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When Public Relations fails in Manipur!

Chief Minister Biren Singh, who had previously served as the editor of a vernacular newspaper, appeared to overlook the department responsible for PR in the state... instead relied on a social media platform like "Anouba Manipur" to communicate his activities, writes Kongbam

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During my pursuit of a postgraduate degree in Journalism at the Banaras Hindu University in 1978-79, our esteemed Professor B.R. Gupta, an authority in the field of Public Relations (PR), imparted a profound lesson: “When Public Relations falters within a government, another form of PR, President’s Rule steps in.” Professor Gupta went on to elaborate on the significance of PR practices in government, emphasising their role in fostering mutual understanding between the government and the public, ultimately contributing to effective governance.

Furthermore, Professor Gupta astutely noted that when PR practices within a government reach a point of severe dysfunction, failing to establish this crucial mutual understanding, an even more dramatic form of PR emerges: Public Revolt. History has borne witness to numerous instances of public revolts in various countries, some resulting in the removal of sitting presidents. Such events underscore the critical importance of effective public relations in government.

Public relations is a captivating subject that demands not only theoretical knowledge but also a deep understanding of the land and its people for those aspiring to become government PR practitioners. When the time came for me to make a career choice, I opted to serve in the field of government PR, which is a noble profession, which can serve society as a role teacher involving information, education and entertainment. This decision was taken when our Head of Department, Anjan Kumar Banerji, who facilitated placements for our graduating class asked the students about their placements. Several of my peers have since gone on to thrive in both print and electronic media in the national capital.

In recognition of our shared educational journey in journalism and mass communication at BHU, we established the BHU Journalists Alumni Association in New Delhi, where I have the honour of serving as one of the Vice Presidents. This association serves as a testament to the passed-out students to the enduring bonds forged during our academic years and our collective commitment to the field of journalism and public relations.

When I embarked on my career as a Public Relations (PR) practitioner in 1981, assuming the role of District Information Officer in the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR), Government of Manipur, I encountered an organisational structure that raised concerns. At the helm was an IAS officer serving as the Director, alongside an MCS Grade-I officer in the position of Additional Director, and a Deputy Director (formerly known as the Publicity Officer) from the MCS Grade-II cadre. Complementing this hierarchy were three Assistant Publicity Officers, an Editor, and a Manager of Publications stationed at the department’s headquarters, along with five District Information Officers overseeing the five districts.

The department, however, faced a persistent challenge in the form of frequent transfers among the IAS and MCS officers, who often regarded their assignments within the department as punitive postings. This situation hindered the department’s ability to engage in professional activities aimed at disseminating government information effectively to the public and fostering robust public relations with various stakeholders in Manipur. Consequently, the term ‘Public Relations,’ which should have been integral to the Department of Information and Public Relations, was largely disregarded by the government of Manipur.

This neglect of the importance of PR within the department created a wide chasm between the Government of Manipur and its public, exacerbating numerous crises, including ethnic conflicts. Over time, I couldn’t help but feel disheartened by the lack of professionalism within the department, and my own professional aspirations suffered as a result.

At one point, the Institute of Public Relations in the UK dedicated significant attention to defining the practice of Public Relations (PR), characterising it as “the deliberate, planned, and sustained effort to establish and maintain mutual understanding between an organisation and its public.” However, it is crucial to assess the efforts undertaken by the Government of Manipur to foster and uphold this mutual understanding between the government and its diverse populace.

Manipur is a region with a unique demographic landscape, being home to the major Meitei community in the valley, as well as 35 officially recognised tribes residing in the hills, each possessing its distinct identity, culture, and language. While Manipuri serves as the common language for communication among various communities in the state, it’s essential to recognise that the public in Manipur is far from homogeneous. It comprises numerous groups, each with its own interests, and at times, these interests may even conflict with one another.

As a result, effective PR in Manipur necessitates a comprehensive approach that involves evaluating the attitudes and concerns of each segment of the public. It mandates the establishment of a consistent flow of communication directed towards these diverse groups to keep them well informed about the policies and initiatives of the state government. This communication serves the dual purpose of not only informing the public but also cultivating a sense of civic responsibility and citizenship among the people.

In practice, the task of PR in regions like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar may appear comparatively more straightforward when contrasted with the challenges faced in the northeastern states, where there are over 300 distinct ethnic communities. Managing PR in such a multifaceted and diverse environment demands a heightened level of sensitivity, adaptability, and strategic planning to navigate the complexities of fostering mutual understanding between the government and its intricate tapestry of constituents. We’ve observed that the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, responsible for managing the public relations (PR) efforts of the central government, is staffed by PR professionals from the Indian Information Services. These officers receive their training at the prestigious Indian Institute of Mass Communication in New Delhi.

The neighbouring states such as Assam, Nagaland, and Mizoram have recognized the vital role of effective PR in fostering peaceful coexistence and development among their diverse populations. In these states, the Department of Information and Public Relations is staffed by professionals from their respective State Information Services. Notably, they have established Public Relations offices at the sub-divisional level to ensure the doorstep delivery of government information, recognising the significance of direct communication with the public.

