A story, a PRO, and a suicide

BY Geeta Seshu| IN Media Practice | 06/07/2013
Was he a whistleblower or simply a PRO who could not prevent a story that described management failures in the company from being published?
GEETA SESHU on the suicide of Charudutta Deshpande.
The public relations professional’s career depends on how to get a good story into the media and keep a bad story out, but does one’s life have to hinge on it? That’s just one of the disturbing questions left behind by the tragic death of a senior corporate communications executive, Charudatta Deshpande, in Mumbai, last week.
Deshpande, who reportedly hanged himself in his Vasai residence on Friday, June 28, 2013, had quit his job as Chief of Corporate Affairs and Communications at Tata Steel barely a month ago. He worked earlier as general manager of ICICI Bank and in Mahindra and Mahindra. Deshpande was equally well-known to a large section of Mumbai’s media as a former journalist with a host of publications, including The Daily (now defunct), Indian Express and Economic Times.
Amidst allegations that he was put under tremendous pressure by the management of Tata Steel over an unflattering article about the company in Forbes India, several of Deshpande’s former colleagues as well as journalists of Forbes India have written to the Chairman Emeritus and Chairman of Tata Sons, Ratan Tata and Cyrus Mistry, to institute an inquiry into his death. The latter, in a swift response, appointed a four-member team headed by non-executive Director Ishaat Hussain, to enquire into the allegations.
Till date, however, no police complaint was lodged on the circumstances leading to Deshpande’s death, in deference to the wishes of the family. Vasai police are investigating the case as a matter of routine.
The Hoot sought to probe the circumstances surrounding the death of Charuddatta Deshpande and to establish whether he was a whistleblower or a PRO who could not prevent a story that described management failures in the company from being published. Was he accused of either and did that lead to his decision to take his own life? After talking to several persons, including signatories to the letter, we have learnt that the pressure Deshpande was under arose partly from this, and partly from internal company politics, which is not under the purview of the Hoot to explore.
According to the letter to Tata Sons, Deshpande was ‘placed under enormous stress and harassment by officials at Tata Steel’ and it was this harassment that prompted him to commit suicide. In April 2013, Forbes India wrote a cover story “Remoulding Tata Steel” on the challenges before the company, even as a crucial CEO succession drama was unfolding, the letter stated, adding that the letter was based on extensive reporting.
Deshpande got in touch with Forbes India journalists, including its then editor Indrajit Gupta, and disclosed the tremendous pressure he was in due to the publication of the article.
As the letter put it: “Soon after it appeared in print though, a distraught Charu got in touch with those of us at Forbes India and alleged officials at Tata Steel were placing the blame on him for “facilitating” a story they thought inimical to their interests.
He added he was subsequently grounded for more than two weeks; that for all practical purposes was “under house arrest” in Jamshedpur; that his phones were being tapped; and that he was being subjected to enormous pressure to “admit” to his complicity in “leaking” confidential company documents to the media.
In the letter, Gupta said Deshpande personally informed him of this. But why didn’t Gupta go to the police with this startling information?
Gupta told The Hoot that he did convey this to senior officials at Tata Sons on at least three occasions and assumed the matter would be addressed. “I don’t know whether they did something about it. I assumed they did”, he said. He had told Deshpande to take up the matter too but the latter was reluctant to ‘escalate’ it and feared the repercussions on himself and his family.
So was Deshpande a whistleblower? Was he the source of the story as alleged by his former colleagues in Tata Steel? Or, did the pressure of interacting with journalists in the course of his work as a corporate communications officer backfire in some horrible way?
 “Charu was obviously not the source of our story. Prince (Prince Thomas, the writer of the story) and I had spent a great deal of time on it. It was obviously an in-depth exercise and we spoke to a number of people,” Gupta said categorically. The story itself dealt with Tata Steel and its production capacity, its supply chain and examined the challenges before the business.
Gupta’s former colleague Prince Thomas also corroborated his assertion that Deshpande was not the source of the story. He said, “Charu only facilitated my visit to Kalinganagar and organised the logistics of my travel there or the contacts I would meet there. There was information in the story Charu would also not have been aware of. So to take him as the sole source of our story is not right.”
“It is very sad. It is not at all the purpose of a journalist to put someone under such pressure due to a story. Of course, the lines between public relations and journalism are completely blurred today”, Prince felt, adding that journalists are privy to inducements from the public relations officers for coverage. “It is very common for journalists to get gifts, including cheques and gift coupons. The corporate communications officers get congratulated if there is a positive story about their company and become scapegoats if there is something negative!”
Already beleaguered in his job in Tata Steel and unable to bear the pressure after the Forbes India story, Deshpande decided to quit his job but obviously the pressure continued after, even spilling over to the aftermath of his death, the letter says, alleging that officials of Tata Steel, including a PR officer, tried to pass off his death as a heart attack!
An official spokesperson of Tata Sons told The Hoot that no attempt was made to mislead journalists into believing Deshpande had died due to a heart attack. “We don’t do such things. There must have been a miscommunication or the person may not have been from our company,” the spokesperson said, adding that the inquiry committee would submit its report to the board of Tata Sons in two months.

Clearly, in the death of Charudatta Deshpande, other tales may still need to be told.

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