By Sanjaya Baru
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on March 24 declaring a 21-day lockdown was the most watched event in Indian TV history. As soon as the address concluded, many viewers rushed to crowd markets to stock up essentials. Modi was forced to tweet within minutes asking people not to panic. The address, generating more anxiety than reassurance, is a good example of the failure of strategic communication.
Modi’s address should have been a written text, carefully drafted, professionally vetted and including all required vital information. It was not. Hence the panic and the need for immediate clarification. Even before the PM decided to get on TV, indeed, several days before that, Union health minister Harsh Vardhan, himself a doctor, ought to have had a daily media briefing on Covid-19 with directors of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (Aiims) and Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), and other relevant professionals.
GoI has failed to ensure informed communication through identified experts who would be made available to mass media, especially TV. Most TV channels filled this gap with semi-informed commentary by celebrity doctors from branded private hospitals with very little expertise in the problem at hand. In the age of social media, it is natural that news and fake news get mixed up and are easily available.
That is precisely why GoI should have had a coordinated media strategy for the country as a whole. There ought to have been, by now, a standard operating procedure (SOP) on strategic communication by government in times of crisis, even admitting that the Covid-19 crisis is unprecedented and unique.
Over the past decade, in lectures on ‘Media and National Security’ at the National Defence College, I have been presenting four case studies: (1) the 1991economic crisis, (2) the 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests and post-test economic sanctions, (3) the 1999 Kargil war, and (4) terror attacks in 2004-08, including the 2008 Mumbai 26/11attacks.
These showed (1) how effective the PV Narasimha Rao government was in handling media messaging during 1991, a year of multiple crises, (2) how effective the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was in handling the messaging required to cope with the fallout of the Pokhran-2 nuclear tests, and the economic sanctions that followed, and (3) the smart handling by the Vajpayee government of public diplomacy required in response to the Kargil war.
In each case, there was coordinated media messaging with senior officials like the Cabinet secretary (in 1991), the principal secretary to the PM and national security adviser (in 1998 and 1999) overseeing it. During Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s first term in office, there were several terror attacks across the country, culminating in 26/11.
Responding to the terror attacks during 2005-07, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Union home ministry acted promptly to ensure there were no communal riots or tension. The security assessment was that the attacks were aimed at instigating communal conflict as had happened in Gujarat in 2002. In each instance, planned public messaging played an important role in keeping peace and reassuring citizens.
The only negative case study that showed up government failure was that of the 26/11 Mumbai attack. Several hours were wasted on that fateful night and next day by the managers of national security in reassuring citizens and getting GoI’s message across.
During the Kargil War, external affairs ministry spokesperson, the late Raminder Singh Jassal, became the sole voice of GoI, holding a daily televised media briefing to ensure informed messaging on the course of the war. It prevented rumour-mongering and mischief by interested parties. Informed communication is a key element in crisis management.
Yet, we find that official communication in response to the spread of Covid-19 virus has been sporadic, ill-coordinated and confused. Even at this stage, credible official spokespersons should be regularly informing citizens on various steps being taken by government, and the care to be taken by individuals, based on real-time communication between relevant officials of the Centre and the states. This should be at a fixed time every day so that everyone remembers to tune in and be informed. A national briefing in English could be translated and telecast in all languages.
The writer is former media adviser to the prime minister