Elections and the PR fever

BY AJITH PILLAI| IN Opinion | 25/07/2013
When a general election looms, the competition among PR agencies hots up.
Each outfit keeps a watch on the other and even private detectives are called in to keep tabs, reveals AJITH PILLAI.

Dipped in Witriol

When a general election looms large, the competition among PR agencies hots up by at least 30 degrees. Each outfit keeps a watch on the other and even private detectives are called in to keep tabs on what is going on in a rival agency. The 2014 polls scheduled for next summer is being billed by many politicians as a battle royale that will not only be played out in individual constituencies but also on the pages of newspapers, TV studios and the social media in cyberspace. The pundits predict a media war on a scale that we have never witnessed in this country. For the typical PR Joe or Jill it’s certainly both exciting and testing times ahead.

It is in context of the elections that Hearsay Inc, a detective firm which operates out of Delhi and specialises in tapping phones, comes into the picture. “We hear what your competition hears and also hear what they say,” is what Captain Marvel, its chief investigator promises. Incidentally, he got his name because he was skipper of his school cricket team and was mad about Marvel superhero comics. But before we go any further it must be said here that in his not so illustrious career the Captain had rarely cracked a case but had often cracked up listening in to boring conversations between people who would have done him a big favour by revealing something about their crimes or even misdemeanours rather than discuss movie plots. As for politicians, he thought he had hit on something in the 2009 elections when he caught a politician demanding a ticket over the phone. It later transpired that he simply wanted an air ticket to attend a wedding in LA.

But despite having such an unimpressive track record, Captain Marvel is in demand thanks to the 2014 elections. His latest assignment: to keep tabs on Pros at Cons (P@C), a PR agency which hopes to bag several accounts of key politicians by taking inspiration from Hook Or By Crook—A  Trickster’s Manual (Double-in-a Day Publishers, 1984).  Well, last week, tired of tapping phones, the Captain decided to try something new--sneak into the offices of the PR agency late at night. Initially he found nothing interesting except few cats discussing civic problems while scrounging around for leftover pizzas. In fact, after an hour of searching our sleuth almost gave up when something caught his attention—a diary of an employee. When he flipped through it he realised he had hit pay dirt. “I have the diary of an imaginative PR man in my possession,” he excitedly informed his client, “now you get to know exactly how the competition operates.”

So what was there in the diary that caught his imagination? Here is the entry for a week that we sourced from another detective agency keeping an eye on the Captain:

Monday, July 15:  Asked to plant three stories—one for a chief minister and two for ordinary politicians who think they are extraordinary. Sent an SOS to friends in the media. They said they have already carried two stories from P@C last week. Summoned in the evening by the boss who wanted to know how things were working. I told him no paper was willing to carry news about the opening in a village of a one-room clinic without a doctor or an MP visiting his constituency to spend time with his family. As for the chief minister, the papers had just published reports praising him for his farsighted vision despite his myopia. Given that, I suggested the CM’s office be told to take the paid news route to get immediate publicity. I was admonished: “Why should the state government pay the papers and channels when they are paying us?”

I guess desperate situations call for desperate action. So I tried other friends in the press. I pleaded with them to carry the stories--there was good money in it for them. I also lied that I could ask a prominent politician to recommend each of them for a promotion. They agreed to file by the weekend. Now that’s what the boss would call three money and promotion plants in a day!

Went home happy. Read Hook or By Crook for further inspiration. Sent 10 tweets on behalf of clients before turning in.        

Tuesday, July 16:  The job, as far as the three stories go, was done. Now, one had to wait for them to appear in print. The proof of the planting is after all in the publishing. Meanwhile, I was told to organise a plant visit. Managed to find reporters, even senior correspondents who didn’t mind flying out of Delhi and having a good time. But no one could promise the four column coverage the client expected. The boss said, “Give the mediawallahs money, scotch, anything...Employ any trick--brainwashing, head cleaning shampooing, persuasion, blackmail. This is a cut throat business.”

I didn’t think cut throat but a plan evolved in my mind. I sat on my laptop and keyed in a story idea with a controversial angle—something about certain licences not cleared for the plant. There was suddenly a controversial twist to the tale which the client can conveniently deny two days later since necessary okays from the government were due the next day.

Back home. Sent 20 tweets and hit the sack.

Wednesday July 17: The results of my efforts yesterday were impressive stories in the morning papers. I quickly drafted and dashed of the denial which will be carried by everyone tomorrow. The client is pleased—he’s got two stories for the price of one. Had lunch with some reporters. Tried to con them into believing that the future of this country is in what they write. After giving them the spiel for a while, I was reminded that I had told them the same thing last week. But they were pleased nevertheless since it made them feel important. Got drunk and skipped office saying I was at an important meeting.  Luckily, the boss was also at a meeting, I presume, of equal importance.

Thursday July 18: Was summoned early and told that I must ensure that the three stories assigned to me on Monday appeared by the weekend. There was another story given to me--a senior politician making mountains out of molehills by lying about their height. “This one is tricky. You have to be more imaginative,” said the boss  “pretend you have already spoken to the editor and say the story has his approval or send a forged memo to the reporter from the malikof the paper in question ordering him to file the story. In Pros@Cons we don’t simply cajole people.”

But I chose to call a buddy in one of the dailies and got it into the city supplement. Boss called late night and wondered if I had gotten lucky. When I said I managed to pull it off he said why not follow up on the same neta who performed card tricks—including the communal card—during his spare time. Boss did sound a bit sloshed or was slurring of his speech a late night routine?          

Friday, July 19: I am told I am part of a team that will ensure that stories about a state government appear in six national dailies, six regional papers and a dozen news channels. Included in the list was a publication apparently published from somewhere on the lunar surface called Moony Times!  Now, how would we crack that with Virgin Atlantic yet to start its flight to the moon?  Called Sir Richard Branson for help but he said there was nothing he could do? But he wondered if I could plant a story about his plans to make an elephant walk on the moon. I said I certainly could swing that. “Being in the news is important. At Virgin we need people like you,” Sir Richard said as a parting shot.

I was by then already over the moon..!

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