Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Policing The Media; Is Regulation Required Or Is It Another Retrograde Attempt To Muzzle The Freedom Of The Press?

At a time when the India Media is racing ahead and projected to growing faster than the Indian GDP, as much as twice in some recent reports, our world suddenly seems on fire with the news that Indian media stings may soon require oversight to determine if such a sting is indeed in public interest as well as being able to stand true on the test of entrapment.

The venerable Delhi High Court was rancid when it asked whether the media was carrying out sting operations or ‘stinking operations’.

The state of affairs has come to such a pass that in disposing off a petition on the now infamous sting telecast by private TV news channel in August, the court suggested that the information and broadcasting ministry constitute a three-member committee and all TV channels should seek permission from it before airing any sting operation. The suggested panel is proposed to have a retired high court judge and two officials with the ranks of additional secretary and additional commissioner of police. The dubious sting purportedly showing a New Delhi schoolteacher, Uma Khurana forcing a girl student into prostitution. Police investigations subsequently found that the footage was doctored and the teacher was innocent. The bench further gave its nod to Khurana to take action against the channel or claim compensation.

The Broadcasting Bill has been hanging fire for the longest time due to a lack of consensus between the position of the government and media houses. The Information and Broadcasting Minister has now set 2008 as the year for the finalisation of the Bill but not before taking a dig at the Media Industry at large for the state of affairs. "We have delayed the process of introducing the Bill as big corporate houses are opposing it. They (corporate houses) like to have court directives rather than listening to the government," the Minister said recently on the sidelines of an Assocham event. The truth is a grey line somewhere between large corporate media house interests and draconian socialism era censorship!

The accusations of polarised coverage across Tehelka, Nandigram, Gujarat and Modi, fly thick and fast day-in, day-out. Defense scams, Bofors, Quattrochi, the list goes on and on. The usual suspects who orchestrate this anarchy include favorites like political parties as seen in Nandigram, West Bengal, Gujarat Elections. Another large arena for inflicting this perfidy on the media is reserved for large business houses using the media in a no-holds barred skirmishing that goes on against business competition. The spectrum war in the Indian telecom industry and the reams of newsprint in its wake, the footage it has consumed on television, and cyberspace it has consumed online is mammoth by any standards.

With some perversity, I am sure that these translate to trophies that take the place of pride in many a spin doctors' hall-of-fame. It would be a coup some will gloat on if they could pull off such an act of effective spin and propaganda. Maybe I live in a world of conspiracies and I see too many films and interest groups that go by such affable terms such as a corporate affairs, advocacy, PR Firms are all benign upstanding citizens. While we can blame the corporates and politicians, where does the Media stand in all this blame game?

While there will always be competing interests who will try their luck and they should, the questions that sits uneasy in my head is where is the sense of editorial balance? Who decides what story can run and what value system underlies this often intangible and grey art of practicing editorial discretion?

How many times have we all witnessed the blatant lies and falsehoods, how many times have we seen one-minute 'microwave judgments' by anchors and reporters of questionable or no intellect and cringed in despair at issues slammed without hope of recourse or apology. The broadcast media has seen such cut throat competition that all but a few firmly grounded channels have turned to sensationalism and made a mockery of the news domain, similar trends have been seen in mainline publications and the online world too.

This is our world; a world made of many conflicting microcosms and yet the show must go and we must find a way, not the Putin way or the Western way, and certainly not the Pakistani way but an Indian way forward for the show must go on without aberrations where the media retains its place as a guardian of our democracy and a conscience in times of weakness and chaos.

What can you and I do in our own small way to aware and then maybe spread an awareness of the issue at hand so we as communicator and marketeers help support and build a better Media; a tomorrow built on a foundation of balance, integrity, justice and merit. Brick bats and accolades bring them on, all welcome!

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Buy side or sell side; Doer or Make Doer, where's the game?

The weather in Mumbai or Bombay as I tend to yet and maybe always will refer to it is amazing. For those interested in the weather, the best time to be here is from November through February.

As I look outside the window, around me the madness continues. No one has noticed the weather. When I moved back to Bombay, my adopted home from Bangalore earlier this year, the weather was the last thing on my mind. The excitement of the rubber hitting the road again in a sell side assignment is what was floating my boat. That the traffic in Bangalore is arguably and notionally more crap may have entered my mind.

Where am I taking you with this? Well, simply: Where would I rather work today, Agency or Client? For years, it has been the path of exodus from PR or Advertising or other MarComms agencies to Client or Buy side roles. Traditional wisdom seems to suggest that moving to a client role has been the staple ambition of most communications or marketing interns, a larger aspiration seemingly bordering on the infinite.

