All hail the benevolent leader

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Full-page advertisements featuring grinning chief ministers and dead members of the dynasty won’t become a thing of the past. But the number is all set to come down thanks to steps taken by the Supreme Court. Sort of.

In 2004, NGOs Common Cause and the Centre for Public Interest Litigation filed a petition seeking guidelines to prevent useless expenditure by Central and state governments as well as public sector undertakings (PSUs) on portraying their achievements through advertisements. The petition was filed in the wake of the ‘India Shining’ campaign funded by the NDA government.

Over the years, the UPA government followed suit by spending hundreds of crores on the ‘Bharat Nirman’ campaign as well as ads to mark the birth and death anniversaries of members of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

The Comptroller and Auditor General reprimanded the Delhi Development Authority for not adhering to the advertising norms and the Food Corporation of India for hiring private ad agencies. Both incidents resulted in avoidable expenditure to the tune of Rs 10 crore.

The Central government’s penchant for using an advertising blitzkrieg also influenced states in adopting similar practices. For instance, the Bihar government revised its advertising policy in 2008. Its primary objective was to “publicise and disseminate the policies, programmes and achievements of the government”.

Apart from the primary concern — the misuse of taxpayers’ money — the petition also called attention to the abuse of authority and the violation of the fundamental rights of citizens, “who, one on hand, are being told by the government that it lacks the necessary funds to fulfil its obligations towards primary education, basic healthcare and even shelter and, on the other hand, those funds are used for partisan political purposes”.

A decade after the petition was filed, the Supreme Court noted the need to adopt guidelines to check the abuse of government advertisements for political mileage. It formed a committee headed by NR Madhava Menon, former director of the National Judicial Academy, Bhopal. The other members were TK Viswanathan, former secretary-general, Lok Sabha, and Ranjit Kumar, senior advocate. Their mandate was to frame guidelines based on best practices in public advertisements globally.

The guidelines, submitted to the Supreme Court last week, would provide a guiding framework until Parliament enacts a law to regulate the issuance of advertisements by the Central, state and local governments as well as PSUs. Until then, the guidelines require “all government activities to satisfy the test of reasonableness and public interest, particularly while dealing with public funds and property”. It lays principles for advertising content, which should be “related to government responsibilities, presented in an objective, fair and accessible manner, not be directed at promoting political interests of the ruling party, be justified and cost-effective and only be need-based”.

Once the guidelines receive a legal stamp from the Supreme Court, government advertisements would be clearly separated from the political party as the governments would not be allowed to mention the name of the party in power, display political symbols or flags or refer to the websites of political parties or politicians and even avoid using photographs of political leaders.

Finally, the committee recognised that advertisements are not just a direct form of publicity, they could be used as a quid pro quo by the government to persuade the media house into publishing or telecasting favourable editorial content for the party or the politician in power. However, the guidelines don’t take into account sophisticated methods by which governments and state agencies are influencing the media by using PR firms.

PR for the government
“Two events greatly influenced Indian politicians and state governments in turning to the public relations industry — the success of the Vibrant Gujarat summits since 2007 made possible by a PR firm and Barack Obama’s presidential campaign,” says Amith Prabhu, founder of Zero Hour Strategies. Established three months ago in New Delhi, it is the first PR company in the country that focusses on political communication.

Prabhu, a former employee of APCO, the PR company hired for the Vibrant Gujarat summit, says that the market for providing PR services to politicians and governments has grown manifold in the past couple of years. “Political PR firms, individual consultants and groups are mushrooming all over the country as politicians are now looking for professionals for media publicity, and PR firms are exploring a new market segment among politicians and governments,” he adds.

Gujarat was the first state to hire the services of a PR firm. Since then, Chhattisgarh, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh have sought the services of similar companies. The governments of Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh recently announced that they also needed the help of PR companies and media agencies for an image makeover.

Most states have modelled their request for proposals on Gujarat’s deal with APCO. For instance, the proposal floated by the Chhattisgarh government expects the PR firm to primarily “position Chhattisgarh as one of India’s leading states across sectors by increasing visibilas to make it an ideal destination among various stakeholders” by “arranging for national and international media to visit Chhattisgarh to attend various events organised by the government” and “acquaint the media with the positive growth and developments happening in the state at regular intervals”.

The target of the firm, as specified by the government, is to ensure the “publication of at least six major stories from the state in a quarter in national newspapers such as Hindustan Times, The Times of India, Indian Express, The Hindu, The Economic Times, etc; publication of six major stories in regional newspapers in a quarter; publication of six major stories in a quarter in major vernacular newspapers with widespread coverage; publication of at least one major story or interview in a quarter in national magazines such as India Today, Frontline, Outlook, The Week, etc; and coverage or telecast of at least one major story every quarter in a major television news channel such as NDTV, Times Now, CNN-IBN, Aaj Tak, Zee News, ABP News, etc”.

