A quick study of Barack Obama’s PR — From storytelling to ‘Between Two Ferns’


In early 2007 when a young senator from Illinois beat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries, my cook in India assumed that he became the president of the United States. Such was the fanfare and aura around Barack Obama, many didn’t know who the president of India was, but the name Obama was common knowledge. His journey from 2008–2016 is a compelling study in the simplicity of storytelling.
The president’s slogan of “Change” resonated across the world after the colossal mess that he inherited from George Bush. Yet, the very storytelling machinery that elected him twice over has failed to convey ‘what’ the president has really done. In the past 9-years of Obama’s epochal reign, his most sweeping ‘changes’ have not been communicated with the similar gusto of his campaigns.
The most notable failure is the 900-page legislation, “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” (ACA henceforth). Here’s a piece of legislation so historic in value, history will judge the president on this one change. The bill aims to impact the millions of underprivileged people by providing free healthcare, yet it remains shrouded in mystery and complexity.
The Republicans derisively call the legislation as ‘Obamacare,’ and surveys state that many in the U.S. have no idea what the act does and how it benefits them. A Jimmy Kimmel interview hilariously showed that Americans opposed Obamacare but heaped praises on ACA, when the two were the same. A CNBC survey found that 46 percent of Americans oppose Obamacare, yet only 37% oppose the Affordable Care Act. Again, both are the same.
Education. College fees and expenses are so high in America, BuzzFeed ran a post on how you can buy islands instead of getting a degree from the New York University. Student loan debts in the US are more than $1.3 trillion, the highest in the world by any stretch of the imagination. The president signed an amendment to the Health Care law that also affected education. Its core purpose was to shift the burgeoning student debt from the students to the taxpayers.
These two important pieces of legislation are seldom spoken about or appreciated. He’s the first president to speak openly for gay rights, (the one portion I thought was well communicated to the world considering its sensitivity and scale) reducing our carbon footprint, signed off on a range of financial changes, brought about closer relations between the West and other countries, increased the number of job opportunities etc…
There are a number of misses as well like the frosty relations with Putin. But from a Public Relations’ point of view, a number of his wins remain opaque. It was in this context that the president of the United States attended Jack Galifianakis’ ‘Between Two Ferns’. He wanted to control the narrative, dumb down healthcare.gov after all the bad press it garnered. Did it do enough? Not really. But the president’s office wanted to reach out to its people and explain his achievements.
The perception of Barack Obama is still positive world over. Speaking out for gay rights alone won him a lot of good karma. (It’s the 21st century for crying out loud) But how many really know of his most consequential pieces of legislation that are likely touch the millions of Americans and billions around the world? That calls for a bigger study and a closer analysis. While Obama’s campaign was simple, his office has largely fallen short of communicating his biggest achievements. And that’s precisely why the world needs its storytellers, even in the highest offices.

