Burson Marsteller's Bob Pickard is your Asia-Pacific ThinkTank commentator. He will be responding to events in the region on a weekly basis, offering a provocative view of the PR issues at stake. You can reach Bob on [email protected]
Last week when I was travelling to India, one story totally commanded the news: the hunger strike of social activist Anna Hazare, who was fasting to force pressure on the Indian government to enact a tough new anti-corruption law.
Day after day, every newspaper front page was dominated by coverage of the Anna protest, and in channel-surfing India’s many all-news TV networks, you would think there was nothing else going on in the world.
The Anna story received such massive publicity, to the extent that one can reasonably ask whether the media was just covering a phenomenon or actually also helping to create one for commercial purposes.
Certainly there were many conditions conducive for a craze, starting with a vast audience of consumers coveted by media organizations in a hyper-competitive news market (media of all kinds – including traditional and new – is growing in India).
As a country with a rising middle class that’s become increasingly fed-up with the negative consequences of corruption in society, India is surely ripe territory for such a popular protest. The middle class already numbers 160 million people and a study by India’s National Council for Applied Economic Research predicts it will explode in size to 267 million within five years (still a minority of India’s 1.2 billion people it should be noted).
Following the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, Anna’s emphasis on nonviolent methods struck a chord and he seemingly achieved ‘societal alignment’ with communications content that resonated with popular sensibilities. His approach recalled the passion and success of storied protests from India’s independence movement (Indian Independence Day’s arrival on August 15th was a timely milestone).
Conflict and contrast help drive the most vivid news coverage, and the government’s handling of the situation provided both for this story. Conflict: Anna was arrested at one point, which supplied grist for the media mill. Contrast: The fact that Anna shares in common with the Prime Minister an older age (both are in their 70s) provided ample opportunity for media to portray Anna as being vivified by ‘people power’ with the PM seeming wan and remote in comparison.
Momentum perceptions played a key role in the Anna story. Large and animated crowds were always in the backdrop, and later on as the hunger strike progressed, so were what seemed a bigger and bigger team of doctors tending to Anna. As the hero of the story became weaker, the apparent popular sentiment became stronger and larger at the same time owing to a classic ‘bandwagon effect.’
This created an audience-grabbing suspense; the question was: ‘will the government give in before Anna passes the point of no return?’ The prospect of a brave death draws a crowd in the media, especially if it is going to be on principle in support of a cause so many believe in.
This gripping drama, easy to follow and relentlessly repeated in the media, transfixed India and achieved world attention as few stories do (amplified and accelerated by social networks).
I don’t know if there was a public relations strategy devised and implemented by ‘Team Anna.’ If there was, I would give it high marks for results, because it looks like the Anna phenomenon is poised to effect political reforms and changes for the better.