This traditional wisdom translated and still does to considering client side roles as better paying; better working conditions, standard industry best practices in HR and Benefits policy. Salary surveys and this image of the make-doer being higher up the food chain than the doer. Add to that legend, cult chatter and imagined greatness to make a heady mirage of desire and aspiration, to my mind the only other comparable oversold silver bullet solution to bliss is marriage!

So you made it to the buy side with an unbelievable hike. Congratulations. First move, I know what's best, this agency sucks; fire the Agency! One year and two agencies later, all agencies still suck. “My budget is crap, no one understands my vision, and the boss is an idiot". The cycle moves downstream from confusion; frustration; denial; pragmatism; cynical submission and points further. Slowly the cognitive realization of the existence of other traditional company functions like Finance, HR, Corporate Planning & Strategy, Sales, and Quality dawns, besides of course Marketing into which a traditional PR or Communications or MarComms function will report.

If I sense defiance and a few backs getting up already lets up the ante a bit; imagine reporting into Sales or its often interchangeable euphemism - Sales & Marketing or worse HR! Politics assumes a new meaning and such things as annual budgeting (read begging, negotiating, storming out of meetings and sometimes even threatening to leave are usual tricks). Empire building and head count become the corner stones of all calculation!

The news isn't all bad, happy things include a PR Firm to flog (depending on how fat this company is-let us add an advertising agency, a web agency, a media buyer, an investment relations firm and so on) on retainer who you usually never call before 7pm with new requirements to be delivered first thing in the morning. End-of-day (EOD) and close-of-business (COB) and other similar dire abbreviation start peppering your e-mail. The tyrant in you starts to surface and the latent evil becomes apparent. Alarming surveys and such non-issues at most agency jobs such as consumer media preferences in the internet age start factoring on your radar!

So you think you should be one down from the corner room and the place of Communications and PR is at the Board Table along side the CEO or MD, that's good, Bombay weather remains amazing, no one has noticed.

So what’s happened here? From being, ‘the Business’, you have suddenly been relegated to a “Support function”. Yes, you got paid better, probably drive a car now instead of the old faithful motorcycle or a better car if you already had one, and live in a slightly more up market location. You’ve acted wisely, have decided to get married, have a child or two, settled down and become and EMI lifer too, the hours are better, it’s all coming together!

What is this thing that makes agencies more passionate, creative power houses that function on the cutting edge of innovation? I took a call and moved back to the agency end of things, there are good days and there are bad days but I am having a lot of far that is!

There are arguments for and against and while the jury is out on that one.

I leave it there for you folks to start a debate with your views. I would love to hear what you people out there in the PR Agency or Sell Side/Client or Sell Side or combination thereof in cyberspace think about being a doer or a make doer!

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Employer Pet Peeves: An Indian PR Firm Perspective from the Corner Room

As a sequel to last week's article this week I want to showcase the view from the wrong end or right end of the shotgun barrel, depending on your status in the food chain.In a business, that is slowly maturing there is yet lots of road to travel down the professional path.

The resource crunch pandemic is becoming a reality, as is the case with all other businesses; PR Firm's too like every other enterprise are seeking to keep, up skill and attract new talent!

The above is a regular star in the everyday nightmare of a business leader in a PR Firm.

The other cast include Mergers, buyout led account re-alignment. The loss of people can mean a lost account, worse loss of reputation and making it further harder to retain and hire and get general traction.

Employer pet peeves further include offer letter terrorism. This is any interesting phenomenon that involves swimming the job market and stacking offers. While everyone wants to offer their services at the best price, the mechanics involved include lies and deception.

Confirming a joining date and not showing up isn't a rare occurrence any longer.

The scarcity of trained resources has meant a further acceptance of tantrums, inferior quality of work, poor or non-existent account management and a general atmosphere where tardiness is accepted under threat of separation. Dishonesty and fudging of travel claims, using company infrastructure for personal use including dubious phone calls and other scam mongering.

This means a sense of cynicism and a lack of trust from the employer in turn that finally results in bad culture. A culture where mentoring and employee training evaporates and employers hedge people against each other in expectation of attrition and employee turnover. This leads to a chain reaction where neither can build personal trust and the first casualty is productivity followed by excellence.

The infuriating and myopic inability of account executives and managers to focus on all things financial, including expense claims of agency funds spent for client engagements, project or retainer fee claim delinquency is another big peeve. This impacts cash flows and balance sheet anarchy usually follows. The ensuing chaos can be easily avoided with regular follow ups.

While this may be a two-way street, employees need to bring up their end of the bargain just like employers do if we have to evolve as businesses that can presume integrity and legitimacy.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

PR Firms in India; Employee Pet Peeves

This week I want to talk about state of the PR Firm business.