Given the positive impact that dedicated PR professionals and information or PR centres have had in neighbouring states, it raises a pertinent question: Why doesn’t Manipur adopt a Manipur Information Service to enhance its PR capabilities, including the creation of PR centres at the sub-divisional level? Addressing this question does not imply that Manipur would fragment; rather, it underscores the importance of effective PR in maintaining unity, fostering understanding, and driving development. By adopting similar strategies to neighbouring states, Manipur could potentially strengthen its relationship with its diverse population, thus promoting peace and progress.

While serving in the Department of Information and Public Relations, Manipur, I frequently encountered challenges stemming from the presence of non-professional senior officers. However, I found a more conducive environment for carrying out my professional duties during my tenure at the Manipur Information Centre in New Delhi, where I served as Joint Director for a decade. During this period, the then Chief Minister, Shri Okram Ibobi Singh, recognized the importance of effective public relations in building a positive image for his government. He took decisive steps to ensure that the department was exclusively managed by PR professionals.

In the latter part of 2016, I was transferred back to the department’s head office in Imphal. 

Unfortunately, by this time, the momentum needed to propel the department towards its desired goals had been lost. There was a significant staff shortage within the department, which later prompted the recruitment of media professionals to fill vacant positions. The change in government leadership, with the BJP government led by Shri N. Biren Singh assuming power in March 2017, marked my promotion to full-fledged Director in late 2017, just before my retirement in February 2018.

Regrettably, my dreams of fostering a more professional PR environment within the department remained largely unfulfilled. Following my retirement, the department reverted to its previous state with the appointment of a non-professional officer as Director. Consequently, the department struggled to expand its reach, especially in the remote hilly districts of Manipur. 

This posed a significant challenge to effectively disseminating government policies and programs and establishing mutual understanding between the government and its constituents, particularly in far-flung areas. Furthermore, Chief Minister Biren Singh, who had previously served as the editor of a vernacular newspaper, appeared to overlook the department responsible for PR in the state. He did not prioritise professionalisation within the department and instead relied on a social media platform like “Anouba Manipur” to communicate his activities. This negligence and failure to leverage government media and PR resources likely contributed to the breakdown in mutual understanding between the government and its public, coinciding with the eruption of ethnic crises and the emergence of disunity among the populace.

In contrast, we can observe a more proactive approach in states like Assam, under the leadership of Himanta Biswa Sarma, where the Department of Information and Public Relations play a pivotal role in government activities. A similar dynamic is evident in Nagaland and Mizoram, highlighting the significant impact that effective PR and government media can have in fostering public understanding and unity.

In today’s digital age, social media platforms have emerged as powerful tools for crisis resolution. However, it appears that the current government fails to grasp the significance and effectiveness of this innovative communication medium, comprising elements such as Facebook, Instagram, Google Plus, Twitter, YouTube, and more. These platforms have the potential to enlighten the public by disseminating meaningful messages that can help resolve crises effectively.

The prolonged ban on internet access has left those in need of accurate information in a state of darkness, akin to stumbling in the absence of light. While the government may have concerns about social media spreading rumours, it should also recognize that these platforms can be invaluable in dispelling falsehoods and presenting the facts. If the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) in Manipur had a PR professional at its helm, they would likely object to the internet ban, recognizing its utility as a valuable tool for delivering government information directly to the people, especially in times of crisis.

It’s worth noting that social media and new media represent vital components of the mass communication landscape. In fact, the esteemed Indian Institute of Mass Communication in New Delhi offers a one-year Diploma Course in Digital Media, underlining the growing significance of this medium. Regrettably, the Government of Manipur, particularly the DIPR, appears to lag behind in recognizing the potential of new media as a powerful mass communication tool. This oversight hampers their ability to effectively engage with the public and manage crises within Manipur.

The pressing need in the Manipur administration today is the reinforcement of the Public Relations (PR) department with seasoned professionals. The inception of the Publicity Office in Manipur dates back to November 1, 1949, shortly after the merger of Manipur into the Indian Union on October 15, 1949. This office was under the leadership of the esteemed media professional Shri R.K. Maipaksana, who served as the editor of a prominent vernacular newspaper.

In March 1974, the office was elevated to the status of a directorate, and the Director’s post was designated a cadre position for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), with Shri T.C. Tiankham assuming the role as the first IAS Director. 

Following Manipur’s attainment of Statehood, it appears that some of the top-level bureaucrats, who were mostly non-Manipuris and had risen to power during the Union Territory regime, may have been inclined to consolidate their authority. This was achieved by undermining the elected government’s strength through the mishandling of the PR department and the erosion of its professionalism.

During the tenure of Chief Minister R.K. Dorendra Singh, the department’s professionalism suffered a significant setback. To address this, the position of Additional Director was established and earmarked for a professional. Shri Maibam Haricharan, hailing from the Central Information Service and working with AIR Imphal, was appointed to this role. 

