Spotting the Astro Turf

BY ANJALI PURI| IN Archive | 25/09/2012
A HOOT SPECIAL REPORT-close to two years after the Radia tapes emerged, media management remains a hardy industry.
ANJALI PURI trawled the worlds of journalism, media marketing, advertising and public relations to produce this funny and damning report.
Good PR, they say, craftily conceals its hand. By that standard, a lead edit page article called Of Dull Jacks and Jills  late last month in the Times of India (TOI) was not just good but great PR. Carrying the byline of the nation's current darling, Olympic medal-winning boxer Mary Kom, it read like a passionate plea by a   sportswoman and a mother-of-two, on National Sports Day, for playgrounds where the nation's children could freely gambol.  There was just a glancing reference in the last paragraph to "corporate giants who are coming forward to build and maintain playgrounds”. A reader was moved enough to write in to say, “Mary has spread the word, let’s all take up this as a movement and give our children more time to play”.
As it happens, however, this article was not a plea but a pitch, and the ‘movement’ had already begun. Since corporate promotions are all over the Net these days, it  only took some Googling and You-Tubing to identify this edit page article as an undisclosed plug for the FMCG giant Proctor and Gamble (P&G), for whom Mary Kom is a brand ambassador. She has been part of two major P&G campaigns -- the Thank you, Mom campaign, which segued into the Moms for Playgrounds campaign. Note that Mary Kom’s TOI article ends with the words, “Thank you, mom.”
Make no mistake, Moms for Playgrounds is a commercial campaign. It urges consumers to buy P& G products by telling them a part of the proceeds (for three months, actually) will go towards building playgrounds “across the country” (40, actually). These days, PR and advertising campaigns are, so the buzzword goes, ‘integrated’, which means a whole bunch of things happen ‘spontaneously’ at the same time.  So, shortly before Mary Kom’s edit page pitch surfaced, an event management company hired by P&G was carrying out an “in store activity” – i.e. going up to shoppers and urging them to buy P&G products for the sake of playgrounds. And on the day the TOI edit page piece appeared, “Magnificent Mary”, as a P&G press release put it, led a National Sport Day rally sprinkled with starlets to demand playgrounds.

There is a lovely term that the British journalist Nick Davies quotes cynical PR wallahs as using (in his book Flat Earth News, Vintage, 2009) to describe such manufactured movements (often coalescing around days no one cared to celebrate a few years ago). Astro Turf campaigns, as distinct from grassroots ones. So how do Astro Turf campaigns land up on the edit pages of our top newspapers? One can only speculate, because who can divine the inner workings of a behemoth. But here are two facts that might assist us in our speculations.  One, P&G is the world's biggest advertiser. Two, the Moms for Playgrounds campaign has been advertised on the front page of the TOI -- though not on the same day as Mary Kom’s article appeared. 
When corporate plugs surface on the edit page, they makes a larger point: that puff jobs are not confined, as media CEOs reassuringly tell us, to the heaving vats of PR that newspaper supplements and lifestyle channels have long become. They are on prime editorial spaces too, sometimes so subtle and insidious that it takes a professional eye to spot them – like that of the PR person who texted to say, “Take a look at the edit page of the TOI.” 
At other times not. "They tie up," the writer Jerry Pinto wrote in 2006 in a stinging column in Outlook magazine on the deal-making between Bollywood and television channels. He said what was obvious to many, that channels airing film promos were committing editorial spots to those films, and news anchors were talking up the films on their programmes. When I asked him to ‘update’ his column, Pinto said: “A certain lack of respect for morality has crept in. Has anyone noticed how every film has media partners, and then those media partners review the film and give it four or five stars? And no one wonders about conflict of interest?”
