A passage to media persons - Press Friend, Philosopher & Guide

- Prof. C.K. Sardana

Even though studious and introvert by nature and temperament, yet destiny landed me in a job requiring an extrovert nature-public relations in early 60s. I joined India’s largest Public Sector enterprise-BHEL, Bhopal as Public Relations Officer. After a long journey, marked by ups, downs and again ‘ups’ and trials and errors, I retired as General Manager (Corporate Public Relations), BHEL, New Delhi, in 1993. My unfilled desire of being a teacher has taken me to Makhanlal Chaturvedi National University of Journalism & Communication, Bhopal, where as a Faculty Member, I take Master level classes in my field of PR & Mass Communication.

Notwithstanding varied opinions of Chief Executives and of PR persons about the Press, I maintain that Press is, in fact, a friend, philosopher and guide for Public Relations, but one can’t and shouldn’t take Press for granted. One has to recognize and appreciate the role of the Press as a watchdog. It is neither the PR Department of an organization nor the mouthpiece of an organization. Nor can it be ‘cultivated’ through various allurements for writing all that is good in an organization or for ‘killing’ a factually correct but damaging news story.

Mindset of CEOs, unfortunately, not all CEOs are willing to accept the above truth for a variety of reasons, most important being their pampered position because of the ‘chair’ they occupy in an organization. They expect the PR persons to somehow manage publication of only positive stories and ‘killing’ of negative or unpalatable stories. This is not correct.

Let me share my experiences of dealing with the Media-more of print Media and some of Electronic Media. It has been an exciting and a challenging experience. I have also, in this article, drawn upon the experiences of my fellow PR professionals in Public Sector and Private Sector.

A national daily carried a 3-column story on its front page deprecating the performance of a large enterprise in the Public Sector. The story, based on a parliament question (PR head of the enterprise found this out later) was factually correct.

Since it showed the enterprise in poor light and that too on the front page of the daily with a number of editions, CMD called the PR Head and gave the latter a mouthful. When the latter tried to tell the Boss that it was based on a Parliament question (answers to Parliament questions are cleared by the CMD and then sent to the concerned Ministry), the CMD said 'I don't want to listen all this. What for have I kept you'? See the mindset and the audacity of the boss.

In another case, a publicity savvy CMD gave an interview to a news agency correspondent. The PR Manager had prepared ground for a fruitful interview based on his PR acumen. He had also advised (PR Manager is also media adviser to the organization and the Boss) not to get into the possible game plan of the correspondent to obtain negative side from the horse's mouth and to deal with the possible question (s) diplomatically and smartly. The interview went off very well with the equally and even 'more shrewd’ respondent establishing a good rapport and trust with the Boss. Towards the end, the correspondent asked in a very low tone, position about profit and loss. On this, the Boss reeled out data about losses. The correspondent profusely thanked (being very happy at having got figures of losses from horse’s mouth) next day a number of dailies carried the negative story about losses in their front pages.

In this case too, CMD became furious and gave a mouthful to the PR Manager saying "if I have given the figures, does it mean that those will form the headlines in the stories and you (PR Manager) will sit pretty". See the level of ignorance about the working of the press and what makes 'news' for the newspaper. Also, lack of understanding about the limitations of the PR Manager vis-a-vis responsibility of a pressman.

Let me quickly clear the position. It is not, I repeat NOT, that all CMDs or CEOs have such a mindset or a psyche or are unaware of the role of the Press vis-a-vis limitations of the PR persons. In fact, in today's scenario marked by speed and competition, CEOs are becoming well aware of the role of the press as a vital tool for information dissemination and image-building. They are also aware that they have to play a supportive role, not whipping, in the Public Relations of and for the enterprise. They deal with the PR Head and his colleagues as a true friend, philosopher and guide. They trust him and do not look upon him as a newspaper correspondent but as one entrusted to be a fruitful link or bridge between the enterprise and the Press.

Becoming a performer and an achiever

How does a PR Head become a performer and an achiever in an organization having thousands of executives and employees, umpteen number of products and services, vast market nationally and globally, cut-throat competition not only commercially but in Image-building, an aggressive Media-both Print & Electronic-eyeing for in-depth information , not routine press releases, changing role of the Media and the influence of Marketing & Advertising Department within the Media and so on.

We have to understand that the pressmen have vast sources, have access to all and sundry within and outside the organizations, have lot of information in their kitty collected from many sources including the internet and personal rapport, have to sell their stories to the persons in the editorial side of their own newspaper and yet outsmart others in the same profession within and outside their own media organization. These traits are also required in a professional PR person except that he has to sell his story to the media persons.

We are living in a Knowledge Society. It is therefore incumbent on the PR  Professional to be extremely Knowledgeable first about his own organization and simultaneously about all the concerned areas. He has to collect, collate, update and rewrite the information in usable form whether by the print or the Electronic media. He has to develop right and rich sources, have regular interaction with the knowledgeable persons within the organization, have regular contacts with the pressmen, keep looking for such information as can make a good copy of a news story, see the trends of news stories and evolve his own strategies for helping keep his organization in 'news' and 'limelight'. He must be available to the Press all the 24 hours and be ever willing to help and not try to put off.

PR professional should also be farsighted and a good strategist. He must also earn trust and confidence of those at the helm of affairs in the organization by proving his utility the matter of information-sharing and image-building. "Right thing at the right time" should be his guideline.

Let me illustrate this by a live example. A person had built up an empire over a span of forty years. The empire was a multi-billion organization the longest in its sector in the

country and one of the largest in the world. The empire-builder had built it up from the scratch. Now his end was near. Doctors had also said he may not live beyond 3-4 months. This is exactly what happened and he passed away one day.

Within one week of his demise, an economic national daily, with nearly dozen editions, devoted one full page (not sponsored but managed) on that sector, how that empire had been built up.

How did that person build that up and what would be the shape of things after the demise of 'that' person. There were three well-rehearsed, well-documented and well-presented exclusive articles-one by an eminent economist, one by a management 'guru' and one by an eminent economic journalist.

These would not have come just on its own. I am sure, lot of foresight, planning, coordinating and work would have gone into the making of the final product, namely, that full page in an economic national daily, informatively, copies of this page were circulated among the top officials of that organization both for information and 'pep-up.' Who will not feel happy on such an excellent success through joint efforts of PR and the Top Management working in trust and unison?

Management 'gurus' say no matter whether the other person pats you for a good job done, you should silently pat yourself and get going with still better performance. It sounds well. But it is also a fact that good job sometimes results in animosity and professional jealousy with its ramifications.

An enthusiastic newly inducted PR Head of an organization established good rapport with a television channel, not through 'wining, dining and presents' but by being useful to the channel through well thought-out, well-prepared, and exclusive stories. He prepared a news script, arranged video coverage and prepared a complete ‘capsule' for use by that TV channel. In this story, he obviously highlighted achievement of his own organization. He did, however, give the name of the client organization. While the PR Head of this organization got a pat from his CEO, the PR Head of the client organization was told by his CEO not to sit pretty but to be alert, vigilant and even smarter than his fellow PR Head in the former organization.

This resulted in healthy competition between the PR Heads of the two organizations, each endeavoring to be ahead of the other, in the process, both organizations got the best out of the media for their image building. All said and done, sky is the limit in the PR profession. But one needs to be always up and coming recognizing that Press is a friend, philosopher and guide for Public Relations.