Every survey carried out by different agencies shows the military at the top of peoples’ choice for probity, loyalty and selflessness. Indian army, unlike other organisations, is held in high esteem and as a paragon of best societal norms. Citizens have put soldiers on a pedestal and feel let down whenever cases of their unbecoming conduct are reported. Even minor aberrations carry considerable shock effect. That is the reason why amassing of illegal wealth by a bureaucrat couple does not stir public’s conscience while a Chief’s seeking allotment of a plot is considered a questionable act. These are the consequences an organisation has to suffer due to the high expectancy quotient that it enjoys.
Although every organisation strives to have a respectable standing, need for recognition in an army’s case becomes all the more critical as soldiers draw strength from the admiration and acknowledgement that they receive from their countrymen. Soldiers are always very sensitive to negative portrayal as it threatens the very edifice of their sense of military honour from which they draw their sustenance. The manner in which a nation perceives its soldiers has a profound influence on the morale and psyche of the soldiers.
Due to high-expectancy syndrome public has zero tolerance for any transgressions by the soldiers, howsoever insignificant they may be.
Unfortunately, of late Indian army is losing its exalted status. It has been in news for all negative reasons in the recent years – both true and perceived. Its standing has taken a hit. Earlier, ‘olive green’ was always associated with uprightness, honour and ethical conduct. Various acts of commission and omission during the last decade have impinged on its sheen and the people have started wondering if the army is really ‘different’. The indicators are there for all to see. Reputation once lost cannot be regained easily. Therefore, it is time the army acts on a war footing, lest the situation drifts beyond easy redemption.
It must be stated at the outset that public’s respect can only be earned through unblemished behaviour and upright conduct. These are irreplaceable requirements of fundamental importance. Therefore, Indian army must strengthen its internal self-correcting mechanism to prevent incidence of acts of misdemeanor. While putting its house in order, the army should simultaneously undertake a well-evolved campaign to regain its waning standing.
The suggested campaign should not be based on management of media through questionable means and suppressing the truth. That shall be a very shortsighted and counterproductive policy. Paid-for publicity and planted write-ups lack legitimacy and credibility. They may be valid means for building brand image by corporate entities but equation between the army and the citizens is based on trust, honour and commitment. It cannot be brought down to the mundane levels of seller-buyer relationship. Therefore, the army should aim at establishing rapport with the public through transparent interaction, honest admission of mistakes and prompt corrective action to prevent recurrence. Four key contours of the suggested campaign have been discussed below.
Innovative and Pro-Active Public-Relations Drive
Mistakenly, public-relations is often taken to mean publicity. Public-relations for an army is an all encompassing reflective paradigm with the aim of building understanding with countrymen and retaining their goodwill. Through a well conceived public-relations exercise, misconceptions and prejudices entertained by some segments of the society can also be removed. On the other hand, publicity confines itself with spreading awareness to build favourable impression which may be based on facts or unsubstantiated claims.
Unfortunately, the army brass has failed to comprehend the intricacies of effective public-relations and factors that influence public opinion and attitude. Being a highly specialised and multi-faceted activity, public-relations must be handled by specially trained personnel. Help of external experts and agencies should also be taken. They are of immense value in crisis situations when speedy transmission of accurate and authentic information to right quarters can help clarify doubts, remove uncertainty and help contain damage to reputation. Media professionals who have better understanding of the defence services can be used to help bridge the gap between the services and the public.
Regular Organisational Communication
An organisational communication is issued to spread awareness both amongst its own members as also the general public. Its potency depends on the credibility it enjoys for honest, transparent and ethical reporting of facts, both favourable and unfavourable. It can be in the form of periodic newsletters, press releases or press briefings. However, such communication must be managed by specialists well conversed with various aspects of environmental interfacing.
Every time a road is blocked temporarily or permanently in the name of security concerns, the debarred civilian users wonder whether their own army cares for their convenience.