If you’re inhabiting the upper reaches of the politico-corporate- bureaucratic complex, this sort of stuff barely qualifies as subversion. The Radia tapes, laying bare the masterful manipulation of journalists by a skilled PR professional representing the country’s two most powerful corporations have raised the bar so high that they’ve made the ‘normal’   manoeuvres that turn editorial into surrogate advertising look positively insipid by comparison. But the big, bold moves of politico-corporate PR, with billions of rupees at stake, and the more mundane transactions of everyday PR are aspects of the same phenomenon -- the deepening inroads of business, over the last two decades, into editorial spaces, with oh, so many seductive overtures from the media itself .
PR in Perspective: From ‘Chappals’ to Campaigns
In chronicling the stratospheric rise of a family who were, and are, masters of the media game, Hamish McDonald’s Ambani and Sons (Roli Books, 2010) provides glimpses of how a canny   businessman dealt with the media before the ’90s, which brought liberalization, media expansion and sweeping changes in the way the media business was run. He describes how Dhirubhai Ambani used advertising clout to muscle hostile smaller publications into compliance and cultivated the lower orders of the metropolitan press with envelopes containing vouchers for his Vimal brand of polyester materials.  There was a pecking order: Senior journalists and editors, among them Girilal Jain, the then editor of the Times of India, got Reliance shares or debentures at par.
The book also provides a detailed account of the legendary ‘Polyester Mahabharata’ between Dhirubhai and rival businessman Nusli Wadia in the 1980s, in which Dhirubhai’s journalist coterie, nicknamed The Dirty Dozen, unleashed negative stories against Wadia, who, in turn, won the support of press baron Ramnath Goenka. Goenka launched a long, ferocious campaign in his Indian Express against Dhirubhai, not just because of his near-familial ties with Wadia but also his outrage at Dhirubhai’s consolidation of power and use of the press. According to McDonald’s account, Dhirubhai made probably the most “damaging blunder” of his life when, admitting he used his influence to get a favourable press, he told the press baron: “I have one gold chappal and one silver chappal. Depending on who it is, I strike him with the gold chappal or the silver chappal.”
While the venerable practice of ad withdrawal is still in use, the picture McDonald paints sounds distinctly old-fashioned. First, there’s the obvious matter of scale. If the Ambanis have got beyond polyester, so have the journalists. A shiny  suit-length, once the corporate gift of choice, is something today’s middle-rung business journo, wooed with sleek gizmos, might carelessly pass on to an office assistant. And, despite the parallels between the media’s role in the ‘Polyester Mahabharata’ and the fratricidal, intra-Ambani war two decades later, the notion of a Dirty Dozen seems charmingly antiquated too, like something out of an old Hollywood flick. As the Radia tapes vividly convey, managing the media in an era of 700 TV channels and 72,000 publications,  is an industrial-scale operation.
Secondly, a media baron’s relentless, expensive, long-drawn-out campaign against one corporate giant, on a matter of sharp principle and ego, sounds so very yesterday. Run like any other business, and almost dangerously advertising-dependent, the Indian media today is a pragmatic creature, as editors admit in their franker moments. While it lets corporate barons blitz each other on its pages -- keeps them happy and notches up ‘exclusives’ too -- its approach to business is guarded and calibrated.  It’s quite content, for example, to let some big companies indicted in CAG reports melt away from the headlines while it trains its guns on politicians instead. News channels, largely in the red, are today handling even low-level corporate demands with tact, insiders point out.
Says a news anchor: “The phone calls start coming in as soon as a story goes on air. It doesn’t have to be a big business story, it could just be a controversy about a hospital. First corporate PR starts calling, then your business vice president drops in to tell you there is a ‘reaction’.  Calls also come from across the spectrum – for example, a politician will call to try and get a business story dropped. The aim is to catch the news cycle, and not allow the story to linger. It is not hard to take off, you can always say you are going on to a bigger story.” 
Adds a former editor at a business channel: “If you throw the textbook at PRs, asking them to specify what’s wrong with the story, they slide into street lingo and say, thoda negative hai, drop kar do. Some tell you they know your boss. It surprised me until I realized there was a pre-existing newsroom culture of entertaining such calls. Thinking ad-first story-second was common. There was even had the odd case of someone who’d been working in communications and investor relations presenting programmes.”
