communicate - PR, marketing and sales

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Wal-Mart woes continue

Wal-Mart's public relations woes continue. Last month, Wal-Mart decided to part ways with one of its celebrity spokespersons Andrew Young, after he managed to anger its customer base through some racist remarks.

Now, another senior executive of Wal-Mart has resigned following protests against her nomination to a gay business group, ironically as a nominee from her company. The division that employed her has also been the respondent in a law suit on counterfeiting. Dee Breazeale managed luxury goods at Sam's Clubs when the chain was slapped with a suit in June by a French company, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, alleging that counterfeits of its luxury Fendi brand bags and wallets were being sold through the store.

In August, Breazeale was nominated by Wal-Mart to the Advisory Council of National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, provoking protests from conservative groups - again a large customer base of the retail giant.

In the meantime, a pan-America trip for an average American couple to visit and interview employees and customers of Wal-Mart and blog about their experiences was denounced by the blogging community as a "fake" - after it emerged that the 'couple' was actually sponsored by Working Families for Wal-Mart, an advocacy group of the retail giant.

The activity looked like a good idea, until the two bloggers were identified as Jim Tresher, a veteran Washington Post photographer, and his girlfriend Laura. Their travel and other expense were paid for by the advocacy group. Since the controversy erupted, the journalists have been asked to refund the expenses and also pull off the photographs.

Two issues that I would like to discuss here:

1) What does this mean for Wal-Mart?
It means that Wal-Mart is going through a crisis of communication. There is a definite sense of desperation within the organization to promote a positive image - however, old habits die hard. So the chain stumbles from one controversy to another - either due to its past actions or due to the some hasty reactionary activities that don't measure up on the ethical front. Wal-Mart, and its supporting groups, need to understand that being ethical will help in the long run. And Wal-Mart is a long term player..

Will these controversies make Wal-Mart lose business - maybe not immediately. But as negative publicity keeps pouring in, the public's mindset will also change. Think of it like an election campaign - you need to have a sustained series of subcampaigns to promote your candidate and build public opinion. Once the messaging crosses a threshold, then word-of-mouth takes over and results in victory for the candidate.

Wal-Mart needs to look at the scenario as a campaign - and the threshold is approaching.....

2) What does it mean for the blogging community?
The biggest difference between a blog and a media is the factor of independence that the blog enjoys. As a result, the general tone and manner of blogs are negative in nature - since all of us are cynical by nature.

However, Corporate blogging (I believe this episode is a perfect example) is great way of promoting a company, without focusing on the negatives. And as a practice, it will continue. The difference in approach should lay in transparency.

The blogger should identify the blog with a corporate cause in no uncertain terms. That way, if nothing else, the blog never gets caught on the wrong foot. And, many a time, the blogs viewpoint will also be understood by the readers.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Afzal Dilemma and Media absurdities

I have been reading with interest the various arguments in the latest drama on the Indian media platform.

Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri, has been sentenced by the Supreme Court of India to be hanged to death for his role in the attack on Indian Parliament in 2001. The hanging has been fixed for October 20, 2006. Soon after the sentenced was pronounced by the SC, various sections of Indian society have been engaged in a debate on whether Afzal should be hanged or not.

First lets look at the major points of dispute:

1) Afzal was only a fringe player in the whole drama. The main players are safe in Pakistan.

2) Afzal was not provided a lawyer of his choice, and the case was not conducted in a fair manner by the court.

3) His hanging will only increase the anguish among Kashmiris, leading to more terrorists being born.

4) A civilized society should not resort to killing a human being.


What is the media doing in this public drama? They have been faithfully reporting all the bits and pieces of controversy. The wife of the accused seeks clemency through the media, the political parties make their point of view through the media, the government flip flops its way in front of the media - and leaves everyone confused.

I am yet to come across an article that really details the controversy - after asking the actors the real hard questions, and getting the answers.

Some questions that have either not been asked, or not been answered:

Afzal Guru and his family:
1) Why has Afzal not pleaded his innocence?
2) Why did the family not raise the issue, during the trial?
3) What answers do they have to the families of the policemen who were killed in the attack?

The political parties:
1) If Afzal Guru is a terrorist, what about the various Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists who breed hatred in India?
2) What does India gain out of hanging a fringe player in the attack?
3) What have the parties done for the martyred policemen's families - not to mention the countless others who have laid down their lives protecting the country?
4) How does the hanging of a criminal become a law and order issue in a state?

