Of Cows On Delhi Streets and CNN arrival: an untold story


Or how PR by paratroopers proved costly for foreign news channel!

By S Narendra
Former PIO and ex-Govt spokesperson

Satellite TV news, very aptly, arrived in India via CNN. Initially it was an intruder on the zealously guarded Indian airwaves in 1991.The gulf was or the one between Kuwait and Saddam Hussian’s Iraq, in which Peter Arnet of CNN telecast from a brief -case was a great technological Disruptor. The pyrotechnics unleashed against the Iraqi regime by US fleet spectacle no one wanted to miss

While publicly venting angst and fears about this assault on Indian sovereignty, every VIP in Delhi wanted to gain access to the CNN broadcast. Those who could not get permission to acquire a satellite dish on top of their roof, visited luxury hotel coffee and other bars fitted with satellite dish enabled TVs offering CNN news. While there was ‘collateral damage’, meaning civilian casualties in Iraq, for India luxury hotels there was ;collateral gains’.

Intrepid Indian entrepreneurs, masters of JUGAD, soon came up with a business model to beat the ancient Indian Telecommunication Act that prohibited private cables from crossing the public roads. They strung cables on roof tops and trees and offered satellite TV services broadcast from Singapore and Hong Kong. An upset government sent in vain one of its senior bureaucrat to Hong Kong in search of equipment for blocking satellite TV intrusions into Indian sovereignty.

While CNN news broadcasts had arrived, the broadcaster had not set up a news bureau in Delhi. Those were early days of India’s foray into economic liberalization under Prime Minister P.V.Narasimha Rao. His government was very anxious to showcase India as a profitable destination for FDI. And, we in the government were keen to have more and more international media coverage of Indian economic news. As head of government of India’s media relations outfit-PIB, and government spokesperson, it was my job to facilitate the entry of foreign correspondents and their news outlets. From about a corps of 40 foreign correspondents, it had grown to over 70.

I extended an invitation to CNN to open a news bureau. A highly competent and soft spoken Ashis Ray was representing CNN in India and his earlier attempts to open a news bureau in Delhi had for some reason not met with the approval of the Ministry of External Affairs. In the government, there were bureaucrats who were not comfortable with the coverage of Indian news by BBC, CNN and other foreign news outlets. My own view was that positive and negative coverage evens out over a period of time. In any case, Indian news outlets generally provided a lot more negative perception of India than their foreign counterparts (there is another story to tell about the problems India media had created for foreign media representatives during the Surat Plague) After discussing the matter with PM Narasimha Rao, I had sent the invitation letter to CNN.

One of the hurdles for satellite TV outlets was the government broadcaster Doordarshan wanting to maintain its monopoly over receiving and distributing satellite signals. Since the PM was already in the loop, DD could not block CNN setting up its own satellite linking facility. Atlanta, head office of CNN, promptly responded to my invitation and within a couple of weeks opened their bureau. In the normal course, a news channel setting up a news gathering outfit or reaching audiences is no big deal. But CNN decided to make a big splash with a big bash. Top level CNN executives accompanied by a PR team from Atlanta had arrived. When Americans are involved, everything becomes loud and King size. For the CNN bash, invitations had gone out to cabinet ministers to almost everyone who claimed to be a VVIP in the capitals cocktail circuit. The evening party was hosted in one of the capital’s famous five star hotels on Patel Marg. The hotel convention canter was fitted with multiple TV screens displaying CNN logo.

As the VVIPs and smaller fries like me arrived, CNN wanted to show its contribution for taking India story international. On multiple screens CNN logo splashed followed by a story on India’s capital. The story was pitched to showcase a vibrant market economy spilling over to its streets. The camera had panned on one of the bustling roads, accompanied by a reporter’s commentary on the new India and facts about the blooming middle class. The camera lingered a little longer than necessary on the road crammed with a diversity of vehicles blocked by stray cattle. The VVIPs got up. There was a sudden buzz in the semi-dark party hall. Soon the TV screens went blank and the embarrassed CNN executives, with a crest-fallen Ashis Ray in tow, were whispering tepid apologies to the upset VVIPs. The flowing alcohol did nothing to mitigate the discomfiture among the hosts and guests.

As expected, there was no hole in the ground for me to crawl in, I slipped out of the semi darkness. But before departing I told Ashis Ray that a candid admission of the mistake by the top brass, an unconditional apology and announcement of a mechanism for rigorously checking what goes into the future India story on CNN could control the damage.

But, then neither me nor Ashis Ray were aware of the ego of CNN bosses from Atlanta and their sure-footed US PR advisers. First came a tepid apology, that blamed the camera-person who was an Indian. Then came the explanation that the commentary was positive. And, of course, it was put out as a technical mistake.
My telephone (fortunately, it was a pre-mobile era) buzzed with the message ‘we told you so’.
Is there a lesson in this? While entering a new media market, a soft launch could have been tried rather than a big bang one. Brand ego could result in costly mistakes. Local facilitators’ voice, (in this case Ashis Ray’s), should get its due respect.
Watch out against PR by paratroopers.


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