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Vedanta's Senjam Raj Sekhar : Reality Bites

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Arun Sudhaman 22 Feb 2012

Recent years have not been kind to Vedanta Resources’ corporate reputation. The mining giant’s plans to mine bauxite in the Indian state of Orissa were condemned for disrupting indigenous communities, eventually grinding to a halt under a torrent of negative media and governmental scrutiny of their environmental impact.

Last year the FTSE 100 company, founded in India but now headquartered in the UK, hired Senjam Raj Sekhar as its first global communications head, as part of an attempt to “present the company perspective in an open and transparent manner.”

The first visible sign of this approach is the ‘Creating Happiness’ campaign, which uses a range of tools to showcase Vedanta’s community and sustainability efforts. Of particular interest is the social media component - a film competition where students from across India have been invited to create online videos about communities where Vedanta has implemented its CSR programme.

In an interview with the Holmes Report, Senjam discusses whether the new programme can help rehabilitate Vedanta’s reputation, and explains why being open is the “only way forward” for the company.

Why have you launched this campaign?

The idea behind doing this is that there are several stories that are the side of Vedanta that people don’t know about - in the areas of communities and sustainability. There is a tremendous amount of work that is happening here. Not just in and around the plant, but across the country. How do you get people to know that, number one, there is work happening and, number two, there is meaningful change that Vedanta is bringing about in the lives of the people, and tell the story in a manner that is more believable?

We wanted the students to see the kind of work we were doing. We actually went campus by campus - we presented the Vedanta story at open houses. They asked us a lot of questions, which we answered. Our one-point brief was do not make a corporate film. Find a story, stay with the community and tell the story of Vedanta and what is happening in the communities.

What kinds of questions did the students ask?

We got questions on the company, and the issues the company has faced in the past. And we answered all of them. What we told them is very simple: Come and visit us and see the work that is happening. If you look at the blogs - there is a certain honesty in which they have written about their feelings.

Why have you taken a social media approach? This is not how FTSE100 companies tend to communicate

They are becoming savvier on social media. As a company we wanted to be very open with the way we are doing it. Let’s go to the students and let them visit the locations - it’s a sign of our openness. We want to listen to you, interact with you and engage with you. This campaign has a very strong offline element as well. We are working out a volunteer programme now. Let’s be open, let’s engage - that’s the only way forward at the moment. It is unusual for a company in the resources space to use social media in this manner.

Vedanta has faced considerable negative coverage in recent years. Can this campaign rehabilitate the company’s reputation?

Reputation is something which can only be built over many years. What we have done is a step in the right direction. Over the years, when all our stakeholders actually see as a company we are being open, and we want to engage with people, I think overall reputation should improve. One campaign cannot change the reputation of any company over a period of two to three months. This is a step in the right direction.

Is this the first step?

Not really. This is the first visible public step. The real work is actually not visible in the public domain. This is the manifestation of the work.

What guidelines did the students receive for their films? Was criticism of Vedanta allowed?

The guidelines were: You cannot use stock footage. Or someone else’s copyright music. You cannot shoot a corporate film. And you have to shoot a story. We were confident that whatever we are doing is the right thing - once we are the confident about the community, we were fairly confident about the films . As long as somebody doesn’t go with a vested interest, thinking “I have to do a negative story”. If somebody goes with a neutral outlook, they will come back with a story which is fairly straightforward.

There is a risk there for Vedanta.

Yes there is. What we’ve got now are 38 films made by 114 students, and those students will now know that this is the kind of work that Vedanta is doing.

What comes next for the campaign?

The second part of the campaign is getting design students to design a trophy for ‘Creating Happiness’. I think as a company, we have to reach out to more and more people, engage more and more people and tell them our story.

Do you think that wasn’t happening before?

That was a different period altogether. Anything to do with that period was a different approach. More than two years have passed. Much water has flowed, and a new company has joined us. This approach is good for this. But they are two different approaches. Different times require different campaigns.

The perception is that this campaign is a response to events in the past. Is that a fair observation?

Ultimately, we live in a very nuanced and layered world. There are several sides to a story. And to Vedanta. And people must know all the sides. This approach is the most honest, open approach for any company to have. It would have been easier for me to hire a production house and make 10 films. Would that have as much credibility as this one? I don’t think so. Is this a more difficult path? Yes it is. But I think it will pay off in the long run.

BP ran into problems when its marketing became too divorced from reality. How do you make sure this doesn’t happen to Vedanta?

All our departments work very closely with each other. We work closely with our business team, our sustainability team, and our community team. We know exactly what is happening and we make sure whatever we say reflects the reality. That for us is very critical. We will not say anything which is not grounded in reality. That is the only way of going forward. We’ve not said we are brilliant or we are great, we’ve just said this is what we are doing.

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