Sunday, December 23, 2012

When silence becomes too loud to be ignored

Sandy Hook elementary school shootings just last week shook America, and rightly so. The gunning down of 26 innocents, 20 of them little kids, all under 7 years of age is undeniably among the worst gun-related shootings in US history.  While President Obama spoke eloquently and with passion about the need to address this issue and do something to stop such violence, he was praised by friends and foes alike, for his compassionate appeal (marked by a few tears, which seemed genuine and heart-felt). The National Rifle Association ( NRA) was silent for almost a week, and then came up with an asinine suggestion, of arming school guards, which seems to have angered more people, given the context.  Silence in this context on behalf of the NRA is being seen as complicity in the crime, while Obama’s words and presence had a positive impact, in framing the tragedy. So, what is the role of a leader in a crisis ? When should one speak and remain silent? I will delve into these questions in this short article.

Halfway across the world, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India is being criticized exactly for the opposite crime, that of remaining silent, in the face of one of the worst crimes in public memory, that of a rape of a young woman in India’s capital – New Delhi. He spoke, finally after a week of silence, asking the Home ministry (in charge of security) to look into the security lapses that led to this incident.  While his words were relevant and hard, the timing seems to have earned him more brickbats than accolades. While he may salvage the situation, with his calm, rational leadership, Mr Singh surely has lost some social capital among youth, who see him as too taciturn and slow in response. 

As any communications professional would know, saying the right thing at the right time is often the difference between making a strong case for one’s leadership and weakening it. A leader is constantly seen as a source of authority and wisdom. More so in a conflict or crisis situation, when the stakes are high. We humans lapse into an almost primeval mode of looking up to our leader as our “savior”, as many scholars of leadership such as Ronald Heifetz have pointed out. This “adaptive leadership,” where the leader is asked to frame the situation and crisis, provide a way of understanding this and leading the followers through is one of the tasks of a leader. Some do it well, while others fail.

When President Obama said :” "We can't tolerate this anymore," referring to the shootings, he not only used those five words, but framed the entire debate about gun-control and violence in a way which may have far-reaching consequences for the future of America.

Such crisis moments call for skills and attitudes in leaders, which they may not necessarily possess. Perhaps, leadership in such crisis moments demands imagination, empathy and also levelheadedness, more than anything. 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Writing consistently - a marathon, not a sprint

I have been writing for a number of years now. By writing I mean, writing semi-professionally ( infact, my first pay-check was from freelancing for a local English newspaper in Bangalore, India) and I continue to keep up this hobby/passion; though with not as much energy as I used to, in my 20s.

I still remember the joy and exhilaration, at winning my first ever essay competition in middle-school. The school principal congratulated me in front of everyone. That recognition and glory spurred me on, for several months and I ended up producing some half-decent essays on the state of the world, among other things.

Age, other priorities and laziness have taken a toll it seems. I am not writing as much as I would like to, or as much as an aspiring writer should be.

But I have taken a vow to slay the dragons of laziness and lethargy and become a better ( and more consistent writer). I seek inspiration.

And inspiration comes from strange sources. Sometimes, I get ideas as I am having discussions or debates with friends. At other times, ideas come in the form of "wouldn't  it be cool if..." scenarios.

But often, I get my best ideas when I am reflecting on some issue and a creative thought hits me. Prayer or sleep are great reservoirs of ideas, personally.

Here are some things I have discovered about being a consistent writer and improving one's "game" one day at a time.

1. Write regularly: Even if it is crap. Hemingway said it :" For a long time now I have tried simply to write the best I can. Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can"

2. Write a lot : I have come to realize that one should write a lot to arrive at material which is at least half-decent. As one writes and exercises those writing muscles in the brain, the stuff coming out of you gets better. Not only in terms of quality, but also in terms of voice. The biggest challenge any writer has it to find one's voice - to be able to speak with authority, and clearly on the given subject. To articulate it like no one else can - or rather give it a unique flavor and character that is very YOU.

3. Read widely : If working out makes better athletes, then reading a lot makes better writers. There is no other way to becoming a good writer. If you want to be a great writer, read other good writers. 

4. Be disciplined : I remember the summer of 2011, when I attempted my first novel ( which I am editing and revising). It was all about having a strong idea for the novel and also putting in an average of 4-5 hours every day for about four months. I set myself a target of at least a 1000 words a day ( it took me nearly 100 days to write the 90,000 word novel). I diligently followed this schedule, setting aside good chunks of my day for this purpose.

