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Congress party in urgent need of defining its brand message post surgical strikes

12th October 2016


The surgical strike after the attack on Uri is a first in many ways. The positioning of the strike as a tough retaliation against Pakistan sponsored terrorism, the way the term ‘surgical strike’ has entered the popular lexicon, the hectic blur of publicity, claims and counter claims . If Operation Vijay was the war that played out in front of the TV cameras, then the surgical strike has the vast, constantly live audience of the Internet.

The pressure to take a position has resulted in an unseemly scramble to grab eyeballs. Never have political stakeholders needed public relations consultant more.

BJP vs. rest of the political parties

Analysts are in no doubt that the ruling BJP and Narendra Modi are weighing the perception benefits of the strike. Defence analyst, Major Gaurav Arya (Retired), told PRmoment India that, “ The way Prime Minister Modi has structured the communication of the strikes, means that anyone who questions the strikes will be seen as questioning the Indian Army. Therefore, the questioning of the strikes by political parties will strike back badly on them.”

Major Arya also adds that the statement by political leaders asking for proof of the strikes are in bad taste. 

Senior communications consultant, Anup Sharma, points out that when you have a concept such as patriotism and national security, it is very hard for anyone to refute that without looking anti national. Which is why in the beginning, the first reaction of Congress party was to praise the action by the Modi Government.

But as the political implications of the strikes set in, opposition parties began to kick out with anti -government and anti-Modi comments. 

Sharma explains why this has happened saying that, “Television channels have been extremely jingoistic in covering the strikes. In fact, the way they are going about it can no longer be called reporting, it is opinionated commentary. This, in turn led to social media scrutiny on the issue, pushing politicians into making statements questioning the strike. The backlash from social media was immediate.”

Opposition parties were keen not to let Prime Minister Modi run away with the narrative on the strikes.

The high voltage coverage of Modi’s presence on the Dusshera festival in Lucknow, resulted in breathless commentary on how the perceptional gains of the strikes will help boost BJP’s chances in the upcoming and crucial UP state elections.

As per Major Arya, this is only to be expected. He says, “ The government of the day always owns the victory. This was the case with Indira Gandhi and the 1971 war and with Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands war and with Obama and the Osama Bin Laden operation.”

The major also points out that in the aftermath of such incident internationally, opposition parties do not question the government’s actions. He said, “ All the opposition parties should say is good job, well done. “

PR Dos and Dont’s for handling a military action  in the age of social media
1) Over communication - Not everything needs to be out there
2) Over simplification - Same as point 1 given that a lot of people with no military or political experience are likely to manage social media communication
3) Too much negativity and positivity - Saw 2 groups this time around and likely that neither helped in understanding ground realities
4) Jingoism - Good old monkey on our backs, could now become a gorilla with the coming of age of social media
5) Needless propaganda 
6) Too many nodes of communication could lead to confusion and panic as it happened in the evacuation of villages from across the borders
7) Escalation of tensions
Source : Subhash Pais, i9 Communications 

However, Subhash Pais, founder and business head, i9 Communications, believes that the BJP could have done much better with its communication. He rates its PR as, “Poor and that would be putting it mildly. For a party and a PM that I feel have really set a standard in terms of reaching out and communicating effectively, I think the management of communication post the strikes reflects badly on the government. I expected far better, crisp communication which would cut through, reach out to the TG and arrest all doubts and get the momentum that a govt needs at a time like this. Instead what we have is a pie throwing contest. The govt managed its communication with its global partners brilliantly and i would give them an 8/10 for that, but at home you had statesmen like Manohar Parrikar making cringe worthy statements in the media. Eventually the PM had to intervene and put a lid on the ministers.” 

Congress lacks messaging

But opposition parties, and in particular, the Congress are caught on the hop about how to structure  their communication in the age of the Internet.

According to Sharma, many political leaders are ill -equipped to deal with the pressures of speaking on live TV and reacting to social media comments. He says, “ The BJP is able to establish a central message with their strong leadership. With the Congress there is a leadership gap and lack of consistent messaging that affects its communications.”

Pais agrees that, “ This could have been a window for Rahul Gandhi to step up and take control of the discourse within the party, especially with UP and Punjab going to the polls and not many expecting the Congress to do all that well in both the states.This could have been his opportunity to be more vocal and current and set a standard in how his party would communicate in the future. While there was an official communique on the Congress party's stand on Uri and the military strikes thereafter, there wasn't a stamp of a leader on the comments and Rahul Gandhi further overcompensated by making regrettable comments in an election rally against the central government, thus undermining his own position in Indian politics. I give the Congress a 3/10 for its PR strategy.” 

Adds Sharma, “ The Congress is in strong need to decide its central messaging, what it stands for on major issues. The techniques of communication can be learned, but the brand message must be decided first.”


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