Friday, December 10, 2010

To communicate effectively, understand first how media functions - it's a whole new world out there

I’ve always loved the occasional lecture session with students. During my career in the insurance industry, I had volunteered for selection as a faculty member in the General Insurance Corporation’s vocational course, a pilot project that ran for about four years. The two years I spent teaching students various aspects of insurance were indeed very satisfying and it was with regret that I got back to the operational side.

When years ago I decided to enroll for a journalism course at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, it was passion that drove me. I didn’t miss out on a single class and didn’t mind being the eldest in an intelligent and smart batch of 25. Those days, the Bhavan had stalwarts such as S. Muthiah and A. Padmanabhan who made it such a pleasure listening to lectures on reporting, writing and editing.

On of the friendships I forged then was with M.R. Krishnamurthy, who had retired from The Hindu and lectured us on editing. Perhaps because I was the senior-most or perhaps because I was friendly, I do not know, but MRK took a liking to me and would often accompany me to have coffee opposite – at the Karpagambal mess as it was called then. And over coffee we would talk about many things connected to journalism. He would call me home and his wife would treat me to hot, steaming filtered coffee and he would request me to accompany him to the bank sometimes. One of his sons, K. Venkataramanan had served as foreign correspondent in Sri Lanka for PTI before family circumstances, I assume, brought him back. He was my colleague at The Times of India. In later years, MRK was stricken by Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and it was a sad ending.

I mention MRK here because probably without his initiative I might not have got into the academic side of journalism and media. In 1997, he said he had had enough of it at the Bhavan and would I take his classes the following year onwards. That was how my journalism lectures began. The Bhavan innings lasted more than five years and I went on to help set up the Photojournalism Academy at the Jai Gopal Garodia School in Anna Nagar and also SRM University’s post-graduate diploma course in journalism. At various institutes and forums, including summer camps conducted by the Mylapore Times, I have lectured to a motley group ranging from Plus-2 students to housewives and businessmen.

So, when Banu Marie, who heads the communication function at the Centre for Social Initiative and Management (CSIM), said she wanted me to inaugurate a two-day workshop at Asha Nivas for senior NGO staff and development workers on the aspect of Improving Media Relations for Development Communication I readily agreed. CSIM is a learning centre that provides training on concepts of social entrepreneurship among practitioners and individuals interested in social development. Its Centre for Media and Development Communication aims to train development professionals and social entrepreneurs on acquiring media and communication skills.

I decided to first take the participants along a broad sweep of events that had changed the media landscape. When I grew up my generation had the radio, the newspaper and lots of books for company. Yes, listening to the radio was not boring then – there was Vividh Bharati, and Ameen Sayani; there were Sushil Jhaveri, Surojit Sen and Lotika Ratnam who taught you what good diction was while reading out the news (Jhaveri’s narration was sublime poetry); there were Anand Setalwad and Suresh Saraiya who brought a different rhythm to cricket, and Ashish Ray who brought alive the happenings on the Calcutta football fields; and, of course, Melville D’Mello… who can forget him!

Youngsters like me learned communication from these people – just by listening to them. I remember waiting for the Bournvita Quiz Contest on radio on Sunday afternoons at 12.15, only to listen to Ameen Sayani. The only newspaper I read was The Statesman, highly respected then for its impartiality and editorial standards. Those days, I do not think there was PR or corporate communication as we know it today. And, therefore, the playing fields were cleaner and journalists were role models.

Today, Chennai has four English newspapers, Bangalore and Kolkata have six or seven, and Mumbai and Delhi have more than ten – newspapers from reputable stables. I wonder how many listen to the radio news in the cities; I don’t. Because the Jhaveris and Sens have all gone. FM channels rule; there may be more than 200 of them. And an equal number or more of television channels. We all know the kind of fare many of the channels deliver. On prime time, it’s virtual anarchy on the major channels with the presenters allowing the panelists to slug it out and enjoying being the brutal referee. They assume viewers enjoy the slugfest but the reality could well be different, especially with Radiagate.

The image of the PR person has always been tinged with negativity. Some are even called fixers or wheeler-dealers. We all know the reason; after all, there is no spark without a fire. Most PR practitioners continue to be yes-men or -women for their bosses and hardly have an identity of their own. There are very few who do, those who bring some sort of sobriety or balance to the conduct of affairs.

My first message to the participants: Have an understanding of how media functions today, the media mix as it were; unless communicators understand the dynamics of media, the way today’s journalists operate, it is difficult to succeed. Each media needs different treatment. A press release meant for the print media will not do for a television reporter, for example. Communicating online is totally different. Journalists, too, are no longer the journalists of old. Today, the reporter has to often double up as a sub-editor; the copy has to be clean and print-ready, the reporter is asked to take pictures or videos and not rely on the staff photographer. Stories are expected to be filed from the site – some reporters are given laptops and notebooks. Indeed, may of the reporters from The New York Times function this way. The Mint reporters in Delhi, too. Of course, not all newspapers function this way in India, but they will very soon.

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