Are India’s heady days over? India’s fantastic growth story that has dominated international headlines for the last five years is now being questioned. Strong economic growth, national icons acquiring global brands and foreign policy successes such as the Indo-US nuclear deal led us to believe that our time had come.
Or had it? The Mumbai terror attacks, travel warnings by Western governments, the Satyam scandal and layoffs are now the new reality. These events have made not only the world question our future but many in India, too, are questioning our growth story. Questioning is not a bad thing; it can even be useful if we learn from these challenges.
The challenges India faces as a country today are daunting but not insurmountable. The perception of India has certainly taken a hit in recent months. Some of these perceptions can be countered by a thoughtful and effective communication strategy, by both government and business.
Why do perceptions matter? A generation ago, managing perceptions did not matter since we had limited linkages to the world. Today, the proliferation of mass media—television, radio, Internet and print media—with its reach across vast swathes of the globe has made it a strategic imperative for countries to proactively manage their brand and reputation. “The greatest source of power in international affairs today,” says Joseph Nye, a Harvard University professor, “may lie in persuading other nations to see your interests as their interests.”
How can India persuade other nations? The key to this is that we need to understand how our brand and reputation are impacted by our ability to effectively communicate our messages to the world, both in times of crises and otherwise. Audiences and news are no longer local. We are a Google away from finding out the latest breaking news, or a Twitter away from a mobile alert of a breaking event in any part of the world. The disaggregation of the global media industry and audiences that began with the advent of the Internet has accelerated with new technologies such as the mobile phone. This has created a “global audience”, as was evident during the Mumbai attacks.
Four days of live coverage of the Mumbai episode or the commercial success of Slumdog Millionaire in the US and Europe forms indelible perceptions of India. Since these perceptions are filtered through the lens of the media, it makes understanding the media an important prerequisite for effective communication. Insights and knowledge of how and why the media reports the news in a particular way will allow both the government and businesses to craft effective global communications strategies.
Thus viewed, Mumbai was not only an intelligence failure but, in some ways, a much more damaging failure of managing communication in a crisis. The nearly 17 hours that it took the government to formulate a response clearly highlighted the lack of understanding of the practice of crisis communication and generally an understanding of how to communicate. Since crises are by nature unpredictable, governments and businesses need to create contingency communication plans to respond to crises—they need communication specialists to help articulate, respond and communicate their messages. A good crisis communication plan would include a centralized communication room close to the centre of decision making, setting up an informational website, information phone lines, availability of a designated and articulate spokesperson, a research team to track how the media reports the crisis and what gaps there are in reporting so that information can be quickly shared with the media if it is missing key facts and provision of regular updates so there is a consistency of messages.
Harjiv Singh is CEO of Gutenberg Communications. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org