At the end of the exercise, I not only felt a sense of accomplishment, but also could see the difference between my writing at the beginning and end. There was a huge qualitative shift. Its those writing muscles, you see. The more you exercise them, the better they get ! 

5. Be fearless : The one thing that holds back writers is not having enough confidence. I believe that all of us can write. We are all at different levels of writing, and can improve our game - provided we are disciplined, creative and willing to take intellectual risks. The question is : are we willing to give it a try ?

It is good to think of writing as a marathon, and not a sprint. Even if it is a 500 word blog post or opinion piece, keeping at it consistently gives one the confidence, sharpness and clarity of mind that is essential to be a great writer.


Sunday, July 15, 2012

The dangers of self-censorship

Just last week, I met my cousin who works at a private school in the greater D.C area. She described how her school has a policy of "no-media" exposure, following a controversy a few months ago. While in the short-run this seems like a good idea; in the long-run; media embargos are the death-knell of any organization.

Over the past several months that I have lived and worked in the area, I have come across several organizations which are indulging in this, not fully knowing how it can negatively impact their organizations. 

Why ? You may ask. Well, for one simple reason : If you are not defining the issues at stake and building your case and writing your narrative; someone else is - and it is possible that those who are doing it dont have your best interest while doing it. At worst, your opponents get a chance to frame it in anyway they want.

While the political environment in Washington D.C ( where I work) may necessitate a toning down of media exposure and an at times over-cautious approach to work; there is absolutely no need for being extra cautious about addressing issues that come up in one's field of work and organization.

Here are reasons why you should not self-censor, even at the worst of times in your organizational history :

1. Self-censoring is not helpful  - It creates a vacuum for rumours and gossipt to thrive
2. It actively promotes suspicion and also investigation, since people think you have something to hide if you dont speak, and clarify the issues at stake

3. It gives your opponents an edge - in terms of "framing" the issues at stake
4. It distorts perceptions and creates fear, where there can be clarity and open-dialogue
5. It festers an atmosphere of fear and anxiety - which can impact your own organization and employees.

None of these are healthy and normal. While a certain amount of caution and preparedness is required in dealing with crises and emergency situations, self-censoring and not talking to people or media is not the way forward.

A well thought out and articulated strategy is what is needed in most cases. If your organization does not have the time, resources or expertise; it makes sense to reach out to others who may be able to help.

Running away from problems, or keeping quiet about them does not solve them. At worst, it can exacerbate the problem, in the long-run.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Susan Komen’s loss could be Planned Parenthood’s gain

The decision to stop funding Charities which are under Federal or state investigations, by Susan G Komen Foundation (SK), is having catastrophic effects on its image. The key “victim” in this story is Planned Parenthood (PP), which is being seen as the victim of a political vendetta by the pro-life lobby.
Social media is abuzz with news of this decision.
“I am very disappointed to hear that the Komen organization is withdrawing support from Planned Parenthood. It is sad that an organization which is seemingly dedicated to women's health would make a shortsighted and mean spirited decision to withdraw support from and organization which provides healthcare for large numbers of poor women. I will be encouraging my friends (male and female) to express their feelings as well and withdraw our support from Komen. Shame on those who have made this decision,” is just one example of a post on SK’s website.
While the founder and CEO of SK has come up with a YouTube video response explaining its side of the story, I believe the tide is turning against SK.
To its defense, SK has a YouTube video with Susan Brinker, Founder and CEO of Susan Komen Foundation pointing out : “Donor dollars make the biggest impact possible. Since 2010, we started review of our policies and procedures of evaluation.” She goes on to explain that current grants are not impacted, and that no particular non-profit is being targeted for any political reason.
PP supporters see this as McCarthyism, in a different context.
The political establishment seems to be rallying behind PP, which is seen as the victim here, and is receiving unprecedented support – both in real life and on social media. With 26 Democrats writing a letter to SK’s CEO and New York’s Mayor Bloomberg announcing a personal donation of $ 250,000 from his personal wealth, the reaction is sharp and immediate.
What should SK do ?
Blame it on the political climate or bad communications strategy, one thing is clear : unless SK’s strategic team does something to salvage this situation quickly, they are going to lose a lot of their supporters, for what may perhaps be a legitimate procedural decision.
While their PR team seems to be working hard to explain their side of the story, what they need to be additionally doing is “monitoring” the news and how the story is developing.

Unfortunately for them, it is shaping up in a very negative way, which may actually damage their long-term supporters as well as their political base.