Are PR Firms people friendly? What are the latest trends in human resource development that qualify for being people friendly and enable organizations to retain and yet allow employees or consultants to be productive, despite challenges of everyday life like large commuting distances, family emergencies, medical exigencies, Maternity or even something as common as burnout!

The record of PR firms in this regard has been rather poor I must confess. The report card on the other side of the table in buy side roles, whether in marketing or communications has not been exactly inspiring either, though there are instances of evolved organizations that have understood the benefits of such policies in retaining talent and keeping rare skills and IP (Intellectual Property) sticky despite the challenges that cycles of life pose to a typical employee. So what are these things that make everyday life easier, yours and mine too?

Telecommuting: This simple means an ability or facility to be able to work from home in times of exigency after an agreement with the concerned manager. This is the hardest to get approved by the way (sic).

Flexi-timing: This could mean timings that beat the traffic or those that suit an individual because of other family or personal commitments like a study program. Non-oppressive dress codes: Even today, I see some pretty strange dress codes that hark back to colonial mindsets or worse those that pander to cult predilections of individuals. This with the background of most PR firms being mostly individual or partner driven can become quite horrendous and a far tangent to the norm, lending to a perverse value set linked to early upbringing.

Without the embarrassment of the getting into these weird instances and details, it may be safe to say that there is no cultural homogeneity in what is the norm. The Individual should be trusted with this personal responsibility and not be subjected to convent and institutional trauma! While there can be no excuse for being slovenly in personal appearance, especially for those that are client facing, mostly we take things too far, far enough for them to becoming oppressive yokes, to the point of qualifying as professional hazards.

Maternity Benefits: These are completely non-standard today, and more often than not discriminate against women in the family way. Yes, we can find someone here or there that has a policy that makes a few concessions. Are these Industry best-practice standard? I definitely don't think so!

Let's begin with simple technology that enables Telecommuting. The advent of the internet has meant an ability to work remote.

While I don't intend for this to become a rant, most PR Firms are so challenged in terms of growing beyond cities that they are headquartered in; the infrastructure they manage to percolate away to branch offices in other cities is rather abysmal. I am talking about the most basic of facilities today that clearly constitute hygiene but strangely still so tough to come by as facilities.

Consider getting a lap top from the organization or even an Internet connection if you have your won machine at home and how tough it is to get the organization to pay for it, getting help to get one installed is fantasy material. The ability to avoid e-mail stress is a major factor in everyone's life today!

How many companies offer a web interface which enables you see mail on the Internet and sets you free from being glued to your desk? Some idiot in IT will find a zillion myopic reasons to scupper your access.

Take it one further into dreamland, those hand-held delights that you have often lusted after like the Blackberry or Windows Mobile beauties are darlings in making life simple, be it e-mail, calendar, to-do's, besides making you look a part of the corporate jet set so that your customer sees you as someone of an equal and a professional. Let's talk a second about conference calling and enabling infrastructure. It does not cost a lot and unless the call is internal most times you may be able to bill clients.

The fact is most old fogies are deeply suspicious of all working from remote and virtual teams are a non-starter. They want to see you in their face, sat in a bivouac around their desk, breathing their crusty, ironed everyday, breath. Other fancy things include server dial-up access, which enables your machine to access files on the network server. Imagine the scope for collaboration.

The inertia to change and imbibe productivity solutions is immense and it would be incomplete to just direct ire in isolation at the IT Idiot. The other hall-of-famer here and most of you will recognize this persona, he or she is the proverbial loyalist, the holier-than-thou, often a combination of Administration, Finance and HR.

There is one other aspect that I'd like to spend some time on. This concerns on-boarding of fresh or lateral talent. It starts with the missing location map on the website, which in most cases was updated last year. Imagine showing up for work and not having a desk, a computer, an e-mail ID, to add insult to injury, have a form to fill thrust in your face with no help in deciphering the officialise. Things like assistance with a bank account; new cell phone; understanding the best way to get to work and finding a place to stay.

Most good organizations fix this one shot with a Mentor program. This person for the initial journey is your survival guide, your friend, philosopher, your lunch menu guide, and a zillion things that are urgent but not important.

I get this constant chatter at Industry events about how attrition and retaining talent are prime concerns. What no one ever mentions is things like the ones above that really help an organisation make its relationship with the employee sticky and fruitful in the long term.

While it is true that people leave for greener pastures and those positions then need to be filled and that is another kind of stress. What are the chances that you will make it hard for people to leave if you have your act in shape and spend some senior management time on mitigating pet peeves.

I know there are instances here and these where pioneering work has happened but as a business and as an industry in the Indian geography we will have crossed another milestone if we got our ducks-in-row on this one!

Next week; Employer pet peeves, watch this space!

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

SMS text messaging; the next PR, Marketing Campaign Channel?