The flip side of this equation is that the media will go as far as possible to monetize editorial spaces, even as it injects them with calculated bursts of firepower to shore up credibility. Growing ‘synergy’ -- a word they like in these circles  -- between media marketing, on the one hand, and advertising and PR on the other has created an array of  ‘editorial products’ – different forms of paid content, advertorials that look like editorial , sponsors creeping into the editorial content of  sponsored programmes, ‘PR-friendly’ events and awards, and new mechanisms for generating  ‘internal PR’ within media organisations.
More on that later, but for now it’s sufficient to note that advertising professionals and journalists, who rarely agree on much, tend to concur that the shifts in the media’s priorities, over the ’90s and especially the 2000s, in which editorial spaces became seen as asset-generating,  have been critical to the ascendancy of PR in the media. For media companies that entered the corporate mainstream in a full-blooded way, the imperative to make editorial pay for itself was even stronger. “We are listed quarter by quarter. We have to show profits,” Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of   IBN18 Network, told critics at a discussion on media ethics a couple of years ago.
Santosh Desai, CEO of the brand consulting firm, Future Brands, says:   " As far as advertising is concerned, it has always wanted to penetrate the sacred space of editorial, because that is where credibility lies. And now, here was editorial saying, penetrate me."  So, of course advertising did just that, as PR.
It fitted in well with new trends in advertising, marketing and PR, where the lines have also been blurring. With new technology making it easier for viewers to bypass ads, advertising became increasingly focused on creating ‘branded content’. (That’s  adspeak for embedding your brands in editorial. ) There was also a new thrust on ‘integrated’ campaigns that ran concurrently on the screen and the ground (and on the edit page, as we saw), with PR, advertising and marketing all acting in concert. With the media serving up ‘editorial products’, generating PR pap  became less about honeyed persuasion and more about transactions  --- cracking cross-media and joint marketing deals, negotiating sponsorships to the advantage of the advertiser, working out quid pro quos, getting the maximum publicity for the cheapest price. Media-buying agencies, the handlers of advertising money, have come to play a bigger role, and are now producers of froth and puff in their own right. “Classical PR,” declares Ravi Rao, leader South Asia, of the media buying agency, Mindshare, “is giving way to a new kind of PR, and a vast majority of the new campaigns are handled by media buyers.”
The ‘new PR’ involves, among other things, taking the old tricks of the PR trade to a snazzier level and amplifying them digitally for free publicity. Rao gives the example of  the Sachin Boost Anthem ( “Yo boys, let's sing song … cricket song … Sachin song” ), created this year by his agency, for Glaxo, which makes the drink, Boost, and has Sachin Tendulkar as its brand ambassador. “When the song Kolaveri became extremely popular, we got the guy who did the song, and paid him a nominal sum, you would be shocked to know the amount of money we paid, and he created this anthem,” he explains animatedly. “Anchors picked it up, newspapers picked it up, it became a storyline on the news channels, and all at the lowest cost. If  I were to produce a full-fledged commercial with Sachin Tendulkar, I  could have ended up spending anywhere between Rs 1 and Rs 3 crores. We spent no more than 20 lakhs. It went all over the place at 1/15th of the cost!” 

In a press release on its campaign, Mindshare revealed that a key element was the digital strategy for “tactfully seeding the content, where ‘people’ would make it viral”.   (The term ‘seed’ is akin to the journalistic term ‘plant’. ) Extolling the campaign in its columns, the Hindu Businessline reported, “Take a celebrated cricketer, a familiar beverage he has endorsed for over 20 years, a social media phenomenon that rocked the country, and a flash mob — it has all the makings of another song going viral.”


Note: The  ‘chappals’ and envelopes are still around, but  they’re clearly part of a much larger  armoury.
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