How Twitter can convert its skeptics

Oh ho, Twitter. One of my favourite social networks is bleeding dry. The company’s recent quarter was a bloodbath of sorts with shares going down as much as 12 percent. The company has lost a little more than 60% of its market capitalisation from last year. That’s more than half the company’s value being wiped out!
If numbers were to go by, earnings of 16 cents per share and $710 million in revenue actually beat the Reuters EPS estimates and met the revenue. The problem with Twitter is that user growth declined sequentially, meaning, lesser ‘new’ users are getting onto twitter and the existing dormant ones are disillusioned and/or ‘inactive’.
At the core of twitter’s problem is that there’s no sense of gratification for a new user. In Facebook, you have your friends to ‘like’ ‘comment’ or ‘share’ your posts. In a sense, there’s some sort of reciprocation, and therefore, an incentive to be on Facebook. It’s a truly social network. Twitter on the other hand, is yearning for this conversation. It’s not a ‘social’ platform for the larger populace by the strictest definition because monologues are far more predominant. And therein lies the problem to acquire more users.
Unless you’re a celebrity or a popular person, the chances of you gaining followers and being ‘accepted’ are limited. New users feel timid and vague to be having these monologues with minimal followers. And from what limited followers you have, responses are even lesser, reducing the incentive to rant on twitter. This is also why politicians, journalists, celebrities, influencers love twitter — it makes for multiple dialogues because they have a base to interact with.
What twitter can do?
  • For starters, how about showcasing some tweets from new/less popular users on the feeds of users who have a lot more followers. For example, 1 out of 10 tweets on Neil Tyson’s timeline can come from a new user whom Michael Jordan does not follow. This incentivises new users to join Twitter because there’s a chance of their tweets being seen by celebrity feeds. As you roll-out this feature down to non-celebs who have a considerable amount of followers, a mention/retweet incentivises less popular users stand a chance to engage more.
  • Improving the data sciences of Twitter Moments. This feature was launched about a month back. Though it was not aimed at getting new users on board, it was an attempt to lure existing users. If users are clicking on links/engaging with content, it means that they are interested in that particular tweet. Similar content should be relayed on moments, which should also act as a way to show you 15–20 of the possible tweets from the day you might like and have potentially missed.
  • Have a bot to navigate new users through the workings of twitter. Most new users are confused once they sign-in and find it awkward to be tweeting into nothingness. Tap into the existing phone, facebook contacts etc… and notify friends that YYY person whom you know, has joined twitter. Existing friends can then follow this person and begin interactions from the very beginning.
  • Position twitter as the go-to platform for news. Twitter should be talking about how TV is a boring snooze-fest and why twitter is a place of informed views. It can be difficult considering trolls lurk about on twitter more than any other platform, but it’s also a place of debate and discussion. There’s almost little communication on the many advantages of real-time information, ability to interact with thought-leaders and sift through quality content.
I love twitter. I learn everyday from interacting with some of the brightest minds. But if the company really needs to build on these great conversations, it needs to retain talent and work on its core strengths.
Sidenote — A while back rumours were rife of Google wanting to buy Twitter. It’s not about the money needed to buy twitter. Google has $73.1 bln in cash sitting around. Instead, the company sat in the sidelines and partnered with Twitter for a few simple offerings. Nobody wants to touch the company until they devise a way to attract more users and engage on their platform. Here’s hoping 2016 will be a great year for twitter and may they ride the tide.

Book Review - The Lives of Others, a journey pre-1969 into the heart of Bengali traditions

Reading Neel Mukherjee's 'The Lives of Others' felt like an exploration into the author's own beliefs of India's communist factions. Interlaced with the story of a Calcutta family’s social lives, it traces the symptoms leading up to the Naxalite revolution of 1969. The book is rich in language and seeped in cultural nuances. It's no surprise that it was deemed worthy of a Booker nomination.

Mukherjee’s language is simple, yet powerful and he weaves a story with the many superstitions and social dogmas of Indian society. It’s not a roller-coaster ride of a book with plots and sub-plots. He builds characters and gives adequate time to make them impressionable to the reader. The language makes this book a compelling read.
Like most books, I felt it could be about a 100-pages shorter, but I particularly enjoyed how he elaborated on the many revolving characters in the book. He painstakingly navigates the reader through the many layers each character has and builds a compelling social narrative. It's a book about ideology and how his characters - meek, strong, courageous and cowards, all come together to tell you their stories. 
Read it, because it’s about an India you might not have heard much of. It’s about the story of a rich family with bigotry and how one boy left all the luxuries of life to join a movement he believed in.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate how startups have helped Chennai

Tech startups. We love them, but almost always love to hate them. We question their soaring valuations, we question their business models, their massive discounts to acquire customers and their very existence. But all of us use their services in some form or the other. Be it Uber, MakeMyTip, Practo, Zomato or Flipkart, they’ve all made our lives a lot simpler. There’s no denying this fact.
Today (and I’m sure in the coming days) a number of these companies came out to help Chennaiites stuck in the biggest disaster they’ve ever faced. Daily life has come to a halt and this is a national disaster of unimaginable proportions. The unprecedented destruction has left many of us wanting to help. Startups have a network; they have a database of users and some of them used these simple resources to reach out to residents in desperate need for help. This post is to call out some companies who have come out and offered their help, even if they didn’t have to.
 1. Paytm
2. Uber
3. Zomato (whose CEO was crowd-sourcing ideas from twitter to help)
4. Ola
5. IndiGo
Honorable mentions who are not startups - Airtel and BSNL have waived off their usual call and data charges. 
I'm sure there are more to be added to this list. Please let me know if I've missed out something and will definitely update the post. 

