Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Doing business transparently

How business can be media smart

From The Statesman
ND Batra

I am invariably asked how a company should deal with rabid journalists for whom “If it bleeds, it leads” makes a good story.

The news media have begun to play a very significant role in the conduct of both national and international business, as you see in the current global economic crisis that originated primarily in the United States bad lending practices but now has affected rest of the world economies. Television news in convergence with the Internet makes events live and spontaneous beyond the traditional editorial controls. Bloggers, online whistle-blowers and civic groups present alternative views of what companies are doing. Rumours spread fast on the Internet. The rumour about the health of Steve Job, Apple’s CEO, who had cancer surgery, for example, might have contributed to the recent sudden decline in the company’s stock.

Today business cannot be conducted beyond the public view. The reason for this increased interest in how companies do their business is not difficult to appreciate. The impact on people’s lives even if they are not directly invested in a company is tremendous. The very presence of Coca-Cola, Pepsi or Wal-Mart in a town raises apprehensions and expectations, which calls forth close scrutiny by the news media.

It is true that the news media is itself a global business and is subject to rules and regulations like any other business; nonetheless, being regarded as the fourth estate the news media has a privileged position. For example, the news media has the unique privilege of issuing corrective statements as the stories develop. While the reader or viewer might think this is the news, journalists regard news as events in progress, which they must report.

In the United States, it is extremely difficult to win libel damages against the news media because of the legal provision that plaintiff must prove “reckless disregard for truth.” Proving media negligence only is not enough to win libel damages. The near immunity from libel gives the news media large freedom and encourages investigative reporting and keeps the society healthy.

Because of the inescapable fact that our economic well being, pensions, retirement savings, environment and quality of life have become dependent on the marketplace, no business can escape media attention. Bigger companies invite healthy suspicion about their activities by the news media. Add to it millions of blogs that feed upon each other. Keeping silence is not possible in an open society, well, not for long.

So how should global companies deal with the news media? A company doing business globally has to become media savvy and must understand how news organisations work and how they produce stories. Corporate communicators have to understand the news media’s sources of information and their reporting methods and how to influence them by providing them correct information. Companies have been using adverting as a major method of influencing the public, as oil companies, BP and Exxon-Mobil, for example, have been doing to divert attention from the charge of extortion at the pump. Advertising if done properly is still a powerful mode of direct communication with the public at large. But advertisement cannot beat headline news, breaking stories, or special reports with which the news media try to draw the public attention distracted by too much noise. It is a big challenge to be heard when electronic media has limited attention span.

Corporate communicators should keep in mind that a reporter cannot turn a damaging story into a good one, especially in the time of crisis. News is a competitive business and no one can afford to keep silent over a story that impacts the public and also draws big audience. In good times, a company that has excellent working relations with the news media can strengthen its positions by presenting positive stories and thus enhance its reservoir of public good will. Consequently, when a crisis hits the company, it would be able to draw upon the public sympathy. Building intangible social capital is as important as building tangible market capital.

The traditional method of issuing press and video releases is still relevant especially in the local news media outlet, where the paucity of manpower resources might prompt a local television station or a newspaper to repackage a company’s story as a news item. This is a common practice in the United States. But at the same time we should keep in mind that national news media organizations are inundated with e-mail news tips, and video and press releases, therefore, they hardly pay attention to junk mail. It is important to target the right people in the news media. Steps for dealing with the news media effectively require research.

Smart corporate communicators take several steps to make their stories relevant; for example, they determine whether they have a worthwhile story and whether it needs to be told to the news media and why.

They know the audience for the story, which news media would be the best to reach and the reporters who normally cover such stories. Through their networks they know which reporter would be most sympathetic to their story and whether the reporter is accessible.

When the news media ask for information, reactions and comments, the company should offer full cooperation; and the spokesperson should be ready with facts and figures or promise to provide the data promptly to meet the reporter’s deadline. Whatever information is provided, it should be done thoughtfully and judiciously.

It is difficult to undo or delete the information once it is out, even though the news media promptly issue corrections. Providing reliable and prompt information is one of the best ways to build bridges with the news media; so when the need arises, the company could count upon the media good will. It pays to be on the right side of the news media.

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Who is afraid of cyber militia?

Blocking fraudsters, hackers and cyber militias

From The Statesman
ND Batra

A few months ago I received a very unusual email message from a well-regarded friend saying that he had lost his bag in Kuala Lumpur, where he had gone to attend an international conference on HIV, and asked if I could wire him some money which he would return as soon as he returned home. He asked me to respond promptly so that he could me give the hotel address where I could electronically transfer the money.

