Three seismic events over the last month or so can become case studies in crisis communication for business schools across the country. How not to do it, to be precise.
First, in a late October announcement Tata Sons, the holding company of the $102-billion salt-to-software conglomerate, said that it has replaced Cyrus Mistry, its chairman of four years. The sacking was ostensibly for non-performance and diverging from the core Tata values, but that was left unsaid in the initial days. The outgoing chairman too kept his distance from the media in those crucial 48-72 hours, a time when opinions are shaped and the narrative is set for such an epic boardroom war.
No wonder, what followed was a media open house on both Tatas and Mistry, with stories often tilting one way or the other depending on which “camp” was feeding the information. True, in any corporate battle of this nature there would be differing point of views on issues of corporate governance, legacy, leadership, and who is right or wrong would be debated ad nauseam. But the reluctance on the part of both the protagonists in this war to communicate officially — fully and promptly — meant that the news genie was out of the bottle, and all post-facto efforts to press a huge battery of public relations men and firms into the job was just a defensive, limiting the damage kind of manoeuvre. As a result, carefully built corporate and personal reputations are in the mud, and the samurai here have only themselves to blame.
Even as the Tata-Mistry war was playing out in full vigour across the media, the worsening air quality of the national capital was keeping its citizens on the edge. A day after Diwali, Delhi reported its worst air day in over a decade. With fires burning across fields in neighbouring Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh accentuating the approaching winter smog, everyone could see a crisis coming. And yet, both the state government led by the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) Arvind Kejriwal — who, just a year back, successfully convinced millions of Delhiites to leave their cars at home for sake of clean air — and the central government in charge of the environment ministry just let the crisis descend on the city, with little or no attempt to proactively communicate with its citizens.
The pre-Diwali build-up with Delhi schoolchildren on the ill-effects of bursting crackers, opening communication channels with neighbouring state governments on limiting the damage from crop burning somehow lacked administrative credibility this time around. It was the courts that were seen to be at the forefront by passing strict, though largely un-enforceable, orders on dust and vehicular emission. And in the absence of a clear communication from the Delhi chief minister, the narrative that the AAP is shy of taking on Punjab farmers with an eye on the upcoming state polls took root. Rightly or wrongly, Delhiites came to believe that the AAP is sacrificing their interests at the alter of political expediency.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi did well to take political ownership of the demonetisation move as he chose to address the nation on the night of November 8. While he exalted the move as a “surgical strike” on black money, something that will help eradicate chronic corruption across the country, even a great communicator like him may have erred on two counts here. Though it was right for the prime minister to appear himself and announce the move, what was missing was the signalling that the top team of implementers by his side would have provided. The sight of, say, the finance minister, the central bank governor and key figures of the government machinery, who were anyway in the know of this highly secretive move, standing next to the prime minister in the live televised address would have helped build confidence among citizens that the government and its agencies have put in adequate preparations to handle the colossus mechanics of this exercise.
Maybe some of the pain and panic that unfolded in the days and weeks following the announcement could have been avoided. Another, and perhaps a more crucial omission was under-emphasising the personal, direct benefits that the move will accrue to a large number or people — something that the prime minister is doing now by linking huge deposits that has flowed into the banking system with low interest rates for consumers and businesses alike.