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Monday, June 27, 2011

The so called PR success of the Civil Society Campaign for a strong Anti - Corruption Lokpal bill is turning into a major PR failure:

I know, I know, I will be vilified, railed against and called a Government stooge by anybody who reads the header for this blog. But I request patience and a thorough reading of the complete blog before branding (with hot iron :) me.

When the campaign for the anti-corruption Lokpal Bill was launched with the Gandhi Crusader (though many still doubt the Gandhi credentials) Anna Hazare sitting on a fast to death, the people lapped it up, being fed up with daily exposes of corruption scams, one bigger than the other (Commonwealth Games scam of US $ 20 billion, 2G Telecom Scandal of US $ 50 billion etc.). The media too got into the act and their was frenzied reporting across TV channels, Newspapers, Magazines, social media: you name a place and you had massive coverage!!!

This came as a bolt from the blue for the government that already reeling under attack for the various scams. Talks on the net and in the media turned the "civil society movement" into a mass movement and evoked images of a popular revolt like in Egypt, which was still fresh in everybody's memory (did I say everybody ....... here I err as everybody did and I will explain later how). All of this sent the government bending backwards to accommodate the Civil Society. Soon announcements were made that a joint drafting committee, comprising members from the Civil Society and the Government, was being set up to discuss and suggest a bill in a time based manner.

There were cheers all around and it was hailed as a great PR victory and perhaps one day would have served as a case study across Business Schools. So far so good.

But here is where the script started taking a turn. The Civil Society Leaders were not prepared for such a cave in and the question of whom to appoint on the Lokpal Draft Committee became a contentious issue. When the nominations were made the choice of father - son Bhushan duo drew incredulous howls from even the most ardent followers of the movement. The Government was quick to seize the opportunity and while it started engaging in meetings of the draft committee, it also started a slanderous campaign against the civil society members of the draft committee. The result was that the focus of the medial and the civil society shifted from the core issue of the Lokpal bill draft and onto the civil society members trying to counter the slanderous campaigns.

The PR managers of the Government, having tasted blood, fired their next volley. The government representatives of the draft committee started engaging in an abusive mud-slinging match with the Civil Society Leaders. Here the movement committed its next and perhaps the biggest mistake. They engaged in a "tit for tat" mud slinging match with the Government.

This battle for media bites became so shrill that everything else was drowned in its cacophony. This is what the Government wanted, and the end result today is that the Government says it will not bow down to pressure from the Civil Society movement and the Civil Society is threatening another fast unto death. Will the Civil Society succeed? It is a big question and only time will provide us with an answer, but on the face of it, it looks like the battle has been lost by the Civil Society.

Where did the Civil Society Movement err??? Let us do a dispassionate analysis. They launched a brilliant Campaign and succeeded in getting the sound bites required, but the campaign was fundamentally flawed and ignored the basic tenets of PR. When you begin a PR campaign the first thing that you do is: the timing - this is very important; then you identify the target groups - here the Government and the people of India; Once the TG is established you identify the pressure points of the TG; then you identify the influencers who have the capacity to act on these pressure points.

This is where the PR managers of the Civil Society erred. The first and the basic error was the timing - there is still more than two years to go for a General Election. While they correctly identified their Target Group, they failed to properly identify the pressure points and the influencers. The other flaw was that it looks like more spur of the moment activity rather than a well thought out process.

When I say they were correct in identifying their TG it means they correctly identified the Government and the people. While their first PR moves had the Government on the ropes - the reason was that they and the Government alike thought that the bites were covering everybody - and this was a mass movement. While the Civil Society believed and still continues to believe that this is a mass movement, the government quickly realised that this was not. The facts in India are that 70% of the population lives in Rural Areas and they are the ones who come out and vote in large numbers. While the urban population, that has all the visibility, largely engages in monologues and when it comes to action like voting, abstains.

This realisation of the Government has turned into a self belief. Another thing cementing this belief is that the elections are still a long way off and with the voters' tendency to have short memories, the government and its mandarins are safe into thinking that when the elections come this will be another non-issue. The Civil society has made its biggest error in not taking the movement to the villages, all the voice that one hears and all the leaders are urban. Is there one Rural Leader amongst the Civil Society Members who can be identified?

The leaders of the movement, should have avoided the mud-slinging match with the government and then this would not have backfired. The belief that media coverage is the end to the means is a basic mistake. They must realise that media coverage is just a tool, though a very potent one, but still a tool. Where is the connect with the "AAM AADMI" - the common man. Even if the connect is there, they have hardly managed to show it. How many rural demonstrations in favour of the bill have happened? How many people from the villages have participated? How many of them have understood what the bill stands for?

For the rural population struggling to eke out a living where it can get food for two times, Government schemes like NREGS make more sense and they see the government in that light.The promise of UID and the expectations that it will give them more money earmarked for them, makes more sense. For them media coverage and us shouting from the cocoons of our air-conditioned offices onto social media, does not make sense.

It is here that the Civil Society lost its plot. They haven't yet realised that to make the Lokpal Bill a reality, in the way they want it, they have to influence the biggest constituency of the Government - the rural population. Had the timing been 2013 -14, the pressure would have added up. But now the government is secure in its belief that its biggest pressure points - the rural population and the elections are not being affected.

This may yet end up as a case study in Business Schools, but not as a successful PR campaign for the Civil Society, but as a failed PR campaign that began with a lot of promise.

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