And most importantly, the celebrities:
1) Where were they when the policemen died protecting the Parliament - the personification of democracy in India?
2) What have they done to create an atmosphere of peace in India, if not Kashmir?
3) What do they know about the conditions in which our police and armed forces work in India?
4) Would they still ask for forgiveness, if instead of the policemen, it was one of their kin who was killed in the attack?

The media in India needs to understand that the readers want to know the whole truth, not on an as-is-where-is basis. They need to show the spine to ask the questions, get the answers and publish the articles, so that the debate happens on an elevated level.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Media Photographers - an abused lot

As professional communicators, we tend to focus on the coverage in the media as the utlimate evaluation of a campaign.

But a quirky, yet very interesting, post on a media photographers, on a blog with a very interesting name - "Don't Trust the Indian Media" - poses an, well, interesting question. Do PR professionals tend to downgrade the photographers, in their relentless pursuit of reporters?

We have been taught in school that a picture speaks a thousand words. Then why do we look upon the photographers as a necessary evil, rather than a useful ally?

How many times have we called up a photographer to pitch a story? Has it ever occured to us that the picture, if carried, sends the message much more clearly than all the text?

I was working in one of the leading newspapers in Mumbai some time back, when we came to know that a well known hospital did not have a mortuary. In fact, it was conducting post mortem in a makeshift shed originally meant to be a garage!!

I went to the spot, along with a photographer friend and colleague. I managed to distract the helper for a few minutes while my colleagues managed to get some quick shots of a post mortem. Needless to say, we were quickly identified, and had to run for our lives!!

I reached the office and filed my report. My colleague brought in some great shots and we had a flier the next day. I was flooded with calls, commending me on the great story, but all the calls talked about the picture.

My colleagues' work had won me accolades!! And all I did was buy him a beer! He went back to work uncomplainingly.

Sad, but true!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Lage Raho, Gandhigiri

Once in a blue moon, there occurs an incident that has a lasting impact on society. Today, I would like to dwell upon one of them - the effect of "Gandhigiri" from the Hindi film 'Lage Raho Munnabhai' (LRM).

LRM is the story of a lovable thug who is influenced by the Non-Violence Principles of Gandhi, in his fight against the villains.

The most interesting facet of the movie was the theme:
Using Gandhism (Gandhigiri, according to the hero) to win the battle against evil. And the best part is that, it does not give major sermons on Gandhism. Instead, the director has woven in anecdotes to prove his point. From a communication perspective, the movie has definitely achieved its purpose of telling the crowd - Gandhism is a workable solution to many of our problems.

The effect has also started to be seen:

In the city Lucknow, people protesting for the removal of a liquor shop distributed roses along with the pamphlets near the shop - the idea was to demonstrate the difference between the good (represented by the rose) and the bad (the liquor). Even the police, who came to disperse the demonstrators, and the district magistrate, overseeing the case, encouraged the form of protest. The liquor shop owner is planning to shift now.

In the city of Bangalore, a newspaper has asked for articles from its readers on how they used "Gandhigiri" to overcome unpleasant instances. The first of the series has appeared today, talking about a family that shamed people littering a railway compartment, by cleaning the compartment!

Will this movement sustain itself? Maybe, I certainly hope it will. It will definitely make the country a better place - because you punish the wrongdoer by loving him. No punishment is greater than the shame and the guilt!

Monday, September 25, 2006

American ad association turns to PR to stave off "negative headlines"

The American Association of Advertising Agencies has appointed a PR agency GolinHarris to promote its image in the media. There is an interesting post on this in adage.com.

The image management exercise is believed to be a reaction to various negative coverages on the industry in the media. The advertising fraternity feels that the effect of negative publicity would be felt in board room discussions with clients and also affect marketing budgets, thereby threatening the future of the industry.

Will this work?

1) It will heavily depend on the stories that GolinHarris will pitch to the media. Any industry report, which will be the primary pitches, will have to be credible, and transparent.

2) The Association needs to promote itself as a harbinger of change, not a monolithic body trying to defend its turf. It could do this by talking about new forms of communication, changes in existing forms of communication and the future trends in the industry. If a Microsoft can do it, why can't a communication platform like the Association do the same.

3) Backroom strategies play an equally important role in this game. All the three players in the arena - media, the Association and the PR agency - know how important advertising revenue is for the sustenance of media itself. The PR agency will require to do a lot of relationship building exercises.

What do you think?