A recent television commercial apparently meant to popularize Chinese noodles, in fact, establishes the superiority of products made in China. Over the years, Indian people have formulated a perception that products made in China may be considerably cheaper but actually are of very inferior quality and do not last long. This commercial is aimed to manipulate this popular perception and plant the thought in the minds of Indian children that Chinese goods are better and desirable. If the commercial was for only selling noodles, there was no need to project the mother as a Chinese woman wearing a Chinese dress. The child also tells his sister that not only their mom is Chinese but she also uses other products of China including the cell phone. Perception management through mass communication has been in vogue for long. Even during both the World Wars, all the stakeholders used pamphlets to either demoralize the enemy populations or to establish the superiority of their side.
Of all the fields including strategic planning, diplomatic moves, human resource management, troop deployment, financial maneuvering et al, it is communication planning that receives the least attention though at times it may prove to be vital and the most effective tool to achieve the desired goals. Economies all over the world may be receding, political stability may be becoming more vulnerable, social disharmony may be taking gigantic steps, cultures may be becoming more and more pungent but human connectivity is advancing by leaps and bounds. Not only in the developing societies but also in underdeveloped systems, penetration of mobile telephony and Internet is growing at an unprecedented speed. In the past, neither the radio nor television could reach the lowest strata of the societies but new media has done a wonder by connecting the largest section of the human population. In the entire history of mankind, the quantum of social change that occurred during last two decades due to the new technologies of communication is the largest as compared to what happened over the last few centuries.
The service providers may have succeeded in strategic planning to distribute their hardware and services to masses but the content of the communication has received scanty attention of the strategic planners. Today, USA is the most effective strategic planner and has been able to market its atrocities on people outside its jurisdiction as its sacrifice for humanity. At one point of time, the Soviet Union also communicated the superiority of its leftist ideology to the world effectively but failed miserably against the information onslaught of the West including the USA. China is a new entrant in the international information warfare. The example of the commercial of Chinese Noodles is only the tip of the iceberg. The manner in which China fed the Indian media about its justification of intruding into the Indian Territory is another example. The Indian media, both print and television, gave extra space and time to project Chinese assertions along with what our own government was conveying. The gradual perception management of the Indian population about China is a planned communication strategy by our unfriendly neighbour.
We in India appear to be using communication media quite extensively but in bits and pieces and certainly not for a sustained long term strategic effort. We hardly have a worth mentioning system of feeding the foreign media even in New Delhi. Most of the news and comments that foreign media persons create is based upon the reports of the Indian English media. In this process, both the real India and the views of the Government receive a scanty representation resulting in incomplete and distorted perceptions about India all over the world. In India, we may have a huge army of very able media persons yet we do not have even one communication strategist worth mentioning. We have the expertise to use media on piece meal basis but perhaps we do not have even a felt need to plan communications in a strategic manner to achieve our goals within and outside our own territory.
The strategic planning of communications inter alia includes
- listing the long and short term communication objectives,
- identifying and understanding the target audiences,
- designing a media mix to reach these audiences
- creating media content so as to make lasting impressions
- actually reaching the target audiences repeatedly in a planned manner
- collecting feedback from the audiences
- making midway corrections in media mix, media plan and the messages
- conducting periodical impact analysis
In his August 2008 paper, Rober T Hastings Jr. described strategic communication as "the synchronization of images, actions and words to achieve a desired effect." Steve Tathan of the UK Defence Academy argues that it is desirable to bind and coordinate communications together; it should be regarded in a much more fundamental manner than simply a process. The 'informational effect' should be placed at the very epi-centre and all action must be calibrated against that effect - including the evaluation of 2nd and 3rd order effects. This, according to him, is proper Strategic Communication. He makes a distinction between Strategic Communication and Strategic Communications and prefers the former to achieve the objectives.