Unfortunately, after his retirement, the position remained vacant for an extended period and was eventually transformed into an MCS Grade-I post. Consequently, the professional ethos within the Directorate gradually waned. There was a time when officers from the department were sent for refresher courses at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in New Delhi, but this practice was discontinued. 

Presently, junior-level positions like Assistant Publicity Officers (APOs) and District Information Officers (DIOs), mostly well-trained in journalism and mass communication serve in the Junior MCS cadre, perpetuating a non-professional working approach within the DIPR, Manipur. This non-professional modus operandi of the DIPR, Manipur, has had dire consequences for the government of Manipur. Astonishingly, in the past 49 years since March 1974, the department has seen a staggering turnover of 48 Directors, highlighting the extent of the issue. 

To reinvigorate the administration and enhance its communication capabilities, a re-evaluation and strengthening of the PR department with a renewed focus on professionalism are imperative.

Democracy, often defined as “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” cannot function effectively without robust public relations. It is essential for public relations activities to play a vital role in assisting citizens in comprehending their rights and responsibilities within the framework of a democratic government.

I have firsthand knowledge of the current Chief Minister of Manipur’s capabilities and his deep affection for his homeland, Manipur. During his tenure as a Minister in the Ibobi government, I, along with him and a senior journalist successfully diffused a communal crisis by utilizing social media and employing sound strategies in managing national media. This example underscores the importance of meticulous planning, strategic thinking, and a professional approach to public relations when addressing crises.

Handling both the preparation of messages and media management is a complex task that requires skill and precision. Effectively communicating essential messages to the masses can falter if we overlook even a single letter, as the word “Mass” can inadvertently become “Ass Communication.” This highlights the delicate nature of mass communication and emphasizes the necessity of professional expertise in PR practices.

Propaganda, as a means of persuasion, ultimately proves ineffective and self-defeating. It often lacks ethical content and is predominantly associated with persuasion driven solely by self-interest, often necessitating the distortion or even falsification of facts to achieve its objectives.

In contrast, Public Relations (PR) embraces a broader and more responsible approach, characterized by a commitment to long-term relationships and a genuine desire to persuade while fostering mutual understanding. PR aims to secure the voluntary acceptance of attitudes and ideas. It can only succeed when founded on an ethical foundation and when truthful means are employed. This distinction underscores the importance of ethical principles and honesty in effective communication and relationship-building.

An interesting example of propaganda is ‘India Shining’ of the NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee of BJP in the election campaign of 2004, which did not succeed because rural India was suffering. Later, L.K. Advani, BJP leader, admitted the campaign title should have been ‘Indian Rising’ instead of ‘India Shining’.

During the same election, the Indian National Congress, then the primary opposition party, based its campaign on projecting itself as a party dedicated to the common man, encapsulated in the slogan “Congress ka Haath, Aam Aadmi ke Saath” (The Hand of Congress is with the Common Man). Jairam Ramesh, a key figure in the Congress Strategy Committee, noted that Sonia’s Jan Sampark program helped create a perception among voters that the party genuinely cared about those who were not benefiting from the ‘Shining India’ narrative.

However, after winning the election, the Congress seemed to forget its own ‘Aam Aadmi’ mantra. A group of individuals, keen on battling corruption, adopted this sentiment and formed the Aam Aadmi Party, subsequently governing the national capital, Delhi. This shift in focus led to the Congress distancing itself from the common man, which ultimately resulted in its defeat at the hands of the BJP in subsequent elections.

In conclusion, the present government should wholeheartedly embrace the concept of ‘Public Relations,’ which is embodied in the Department of Information and Public Relations of the state. When the government effectively utilizes the professional services of Public Relations, it has the potential to bridge the trust gap between itself and the public, ultimately fostering a positive image.

During times of crisis, the establishment of a Crisis Control Public Relations Communication Centre becomes imperative. Such a centre can be established based on a comprehensive 10-point formula:

1. Develop a crisis public relations plan.

2. Compile essential background information related to the crisis.

3. Facilitate a robust two-way information flow, both within and outside the government.

4. Establish a dedicated crisis information centre.

5. Skilfully manage and monitor media relations.

6. Regularly provide the official version of the information.

7. Highlight relief and rehabilitation measures.

8. Recognise that crises are not confined to local spheres but often have global ramifications.

9. Maintain a commitment to accuracy in disseminating information.

10. Continuously learn from case studies to improve crisis management strategies.

Moreover, the Manipur Information Centre in New Delhi should be fully operational, actively engaging with national media to ensure the accurate publication of positive news related to Manipur. Furthermore, it is crucial to expedite the transformation of the IPR Department into a professional entity, enabling it to chart its own course without delay. This transformation is not only in the interest of the government but also crucial for the well-being and harmony of the peace-loving people of Manipur.

The writer is a former Director at the Directorate of Information and  Public Relations, Government of Manipur.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NEA.

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