Leading the way Narendra Modi’s Vibrant Gujarat summits have spawned copycats in other states
Leading the way Narendra Modi’s Vibrant Gujarat summits have spawned copycats in other states

“Governments and government organisations have realised the importance of making the ‘right connect’ with the public and communicating in real time,” says Dilip Cherian, co-founder and consulting partner of Perfect Relations, a PR firm popular among government departments, PSUs and state governments. “A concerted and cohesive public relations programme is de rigueur for governments going about their day-to-day business. PR agencies provide government offices with reach, experience and expertise of dealing with all kinds of media — whether traditional or new-age digital.”

It is not just state governments, the list of government departments and PSUs hiring PR agencies include Indian Rare Earths, whose objective is to “gain maximum visibility in the media in a positive manner”; government trusts such as the India Brand Equity Foundation, established by the commerce department, to “position India as a responsible healthcare provider”; and the agriculture ministry with an objective to get “non-paid” media coverage for the year of horticulture, 2012-13.

The owner of a major PR firm based in New Delhi told TEHELKA on the condition of anonymity that a large number of PSUs have PR firms on their panel for activity-based positive media coverage, while Union ministries hire PR firms to promote specific schemes and tourism departments consult PR firms on a regular basis.

How PR influences the media
Another PR consultant told TEHELKA on the condition of anonymity that the role of public relations is different from advertising. While the latter buys more visibility with the content controlled by the client, PR earns the client credibility because a seemingly objective journalist in a popular media house writes or presents it as news.

“PR is a cloaked form of advertising that ensures as much space in a newspaper at quarter the cost of an advertisement and more credibility in the eyes of the audience,” he says. “The role of a PR company is like that of a law firm. We make a strong case for the journalist to write a positive story about the client; there
is no assurance that we would win but mostly we do.”

Experts describe PR as a mechanism, which starts with building a profile of the client — corporate or government — by focussing on the positives and achievements, building a relationship with journalists over time by inviting them to events, meetings, often travel with the client, and finally the journalist is convinced to write about the client. Journalists from national and global media are flown in at state expense for guided tours that highlight the positives of the government’s development schemes, industry, etc.

For instance, APCO encouraged journalists from all over India and abroad to visit Gujarat. They attended lunch meetings with the CM and events promoting the ‘Gujarat model’. Chhattisgarh has adopted a similar strategy.

“PR tools don’t differ for government or corporate campaigns,” says Cherian. “We use a mix of media and non-media tools to enhance the client’s public image and communicate their message to the right audience. The social media is also actively used for image building.”

Corporate clients are charged 3 lakh a month on an average, but the tab for government clients is double that amount because as the role is risky, only well-established PR firms take up the job, say industry sources. The costs exclude the money spent on implementing the PR firm’s media strategy, including the cost of holding the events, travel and accommodation for journalists. As a result, the annual spend by a government client may run into crores of rupees.


Laying Down A Marker

According to the report submitted by the Madhava Menon Committee, while placing ads or buying ad space in any media, the government shall be guided by the following principles:

•Ad campaigns to be related to government responsibilities

•Ad materials should be presented in an objective, fair and accessible manner and be designed to meet the objectives of the campaign

•Content of the ad must enable the recipients of the information to distinguish between facts and analysis, and where information is presented as a fact, it should be accurate and verifiable

•Ad materials should be objective and not directed at promoting the political interests of the ruling party

•Ad materials must not mention the party in government by name; directly attack the views or actions of others in the Opposition; include the party symbol or flag; aim to influence public support for a political party or candidate for election; refer or link to the websites of political parties or politicians

•Ad materials should avoid photographs of political leaders and if it is felt essential for effective government messaging, only the photographs of the president/prime minister or governor/chief minister should be used

•Ads shall not be used for patronising media houses or aimed at receiving favourable reporting for the party or person in power

•Ad campaigns be justified and undertaken in an efficient and cost-effective manner

•Since it is the government’s responsibility to safeguard the trust

•Ad campaigns to be related to government responsibilities

•Ad materials should be presented in an objective, fair and accessible manner and be designed to meet the objectives of the campaign

•Content of the ad must enable the recipients of the information to distinguish between facts and analysis, and where information and confidence in the integrity and impartiality of public services, it should be the policy of the governments to use public funds in such a manner as to obtain maximum value for the taxpayers’ money

•The government shall decide and announce beforehand a list of personalities on whose birth or death anniversaries, ads could be released every year and specify which ministry/department could release the same

•Though advertising by governments should remain regulated all the time, it is particularly important to scrupulously follow these principles before and during elections. As far as possible, during the period prior to elections, only those ads required by law (such as public health and safety advisories or job and contract ads) should be released by governments

•Ad campaigns should only be need based

•Government advertising must comply with legal requirements, financial regulations and procedures


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