore's Army (DA). It is DA that acts as a game changer when push comes to shove towards the end.
When Molly Weasley, a house wife rarely projected as having a taste for violence, disarms and kills the powerful Bellatrix Lestrange, it shows how an empowered individual is more committed than a merely talented one. Another classic example of is the time after Harry's birth when Voldemort had to go into hiding. Deatheaters Inc totally collapsed and was operating in shadows and was revived only by the resurgence of Lord Voldemort, while OoP remained active and helped protect Harry till he comes of age and helping him defeat Lord Voldemort.
From the marketing perspective, OoP again did a far better job than DI. Their communication was crisp and concise. Their articulation of the vision that OoP saw for the world was simplified and all inclusive. They used Harry Potter as a brand ambassador and this helped them gain followers among the younger witches and wizards. DI on the other hand projected such an image of exclusivity that favoured older wizards and witches of pure blood status who in many ways had lost touch with reality. The inclusion of Muggle born magicians in OoP also helped in extending cooperation with the real world, whereas DI could not take advantage of such an association.
Even when the OoP was on the back foot after the death of Dumbledore they operated through other marketing channels like the underground radio station and 'The Quibber'. In other words OoP recognized the need that the prospects had to feel safe in a post Dumbledore world and they were able to find channels to articulate this vision.
Finally, it was a coaching nature of the CEO Dumbledore that really helped OoP achieves its aims. Everybody knew their part and was empowered to do their jobs. So long as the final goals were achieved, it did not matter who was responsible for the victories. DI's vision was to kill Harry Potter. However, Voldemort complicated this vision by ensuring that only he was to kill Harry. This resulted in wastage of time as Harry, though often caught by many death eaters at different times, could still not be killed by them.
An example in the corporate world is the leadership style of JRD Tata, who got the most competent people to run his companies. These managers were empowered to do what was best to fulfill the Tatas' vision for India.
 Many would argue that in the fictional world things are perfect. Good has to triumph over evil. Whereas in the real world, people like Voldemort do succeed. Is that so? No. A look at the history of business around the world will show, how overly centralized companies or those heavily dependent on one person for execution (promoter, CEO) have largely failed (or are failing). Little wonder then that most people prefer to join companies such as TATA's Google, Facebook, 3M, GE, Intel and Asian Paints which have remained on the Top 10 employer listings.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Office-Office: Succession Planning

It is one of those scenarios where the "Hurray! Yipee!!  At least someone is leaving this hell hole!" sentiment can soon give way to "Jeez, we have a new pain the ass to deal with." And if it is your boss that is being replaced, even god cannot help you.
A good succession plan in the past involved the ex-boss spoon-feeding the new boss until the new boss was suitably brain dead.  That way the one could continue work without any disruption and maintain standards (whatever they may be). That however, is now crudely achieved (cost cutting should I think?). 
You come in one morning and realize the super-boss is particularly grumpy. Investigations reveal that the your boss has vamoosed - bag, baggage, insider information and all.  You are seen as a free bird.  Jealous looks are exchanged. Whispers and the occasional stifled sob saying "why is she the lucky one?" echo off the sound-proof cubicle walls.
Feeling lucky? Momentarily. No more blood pressure raising emails wanting everything yet to be discovered "right now!". No more brain malfunctions on reading the emails. No scathing feedback either. FREEDOM!, Wait a second, why is your mail box refusing to open?  IT Support tells you it has crashed. A recovery shows 157 emails from Super-boss in the past hour. You sigh and get to work.
Two months later, you have a series of emails from an unknown entity. Just as you are about to report it as spam, you notice the sender's designation.  Your new boss has entered the system and is asking for pretty much everything stored in your laptop. "I have to tell him how to work?! Why is he my boss then?"..The rage builds up. Over several video conferences next week, you spoon-feed the new boss until you can cause significant brain damage. Super-boss, miffed with the ex-boss, refuses to test his share of brain damaging potion on the new boss. Eager to impress, the new boss insists you help him on weekends to "better understand" the system and calls you "dearie".
That night, bleary eyed, you decide to float your resume in the market aiming to do what your ex-boss did.  As for succession planning, that is for your subordinate to worry about.