Tuesday, April 3, 2012

No Private Affair

By Ghazala Wahab

Chances are the visitors to DefExpo 2012 will not immediately notice the presence of the Indian private sector companies at the Show, despite their numerical strength. Looming larger than life would be Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), offering itself as the one stop shop for all systems pertaining to external defence, internal security and of course aerospace.

Close behind the DRDO splash would be the Indian public sector companies, which usually end up as prime for majority of defence contracts that the ministry of defence signs with foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Most of them will have expansive displays and will also be found on the pages of half a dozen Show Dailies (through advertisements/advertorials/editorials) that visitors to the Show will be accosted with. Conspicuous in this medley would be the fastest growing sector in defence manufacturing: Indian private sector companies.

And this will be the irony of DefExpo 2012, which has recorded 20 per cent growth in terms of space and participation over its last chapter in 2010. Of the total 570 exhibitors, 335 are Indian participants. To enhance the scope of the exhibition, the organisers, FICCI, have added internal security as the third prong of the land and naval systems exhibition. In the words of one FICCI representative, “The idea is to make the exhibition more comprehensive. Besides, internal security is an important element of focus in the country now.” A truism that nobody can underplay. Except that, at FORCE, from the time it was launched in August 2003, external and internal challenges were seamless extensions of one another which together determined the state of our national security. But that’s another story.

The focus here is the Indian private sector defence industry and its twisted relationship with the media, especially the trade media, which globally is used as a vehicle to disseminate information on new technologies, capabilities and products along with comparative analysis. In that sense, FORCE goes a step further. It also puts in perspective the operational environment where these technologies may be required. In addition to this, it also assesses the power play between global players which may impinge upon this environment. This is the reason that readers of FORCE hold it as a credible source of both information and objective analysis. But that’s yet another story.

Meanwhile, Indian private sector companies seem to believe that trade media comprises a bunch of mercenaries whose only interest lies in the money that can be grabbed through advertisements; as such they deserve neither respect nor advertisements. Like any other industry in India, in the media as well there are wannabe publications that have sprung up in the last few years primarily in the hope of getting some slice of the defence business pie. As always happens, the spoilers hang around as long as some slices continues to fall in their plate. Once the pie shrinks, they shut shop. It does not require genius to distinguish one from the other. Their editorial speaks for themselves.

Given this, one can understand the hands-off approach of the Indian private sector vis a vis trade media. However, the twist in the tale is that, while they do not consider trade media good enough for advertisements, they are good enough to carry their press releases or interviews of their senior management staff, including the top guns like CEOs, presidents and chairmen. All gratis of course. If you ask for advertisements in support of these noble activities you are guilty of indulging in paid journalism, an abhorrent disease in these times of nobility.

This betrays their lack of understanding about what media is or does. Media is not only the source of information but the primary opinion-maker. Majority of people form their opinion or judgement based on what they read in the media. While this capability gives enormous powers to the media it also bestows upon them a sense of responsibility towards their readers, which is why at FORCE a clear distinction is made between editorial and advertorial. Editorials are sacred; advertorials are paid. Having said this, advertising is a big source of revenue for independent media and not just the trade media. People advertise for a number of reasons (to create awareness about their products, to develop a relationship with the media in the hope that it will support the company through non-paid articles which have greater credibility and so on) but for media, advertising has only one unambiguous purpose. That is survival and retention of its independence. Moreover, the relationship between the advertiser and the publication is not quid pro quo. It grows in the realm of long-term mutual trust and sensitivity towards one another, implying that even if a company does not advertise for a long time, once a relationship is established it only gets strengthened.

Unfortunately, because of this lack of understanding, Indian private defence industry sees no purpose in establishing this relationship. They view advertising in crude transactional terms and as means of doling out favours. The irony is that as much as they are judgemental about media’s greed and subsequent lack of independence, they find it safe to advertise with the most non-independent media, a media that takes pride in being the mouthpiece of the government. And who does not know that publication at DefExpo? When you aim higher, your vision has to broaden too.

Having done that, they then unleash an army of public relation personnel armed with promises of future advertising to get space in the same media they shunned earlier for being greedy. Sorry, but there are no free lunches, neither in life nor in media.

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