With an explosion of 24X7 news media, every channel strives to be the first to ‘break the news’. They are even ready to compromise on fact finding. If the army does not disseminate information speedily, the media will simply go to ill-informed or unreliable sources. Therefore, it is imperative that the organisation ensures correct and timely dissemination of news to the media. Professional help can be utilised to read and edit such communications to make them ‘idiot proof’ – words like suspect/allege/fear, which we use interchangeably, have different innuendoes when it comes to media space.
Indian army has singularly failed in this respect. Instead of depending on amateurish Sainik Samachar (issued by the Ministry of Defence), it should undertake dissemination of facts in a forthright manner and clear misconceptions. Rumours and loose talk gain credence only in the absence of authentic version of the facts. In the recent past, we were witness to totally misinformed media campaigns about Sukhna and Adarsh Society. It was a major failure of the army not to educate the media and the campaign to tarnish army’s image ran unopposed. Not a single communication was issued to clarify the facts. In addition to traditional conventional media tools, the army must utilise interactive web sites and blogs. These modern communication tools provide two-way interaction, thereby facilitating gauging of public attitude and feelings. Such feedback helps in modification of communication strategy.
Skilled Articulation by Senior Officers and Ex-Servicemen
Although India does not have the convention of senior army officers addressing media on regular basis, whenever a Chief interacts with the media, he gets wide coverage. Such opportunities should be utilised to project correct and honest facts before the country. Unfortunately, in the recent past such interactions have proved to be highly detrimental to the reputation of the army. As is the practice in the US and other countries, senior army officers should be trained to interact with the media to put across facts and opinions in a coherent and objective manner.
Due to a lack of genuine content, all TV channels resort to conducting group discussions with invited experts. It is the most cost-effective option available to them. Senior retired army officers located in NCR are a common feature of these discussions. They come ill-prepared and are generally not fully conversant with the complexities of the subjects under discussion. Consequently, they do more harm than good to army’s standing.
The army must utilise this powerful source and utilise the services of suitable retired officers to project facts and opinions in a well-considered and balanced manner. A small cell can be established in the Army Headquarters to brief officers and apprise them about the main issues before they appear before TV cameras. The aim should not to tutor them to parrot official lines but to equip them with full information to take their own call. If the US can utilise the services of ex-Presidents to further national interests, the army can certainly benefit from the freedom of speech enjoyed by the retired officers.
Conduct in Public
Conduct in public is by far the most effective public-relations exercise. Unfortunately, citizens do not see soldiers undergoing extreme privations in inhospitable border areas. They form their impressions about soldiers and the army through their limited interaction in cities. It is essential that the dress and conduct of soldiers at public places like railway platforms and markets are exemplary.
The army must never try to ‘manage/manipulate the media’. It pays to be honest and accept blame, where due.
Minimum discomfort should be caused to the general public by our actions. Every time a road is blocked temporarily or permanently in the name of security concerns, the debarred civilian users wonder whether their own army cares for their convenience. Similarly, whenever normal traffic is stalled to make way for a senior officer to jump the red light, the affected commuters feel slighted and offended. Incorrectly parked military vehicles in crowded markets invariably invite unflattering comments from the inconvenienced public. These aspects need strict disciplinary enforcement.
To start with, the army must never try to ‘manage/manipulate the media’. It pays to be honest and accept blame, where due. The army must tell the environment that like normal social organisations, military consists of living human beings with their normal share of failings and idiosyncrasies. Therefore, some aberrations are bound to occur. However, what needs to be emphasised is the fact that the number of acts of indiscipline in a 1.3 million strong force is miniscule. Moreover, prompt disciplinary action is always initiated against defaulters. Unlike other organisations, the army has a very effective self-correcting mechanism in place.
The last decade has been a testing one for the Indian army. Due to high-expectancy syndrome public has zero tolerance for any transgressions by the soldiers, howsoever insignificant they may be. Resultantly, flak received by the army even for minor indiscretions is totally out of all proportions. Therefore, army’s public-relation campaign has to function under this constraint of high expectancy. Professional and scientific techniques to be employed have to be specifically evolved to correct misconceptions.
This article was first published in 10 Mar 2011.