I looked at the email address and the name again ~ everything seemed genuine and my first impulse was to rescue my friend in distress but then a suspicion began to creep in. The last name was hyphenated, Ryan Douglas-Gagnon instead of Ryan Douglas Gagnon (a presumed name to protect privacy) as my friend normally writes it. Again I wondered why Ryan, an accountant by profession with an élan for poetry, would go to Kuala Lumpur when his business was limited to Kolkata, Delhi and Bangalore. Although he was involved with some local charities, I never heard him talking about any HIV international conference in Malaysia. I decided to cool it for a few days to see how urgent the need was before I regretted my decision. Two days after I received an email from the real Ryan Douglas Gagnon saying that his e-mail had been compromised and asked me to communicate with him on his new email address. Hackers must have used spyware to steal the password of his e-mail to commit a fraud on me; and I was almost taken in. What a relief.

In the past I have received email solicitations from strangers, perhaps based in Nigeria, Russia or somewhere else, asking me whether I’d accept their money for investment in return for a heavy commission paid up front. Though such fraudulent investment schemes are now well-known, some gullible people do get caught in the trap.I am not the only one paranoid about growing cyber threats.

Hackers and fraudsters are a growing menace in the ever-expanding and interconnected digital world. Last June, several members of US Congress complained that sensitive data from their computers had been stripped by Chinese hackers. Representatives Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) and Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) were quoted in the Hill, a congressional newspaper, saying the FBI had discovered that their staff computers had been hacked by people working out of China. Both congressmen have been dealing with human rights abuses in China and Tibet.

Chinese hackers have also been trying to penetrate defence establishment networks including Nasa, Sandia National Laboratories and the Naval War College during the past several years. “Computer systems control all critical infrastructures, and nearly all of these systems are linked together through the Internet. This means that nearly all infrastructures in the United States are vulnerable to being attacked, hijacked or destroyed by cyber means...The potential for massive and coordinated cyber attacks against the United States is no longer a futuristic problem,” Mr Wolf said.

Now that the corporate global is rushing to China for the Beijing Olympics, fears of cyber hacking too have been increasing. Ms Siobhan Gorman reported last week in the Wall Street Journal that the US government was extremely concerned about whether it would be diplomatically wise to openly warn businesspersons and travellers visiting China during the Beijing Olympics about Chinese hackers, said to be the smartest and the most dangerous in the world. Data can be stolen at hotels, airports or anyplace from cell phones, laptops, BlackBerrys and other electronic devices simply by wirelessly inserting spyware that is designed for stealthy removal of information. Although the US government issues warning about terrorism and health risks when Americans travel abroad, wrote WSJ, it does not issue warning about cyber threats.

Talking to an audience at Purdue University, Indiana, last week about various threats faced by the US in the 21st century, Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said building cyber defences would be one of his top priorities because information networks are “increasingly the backbone of our economy and our infrastructure; our national security and our personal well-being”. Mr Obama’s immediate concern seemed to be about terrorists using US computer networks “to deal us a crippling blow” rather than a “friendly” trading country like China, which has a vicious underground cyber hacker militia that cannot operate without the government’s knowledge and others attempting to steal trade and military secrets.

Acknowledging that cyber-espionage has been growing, Mr Obama said as President he would “make cyber security the top priority that it should be in the 21st century...declare our cyber-infrastructure a strategic asset, and appoint a National Cyber Advisor who (would)...coordinate efforts across the federal government, implement a truly national cyber-security policy, and tighten standards to secure information ~ from the networks that power the federal government, to the networks that you use in your personal lives”. Bravo.

Today no one is immune from cyber attacks. But what is the special challenge for India?According to the legend, India helped the US and rest of the world to overcome the Y2K crisis. India’s IT industry took up the challenge of Y2K and in the process triggered a new age of prosperity, catapulting India into the knowledge age. Today if the Indian IT sector could develop a universal ‘unhackable’ cyber security system that not only prevented but also pre-empted hackers, fraudsters and state-supported cyber militias, India would usher in a new era of global trade and prosperity.

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Iran Matters

Iran sends a long-range message

From The Statesman

ND Batra
It was a spectacular display of missile firepower exceeded only by the Revolutionary Guard air force commander General Hossein Salami’s rhetoric. According to the official IRNA news agency, he said Shahab-3 and other missile tests should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about Iran’s “resolve and might against enemies who in recent weeks have threatened Iran with harsh language...We warn the enemies who intend to threaten us with military exercises and empty psychological operations that our hand will always be on the trigger and our missiles will always be ready to launch.”

With a range of 1,240 miles (almost 2,000 km), Shahab-3 with a nuclear payload could cause massive death and destruction if it were to hit Israel; and hence the motivation for Israel to wipe out the nuclear enrichment facility before Iran is fully capable of developing weapons. Early June, Israel conducted an extensive military exercise over the eastern Mediterranean to prepare for a mission to pre-empt the nuclear threat and to send a message to Iran.

Not to be left behind, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent her own prompt message from Georgia, where she had gone to lay the groundwork for establishing an anti-ballistic missile system, asserting, “We will defend American interests and the interests of our allies...No one should be confused about that.” Israel is not expected to launch an attack on Iran without US approval, but with prevailing uncertainties occasioned by the impending presidential election, events might get out of hand. Both Iranian and US-British warships are conducting naval exercises at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, through which about 40 per cent of the world’s oil passes. If Iran blocks this strategic waterway, global economic consequences will be much more devastating than those triggered by the 1956 Suez War.