Another important aspect is that strategic communication cannot be an effort isolated from the primary project planning. In fact, the emphasis should be to make communication planning as an integral part of the plan and policy document. An approved NATO document on Policy on Strategic Communication highlights the desirability of integrating the communication efforts with the main plan in an inseparable manner. It states, "the coordinated and appropriate use of NATO communications activities and capabilities – Public Diplomacy, Military Public Affairs, Information Operations and Psychological Operations, as appropriate – in support of Alliance policies, operations and activities, and in order to advance NATO's aims" (SG(2009)0794). "It is important to underline that Strategic Communication is first and foremost a process that supports and underpins all efforts to achieve the Alliance's objectives; an enabler that guides and informs our decisions, and not an organization in itself. It is for this reason that Strategic Communication considerations should be integrated into the earliest planning phases - communication activities being a consequence of that planning" (MCM-0164-2009).
In our own country perhaps the longest information campaign was that of Ministry of Health as a part of the population control measures. The campaign started in early fifties of the last century and is still on but success in changing perception in favor of small family and fewer number of children has only been partial. About one fifth of the population, mainly of minorities, has not been targeted so far. The apparent reason is that it was a campaign in bits and pieces and the thrust kept on changing. Assorted information events cannot succeed in changing the mind set.
The NDA Government’s India Shining campaign of about Rs 200 crores is another example. Out of the blue, the Indians were told that despite intense economic and social inequalities, India was shining. It failed to assess the perceptions of the people at the time when the campaign was launched. You cannot make a beginning from the point where you have yet to reach and that was the great disconnect. Perhaps the claim of shine was blinding for the common Indians. India Shining was a communication event management and not even a campaign what to talk about strategy.
Bharat Nirman advertisement bonanza of UPA of about Rs 600 crores seems to follow the same pattern. It has no connect with the Government advertisements of the recent past, neither there is any sign of strategic planning. A strategy unfolds gradually and adds on to the information and motivation step by step. But each ad of Bharat Nirman is complete in itself and does not connect with the past. An effective campaign like that of Amul is a progressive journey from one point to another, both points well defined by the planners in this case.
Communication theorist describes this non-strategic communication in terms of 'bullet theory'. Information is fired rapidly like bullets in the direction of the targets but without taking a precise aim. Result is huge redundancy and wasted effort. Long back Steel Authority of India took up a strategic communication campaign and over the years created an image for them as a company that is socially relevant and yet it also makes steel. Delhi Development Authority (DDA) during last decade or so has systematically managed to change the public perception of the people of Delhi about DDA from being a highly corrupt and inefficient organization to one with committed to transparency and public convenience.
Another failure of thinking and planning in terms of strategic communication planning is our war with the Naxals. We are hardly fighting the Naxals on the ideological front by taking up information to the minds of the already affected and likely to be affected populations. No one is shouting that Maoism has failed elsewhere and it is bound to create more problems than it can solve. Deployment of uniformed personnel and launching combat can be one part of strategy but psychological combat by way of information onslaught is hardly being planned. May be, it is essential to prepare the populations where Naxalites are likely to extend their wings to oppose Maoism on the ideological level. But it needs a mindset of strategic and systematic planning of changing the thought and behavior. Unfortunately the experts are perhaps not even sensitized to this kind of psycho-warfare within the country.
We do not know whether Mahatma Gandhi consciously planned his communication strategy for non violent protest but there appears to be a shadow of consistent progressive effort to inform and mobilize the people. Swami Vivekananda had a well laid down strategy to reestablish Vedanta and superiority of Hindu thought well before he physically left India to conquer the world. His was a victory by communicating effectively and strategically.
In various management teaching programs, planning, finance, human resource, marketing etc. are essential components of learning but it would be worthwhile to introduce the theory and practice of communication strategic planning. It would not only help in business but it will also help in the process of governance. In addition, seminars, workshops and add-on courses may also be organized to produce communication strategic planners. But, alas, this also needs strategic planning, of which we are shy to a great extent.
The author is the Vice-Chancellor of the Makhanlal Chaturvedi National University of Journalism & Communication, Bhopal