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PR disaster

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From the public relations point of view, Chief Minister Harish Rawat’s ‘press conference’ in Doon on Sunday was little short of a disaster. Having invited the media at a given time, he made known the priority he held newspersons of the state capital in by flying off to Delhi. The media was made to hang around for almost an hour and a half, provided updates on the CM’s progress towards Doon over the public address system as consolation. When he did arrive, all he had on offer was a string of statements on the government’s intentions – these could easily have been e-mailed to the newspapers. Questions could be asked on another day suggested the CM – the media persons were by then too miffed by the wait to make any real protest. Obviously, the CM’s media advisers had actually intended to tick the occasion off as ‘feed the media day’, requiring only a cursory appearance by the head of government.

Past masters of dealing with the media such as ND Tiwari, Mulayam Singh, Motilal Vora, etc., knew well that it requires a very nuanced approach. The investment of time on the media provides a highly disproportionate result, much greater than other means of influencing public opinion. However, with the ‘monetisation’ of relationships in present day society, the calculations are made by advisers on the basis of how much has been spent on events, advertisements and sundry other expenses. It is believed that this would automatically translate into support and editorial endorsements. It is a lazy approach, with middlemen taking advantage of principals seeking burnished profiles the easy way. This can never be the case. If a politician can’t deal with the media, what can he be good at? After all, it is at interactions with the media that ideas and political fortunes are first tested.

If the politician or some other person seeking to interact with the media does not have time to apply his mind to the problem, he obviously takes recourse to the service of experts. Unfortunately, in the case of governments in Uttarakhand, the job has been more or less entirely outsourced to the Information Department – an agency staffed by poorly motivated and out of date government officials, led by IAS officers of varying seniority. Temperamentally, their approach is of the ‘officer’ – even extending an arm to shake hands is painful for them as it amounts to a diminution of their sense of self-importance. If a message needs to be communicated, the last thing the medium should carry is static interference. The Information Department, unfortunately, is abuzz with egos. Its only job is thought to be distribution of advertisements.

Yet another strategic mistake CMs have been making is the failure to appoint an Information Minister. They are so insecure that they will not hand over the department to a Cabinet colleague in the belief that their public image would be conspiratorially undermined. As was seen on Sunday, Chief Ministers are chronically short of time, thereby never in a position to deal with the nitty-gritty of media management. The media, in turn, is left to seek solutions from bureaucrats to problems that require political intervention. Only ND Tiwari had an Information Minister and that period was the only time when the department functioned reasonably well.

The portfolios have not yet been distributed in the Rawat Ministry. The CM would do well not to keep the Information Department under his charge. It will only serve to increase the distance between him and the media if he does so. The spontaneous applause that erupted when a complaint was made about the department’s functioning at his truncated PC should serve as a warning sign that he should carefully heed.

 

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