Purely from a communications perspective, the damage must be contained, before it gets any uglier.

Right now, SK's decision to re-engage with PP is nothing but a wise decision to win back some of the moral high ground that they occupied.

SK’s loss may as well become PP’s gain, in the long run.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Fall of the traditional reporter and Rise of the citizen journalist ?

Not really. For all the stories of gloom and doom that are written about how traditional ( read Print) media will die, and will be overtaken by citizen reporting – I believe that it won’t. Good “old” media reporters, who know their business and do a thorough job will always be in demand for one reason : their credibility.
A case in point is that of Ms.Aisha khan, a young 19 yr old girl from Kansas who went missing recently. In less than 24 hours of her having gone missing, I noticed several Face Book posts, a video of her parents being interviewed and a barrage of information on how she possibly could have been abducted.
While this was very plausible, it turned out that she had merely gone into hiding ( god knows why?) and returned “safely and unhurt”.
What is the moral of the story and what is the connection to the point made earlier, you may ask.
Well, the point is this : Social media enthusiasts ( including her family and friends) reacted too soon – without enough due-diligence and fact checking. All the well-known names in the world of Journalism : Robert Fisk, Walter Cronkite, Fareed Zakaria, Riz Khan have built their reputation by credible fact-checking and reporting which is accurate, informative and insightful; and not based on rumors or written in such haste that there is no room for seeing through the lies.
In this case, a good “Old media” reporter would check to see if there is a police complaint, before even thinking of writing a story. He/she would look for facts, perhaps take enough time ( at the expense of being a bit slow), but get all the ducks in a row before crying wolf.
The trouble with Social media reporting ( also its strength ironically) is its speed. Anything with an internet connection and a computer can put up bits of information, which can be called “News”.
In this case, it was the case of a girl, who decided to play a prank. But, she not only damaged her reputation, but also that of her peers, who may perhaps not heed her call for help the next time she is in real trouble.
That is the real danger.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

What on earth is "strategic waiting" ?

I am sure you have had moments of lucidity, when you have said or done things which you have regretted later. This may be with a friend, a client or your significant other. Just waiting for a minute, a day, week or a month may have solved the problem.

It is good to remember that in the "real world", we are all dealing with imperfect and incomplete information. If we did have perfect information, then our ideas and perceptions would be drastically different than what they are today. This is not only humbling, but also a deep insight; which can re-shape the way we think and live our lives.

Strategic waiting is a concept, which not many people practice, much less understand. Some may call it "patience", or even "lack of courage to speak one's mind". But another way of looking at it is focus on what speaking out or "communicating" in the heat of the moment will accomplish, and what result will silence have. Sometimes, waiting it out gives us more information, more insights which may not be available right now.

Individuals as well as organizations can learn to "strategically wait" for better results, rather than jump in to act - in thought or in deed.

Dr.Johan Galtung, world-renowned figure in peace studies has said this recently: " If the USA had waited and dealt with the post 9/11 catastrophe, not by going to war in Afghanistan, but by addressing the tragedy of the attacks in a different way, then today the situation in Afghanistan would have been very different. Timing is everything. Countries as well as individuals must learn to strategically wait for the right moment to act or say anything."

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A new CSR landscape ?

Corporate Social Responsibility ( CSR) as a model of engagement between the private sector and the wider stakeholders in a society is well established and entrenched in many societies. But in the developing world, CSR is at various stages of development, right from its nascent stage to a very advanced stage; with the private firms working closely on issues such as education, healthcare - and making a substantial contribution to the society.

In the context of the global recession, and decreased development aid from richer countries to the poorer ones, it is estimated that there will be a greater role of the private sector in International development . I wonder how this will shift the CSR landscape ? Will it mean greater CSR initiatives, now that the Aid dollars will reduce from one government to another ?

In reading the latest report by Brookings Institute titled " Global Development Under Pressure", In addition to partnering more systematically with international
private actors, support for sustainable development in any developing country requires collaboration with local businesses and civil society organizations rather than just a narrow relationship with state institutions. Over the long term, it is these enduring elements of broader society that will continue to drive growth
and accountable governance".

The report goes on further to add :"The shift in the global development landscape requiring even greater linkages between public and private actors is not a sudden revelation within U.S. foreign policy circles. The United States has long been an international leader in this area".

I wonder how all of this will shift, and at what pace ? Will private players actually move in, and do "what is right" to create the right business environment so they too can operate well, or as Milton Friedman argued, stand back and say " Social responsibility is not our business".