The biggest irony of all – Public Relations has a perception problem, and rightly so

PR. The two alphabets that summon a host of negative connotations ever since Ed Bernays made Public Relations synonymous with propaganda. Bernays’ (Sigmund Freud's nephew. Ha.) brand of PR was effective. It was measured and controlled. Companies saw tremendous value in what he brought to the table. This brand of PR is now redundant. Anybody who thinks they can control information or subvert truth is living in a shell. PR has evolved from cold war propaganda into the art of storytelling. We all parrot the line, but in essence, practitioners and companies don’t practice what they preach. 
Here are some thoughts on the current state of PR -
What PR is today:
  •  PR is ‘assuring coverage’ in the mass media
  • PR is incessantly calling journalists and asking them to write stories about your clients
  • PR is jargon and fluffy words that only technical people understand
  • PR is sending reports on competition without any relevance or analysis of how it affects business
  • PR is ‘spin’ as companies love to think and hire agencies to do
  • PR is boring reports, processes and endless PPTs
What PR should be:
  • PR is about unearthing hidden stories companies don’t know how to narrate
  • PR is about putting someone’s thoughts on paper – it’s about writing, editing and crafting quality content
  • PR is about aligning a company’s communication to ensure all employees understand the objective/goals
  • PR is about building awareness of a company by removing the clutter and explaining what it does
  • PR helps in differentiating between what makes a good story and what is marketing fluff

Why everything you know about news is going to change/has changed

The news industry is at the brink of a major upheaval. But before we delve into the specifics, couple of simple questions –
  • How many of us actually visit the homepage of a website?
  • How many of us get news from social media properties than directly from the website?
  • How many consume news via newsletters? Do you read news more on your mobile? PC? Newspaper? – Really?
The moment you think of these questions, you realise that the manner in which news is being consumed and presented has radically changed in the past 2-3 years.
Consumption: Our window to news is from aggregators rather than actual publishers. Which means, consumption of news is moving from the global pubs like Reuters/NYT and Indian favourites, Economic Times/Mint to News In Shorts and the likes of Yahoo Digest. News aggregation is more popular because it’s concise, brief and to the point.
Presentation: Facebook and Twitter, rather uncharacteristically, are content companies even though they produce absolutely NO content. Think about it for a second. We consume more content from social media than actual websites.
 The emergence of Buzzfeed as a competitive new media ‘news’ company is testimonial to their understanding of Facebook and Twitter not as technology companies, but content behemoths.
About 4 months back the NYT tied up with Starbucks making a coffee company, a content company. The starbucks app curates quality content based on your reading patterns and behaviour allowing you to consume the best from the Times. What this means is, new platforms can now disseminate content. The real estate is elsewhere and the risks of monetisation move from the Times to Starbucks.
By opening up Facebook’s platform to different publishers, they provide users with a native experience users are so accustomed to. It’s a solid proposition when you think about it. Users are already familiar with Facebook’s presentation and weaving the best content by stitching video and images is a massive proposition for publishers, and more importantly, users.
 The medium is as important as the message, if not more important. For good or worse, ignoring the medium could be dangerous because content is not searched for, as much as discovered or recommended.
As I write this, NYT has tied-up with Google to deliver virtual reality-driven stories. The medium will triumph the message? Sure looks like it.
Some answers for the questions I posed initially -An interesting Quartz study surveying top executives was revealing. In order of preference, nearly 60% of them consumed information via Newsletters, 43% via social media and 28% via a news app. And these numbers are only going to change as app companies tinker around with push notifications, formats and presentation.The Times stated that only a third of their readers actually visit the site. This makes sense because discovery of content happens at social media platforms and newsletters.
Question is, can news be customised based on preferences and tastes? It’s certainly a space to watch out for. Can we mine data from every individual and cater to news that’s relevant to them. For example, I have a keen eye on IoT and ad tech, so can specific news be pushed to me? That’s a data analytics personalised piece I’d be interested in. Also, even the most ardent newspaper man has his/her favourite pages. The rest are avoided. What if I can offer that superior experience on mobile by collecting reading patterns and data?  
In the coming years, there’s going to be a lot of consolidation in the publishing industry. Mobile will be the key as always. But content alone will not reign supreme – the medium will have a say. A bigger say than we can possibly imagine if trends are to go by. It’s a scary thought nevertheless when social media companies resemble news companies and news companies have to toe the social media line. We live in interesting times ;)