There is something happening out there.

SMS or Text Messaging is fast becoming a method of interactive PR and Marketing. The evidence of its popularity is all around but no one has really grasped the significance of this new tool that bridges the online and offline world for consumers. Text messages today can include graphics, video, and the infamous MMS.

So what are the numbers out there today? With a 213 Million mobile subscriber base growing at nearly a million year-on-year as opposed to an abysmal banking penetration of 30 per cent and an internet penetration of 60,000,000 Internet users as of September 2007, 5.3 per cent penetration, as per ITU, and 2,520,000 broadband Internet connections as of September 2007, as per IWS.

Mobile marketing has really been what is know as a 'push' game so far, with an inability to get delivery reports or replies back to a text message. All this is now changing with the technology becoming available to enable 'pull'. The latter really being an ability to link responses to a campaign, thus making for very exciting possibilities.

Internationally, the uses of the sms as a tool are many and some that impressed me most include Televox, Smile Reminder, among many other innovative uses of sms or text messaging.

In India, The traditional use of bulk messaging has been traditionally made by large consumer facing companies in the credit card , DTH, consumer loyalty application, job portal and airline space.
Bulk sms brokers, Google, Service providers include all mobile operators including GSM and CDMA (...and I am going to save the current controversy on 3G spectrum for another post!) who provide short codes such as the ones we sent sms' to for polls and interactive programming on TV etc. A popular show like Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) generated 58 million SMS over a 3 month period.

Some quick and dirty research on the IAMAI portal on statistics and VAS although a little dated was revealing. The companies that own a short code (e.g. 8888, 3456 etc) which is basically sold to a third party client for some keyword, and for a specific period have a tie up with multiple operators to ensure customers of all operators send the SMS to the same number.

There are around 10 national level players and several regional players in this domain. The entry barrier is very high because of high initial deposit and need to tie up with each operator for each individual circle. Our research reveals that most operators also ask for a deposit of Rs 2 million and a minimum guaranteed volume of half a million SMS per month for entering into an arrangement with a Short Code owner.

All this is fast changing with a recent use of mobile marketing as a tool by the Anti Corruption Bureau in Mumbai, India recently. The arrival of mass usage of technology is clearly evidenced when the babudom (India term for the bureaucracy) starts using it.

Like I said above, the trick is to find the technology with the 'pull' factor in addition to the 'push'. Imagine a press briefing where you could in addition to sending an invite to the media; also receive replies back from them via the same short code that could then integrate back into a database, which sent a report with the numbers of invitation deliveries, special requests, confirmations, regrets and so on. Sounds like a boon?

Internationally there are already associations such as the Mobile Marketing Association are the Industry bodies that bring together the myriad parts of this business as well as rules that govern its members. The MMA is a global organization with over 500 members representing over forty countries. MMA members include agencies, advertisers, hand held device manufacturers, carriers and operators, retailers, software providers and service providers, as well as any company focused on the potential of marketing via mobile devices.

We need something similar in India quickly to address the regional topicality of the market. With the new NDNC regime and the added concern for privacy and text messaging spam it will be important to lay down the rules governing mobile advertising and consumer protection guidelines to ensure that the channel does not get embroiled in controversy before maturity so that the full potential of this application can be felt in the market mix. Maybe the IAMAI will address this?

So clearly the time maybe right for a classic disintermediation enterprise, maybe from the VAS space, with both the push and pull aspects of the technology in place, as well as interconnect agreements in place with all GSM and CDMA network operators to offer this as a service.

Imagine a web portal where you can go and pay by a payment gateway, enter your mobile number database, send off a campaign with pre-determined templates, as simple as sending a greeting card! Imagine the ease of an inbox, sent box and a report folder with responses! I know that there are people on the anvil to do this as I write this from a recent visit to Hyderabad, anything beyond which could be violation of the NDA.

It will be interesting for me to see who will be a first mover in the PR business to use this for inviting media to press conferences, stop press notifications and use as a heads up tool. Of course with the opt-in permissions in place to avoid peeving some of the more aggressive journalists as we all have known to at some point!

Note: The author has no stake in the above space!

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Getting Traction

What gives impetus and creates a movement?

For me mostly it has been rejection and being turned away. The strength of the denial is deeply related to the veracity of the idea(s).

Today, it is all about choices still, like it has been for the last 15 years; only confidence is higher and the fear of being who I am has long gone.

So on to destiny it is! Spin IMC touches down again!

Watch this space!

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

The Sporadic Beginner

I am back to this...hopefully I will manage to stay this time.

This is a season of many firsts; stopping to smoke, changing jobs, changing cities and most of all changing life!

The Anatomy of Stillborn Congress Communist CAA NRC Campaign

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