Public sphere invariably receives and absorbs public communication arrived through emotional route more comfortably than those reaching it through rational route. Members of the public crowd this sphere and media echo their cheers, jeers, and sneers through media stories. Media does it some times truthfully and at times twisting and turning the story for impact. What do you do when such twists and turns in the intended communication lead to public backlash?
The lesson drawn for a communicator whenever a communication driven through an emotional route goes wrong, it can be corrected or navigated to a desired direction only by following another creatively crafted emotional route.
It needs to be borne in mind that if the route of communication problem sprouts out of emotional imagery rather than rational ground, the effective way to tackle such imagery problem is to adopt an equally emotive response. Let me cite few real-life examples to substantiate my argument.
The recent example is of the Samajwadi Party (SP) scoring a strategic edge over all other political parties during the no confidence motion over nuclear deal.
SP took a well thought out communication posture saying it joined the Congress party in national interest. On the other hand, notwithstanding its noteworthy ideological following in the English press, perceptionally the CPM’s image got reduced to a political party that clings on to power without inclination to share the concomitant accountability.
Heart of the hearts all political pundits knew that both parties chose to part ways basically out of their electoral compulsions in UP, Kerala and West Bengal. But end of the day the impression gained ground that the Samajwadi Party won in this round of public communication whereas the CPM lost. All rational answers of CPM to defend itself fell on deaf ears.
This is what is the make believe world of public communication, both for receiver and the sender. It creates popular perception, operating more in the domain of emotions than reasoning. Effects that follow may be intended or unintended – hence they may be good, bad or ugly or even awkward. Few more examples would help us understand this phenomenon a little better.
Amarnath Shrine Board – responsible for upkeep of the shrine and well being of the pilgrims – asked J&K Government to provide patches of land along the Yatra route for setting up tentage and make shift structures for meeting the core needs of pilgrims – security, sanitation and shelter.
The government obliged the board to woo the electorates in Jammu without really foreseeing the possible political fallout in the valley. The armchair decision unleashed disgruntled political forces. Anti-India chant rented the air in the valley.
Pressurised to its teeth, the J&K Government found a creative way out and offered to take over the responsibility of both the needs of the pilgrims directly instead of giving land to the Board to do the same job. Local Hindutva forces, especially in Jammu, swiftly rushed in to fish in the troubled water and were able to orchestrate a perception that the government is rather weak and not able to protect the dignity and interest of the Hindus in the state.
No matter how much logic the information managers in the J&K government tried, they failed to counter the orchestrated perception floated by the hardliners which eventually became popular perception.
Popular perception on BRT corridor is yet another case in point. The English media – whose car using target audience formed only 6 per cent of the corridor user – wrote an anti-BRT script and orchestrated it so deftly that even the non-users bought their story blindly.
Even vernacular press – whose bus using audience formed 62 per cent of the corridor user – uncritically borrowed the same anti-BRT story and sang as if it was their own. They went on singing the borrowed tune until they were made to realize that the bus commuters on the corridor never had it so good. Once formed, rightly or wrongly, the popular perception is emotionally infectious and can be replaced only with only a powerful counter emotional communication rather than a rational one.
In this case the counter emotional communication was carefully mounted on the majority public good argument, even though brought in at the last stage, to put check on all gone wrong campaign on BRT.
Yet another example of emotionally charged popular perception defying commonsensical reasoning was the AajTak’s whipping of an anti-Bihari image of the CM Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, derived out of her public speech at an inauguration function of a flyover in Delhi. At this morning function she showed concern on increasing pressure on infrastructure mounted by waves of migration from Bihar, UP and other adjoining states.
The channel reporter, back to its editing room post reporting, selectively edited words like other states to give an impression that she spoke derogatorily and discriminately of Biharis and UPites only.
The channel aired the edited footage continuously until joined by others and within few hours the whole Delhi was flamed with passion. Effigies of Sheila Dikshit were burnt and demonstrations became commonsight on streets of Patna and Delhi by evening. Political advisor to Sheila Dikshit restrained her in sending rebuttal to media on the rational ground that it would amount to admission of guilt. Good sense prevailed on them only when the crisis reached its climax after a few MPs from Bihar raised the issue vociferously in Parliament the next morning.
It was at this stage that Ms Dikshit decided to hold a press conference and clarify the truth and circulate the unedited CDs to all media persons. In the press conference, Ms Dikshit clarified the context, distributed CDs as proof and still apologized to the public on emotional note saying she never meant any hurt any regional community. Adopting the emotional route, she deflated the charged emotions thus.
From personal experience of encountering a monstrous monkey man’s menace during my district policing days, let me bring to you another example to argue how negative images entering the domain of public imagination through emotional route can be only countered by emotional imagery, not by following a rational route based on facts and statistics.
When the Delhi Police was taking public beating on the issue of mischievous monkey man in early 2001, its central district seized more than a dozen tiger skin and trophies and as its chief my news sense prompted me to hold a press conference on the seizure. A large number of media persons, including photojournalists arrived and several of them landed up in my office chamber for an informal chart.
A monkey’s mask was lying on my table and it attracted their curiosity. I explained haw a shop in Karol Bagh was raided the previous night because it was selling scary looking monkey masks used by a miscreant to fake as monstrous monkey man. One photojournalist prompted me to put the mask on my face and hypnotically I followed suit. Caught unaware of their intent, I could not anticipate the photo opportunity it would create.
Within seconds, some of these photojournalists present swooped over me, clicking their cameras. It got over within no time as if nothing happened. The press conference on the seizures of tiger skins followed. The next day, to my utter surprise, I saw my mask wearing photos looming large over the front-page of major national dailies. The tiger skin seizure story got relegated to the forth or the fifth page. Many friends and well-wishers rang me up to congratulate me on having nabbed the monkey man. I was puzzled. The truth was that the monkey man was never really nabbed. Some thought my denial originated out of my modesty. This unexpected, extensive coverage and the public response thereafter brought home an important lesson. And that was: if the root of the problem sprouts not out of reality but out of emotions based imagery, one effective way to tackle such imaginary problem with an equally emotive response.