How e-Commerce changed forever: From inventory to marketplace to Wallets

Online retail in India is fragmented. It’s the most unorganised sector, with brands being a very niche portion of the consumer pie. Think of e-commerce is a way to address this disparity. But hold that thought for a moment; the supplier-demand imbroglio is only one tumult in the madhouse.
Depending on which research firm your allegiances lie, only about 1-3% of consumers shop online. We haven’t even hit the 30 million mark in a nation of more than 1.3 billion. With advancements in Virtual Reality, things could get a lot easier. But online is the way forward and millennials (sigh, that word again) will drive this phase. India is a potential market. Most companies have to be in the game for the long haul. (Two-minute silence if you have bad VC’s on board.)
Funny enough, some estimates peg online retail spends to touch $16 billion by 2018. Errrmm… Flipkart’s current valuation is north of $15 billion. Go figure...
The ‘big billion’ and ‘festive sales’ are campaigns to get more consumers online, to get comfortable with shopping. Because by 2018, if India still has only about 130 million shoppers, that’s not going to justify soaring valuations for some of the biggies.
So, the business dictates that the model needs to touch three key areas:
  • Tech
  • Delivery
  • After-sales Service
The tech is an important conversation, but outside the scope of this topic. The delivery and after-sales service are game-changers. The last-mile delivery industry is confusing, complicated and chaotic. Companies have tied up with third party providers to smoothen the process, but are yet to crack the under-24 hour promise.
(Skip straight to Wallets if you know the difference between inventory and marketplace)
In an inventory-model, the company owns the product. This solves some major bottlenecks. You don’t run out of product, easier delivery management and importantly, ensure that the buck stops with who owns the product. But you also buy risk. How?
In this model, Flipkart would buy the product and ensure after-sales service. For example, if you buy a Samsung TV online and if there’s a problem, Flipkart will ensure that it’s solved. In the backend, Flipkart will talk to Samsung and sort issues, completely eliminating the consumer from the issue. Sounds good? Well, initially Flipkart saw value in taking the burden, and then this was slowly and eventually phased out. There was too much risk and capital involved. Instead of focusing on the customer, capital was being burnt on acquiring products in anticipation of selling them.
Enter the marketplace model. Buyers and sellers interact freely in a platform provided by a third-party. Suddenly, Flipkart does not take onus of the product, but instead, merely facilitate a competitive environment. As a consumer, you’re not buying from Flipkart, even though the packaging has Flipkart stamped all over it. Flipkart does not own the product, after-sales is shipped out to the OEM. By adopting this model, companies focus on the delivery, but lose out on the quality of after-sales service. Marketplaces offer scale and severely mitigate risk. It’s no surprise that companies are quickly operating in this model.
Wallets - A marketplace with moderate after-sales service and stunning discounts.
The story of payments as a service tells us that not all who move first in the fast-growing tech industry will necessarily conquer.  
Wallets are convenience, more than anything. They’re a disruption to the banalities and dysfunctional methods of our beloved legacy banks. By making mobile the centre of transactions, wallets eliminate the need to carry money. But wallets in itself is not a winner. Creating a marketplace on top of easy, fast payments sure is.
However, that’s not going to move the needle if you don’t have first-mover advantage and branding like the others. How do you beat that? Well… Use that VC money by assuring cash-backs. Suddenly, you’re no different from the established players of the world, except, your peg point is massive discounts AND ease of payments. Besides, you act as a one-stop solution for all services you avail outside of typical e-commerce. Order food, pay via the wallet. Book a room, pay via the wallet. Order groceries, pay via the wallet. Use Uber or commute from A to B, pay via the wallet. Recharge your phone, pay via the wallet. See where this is going…?
The only problem wallets need to solve is delivery. With more volume and data analytics, that too shall pass. But if you want to be the market-leader, you still need to solve after-sales service. Something I had written about here. Who’s your bet on? Flipkart? Amazon? SnapDeal? Would love to hear your thoughts…