The only economic consequence of the firing of nine missiles has been the cancellation of the planned development of Iranian South Pars gas field by Total, a French oil company whose CEO, Mr Christophe de Margerie, was quoted in the Financial Times as saying, “Today we would be taking too much (of a) political risk to invest in Iran because people will say: ‘Total will do anything for money’.” If France retreats, however, China will surely spring forward. With oil prices hitting $145 a barrel, petrodollars are flooding Iran, the fourth largest oil producer.

Both Republican and Democratic presumptive presidential nominees, Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama, iterated their positions on Iran. Mr Obama said the missile tests show “the threat from Iran’s nuclear programme is real and it is grave”, which necessitates “direct, aggressive and sustained diplomacy”, including economic sanctions. Mr McCain on the other hand says working with “our European and regional allies is the best way to meet the threat posed by Iran”. He also supports President Bush’s anti-missile defence system. Neither candidate has ruled out force as an option if diplomacy fails and Iran persists in developing nuclear weapons.

Perhaps the situation is not as frightening as it seems to be. Undersecretary of State William J Burns told Congress that “while deeply troubling, Iran’s real nuclear progress has been less than the sum of its boasts”. Tough sanctions and incentives including technical and economic help might work, it is believed, in persuading Iran to suspend its nuclear activities. Two days after the missile tests Iran agreed to resume talks with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana in Geneva on 19 July.

The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) based on the findings of the 16 agencies of the US intelligence community concluded “with high level of confidence” in its report released in 2007 that Iran was not engaged in the development of nuclear weapons. In fact, Iran halted the nuclear weapons programme in 2003, though it continued pursuing nuclear energy development for civilian energy purposes. But Iran has the necessary scientific, technological and industrial base and knowledge to make nuclear bombs. Suspending the programme does not mean that Iran has altogether given up its intention to build a nuclear arsenal in the pursuit of its strategic interests in the region.

The report said, “Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.” Of course, the national interest calculations include both short- and long-term cost-benefit analyses. And Iran, taking into account the ruthless determination the Bush administration displayed in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, might have thought it unwise to continue with its nuclear weapons programme.

The 2007 intelligence report, which contradicted the previous alarmist findings about Iran’s intentions, has reinforced the arguments of those Americans, Republicans and Democrats, who believe that concerted international diplomacy will work. The report recommended that “some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressure, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might ~ if perceived by Iran’s leaders as credible ~ prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.”

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has continued to operate 3,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium for civilian nuclear energy purposes, which could give it enough fissile material to produce nuclear weapons in less than a decade if its intentions change and it can avoid international scrutiny and pressure. With the long-range Shahab series, Iran already has a well-developed ballistic missile development programme. With its immense oil and natural gas resources and nuclear capabilities, Iran is a significant power in the region and should be acknowledged as such. Nonetheless, neither Iran nor any other power should be allowed to choke the Gulf region through which millions of barrels of oil flow everyday, which the growing economies of India and China and rest of the world need.

(ND Batra is professor of communication at Norwich University)

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Illusion of Democracy

US can’t bulldoze democracy into unready soil

From The Statesman
ND Batra

Islamic conservatism, as practised in Saudi Arabia and most Muslim countries, and nationalistic authoritarianism successfully exemplified by China and Russia, are the two powerful alternatives to democracy as political organising principles. Spreading democracy is a worthy goal but the US has to face complex challenges in this interdependent world, challenges that would compel policymakers, Democrats and Republicans, to act as pragmatist idealists.

Both Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama are gradually moving in that direction as they consider global threats: terrorism, failing states, soaring oil prices, nuclear weapons proliferation and environmental degradation. A “league of democracies”, as Mr McCain has described it, is not enough to solve global problems. Consider the present actualities. China has been growing at the rate of 8-9 per cent for the past two decades or so and is expected to become a powerful economic and military force, almost a superpower, in the coming decades. Since authoritarian rule has not held China back from growing at a dizzying rate, it is quite sensible to ask: How could China do so much in such a short time without freedom and civil liberties?

In a speech at the Hoover Institution on US foreign policy at Stanford University in Stanford, California, Mr McCain said about China that “despite miraculous economic growth and a higher standard of living for many millions of Chinese, hopes for an accompanying political reform have diminished. The ruling party seems determined to dominate political life, and as in the past, the talk is of order, not democracy, the supremacy of the party not of the people”.

Perhaps the Chinese people by and large don’t care for democracy; nonetheless, the US has no choice but to deal with China for commercial and diplomatic reasons.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a Japanese-American scholar, Mr Francis Fukuyama, gloated that it was nothing but “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.
You can see the bonfires of such scholarly predictions all around.

The end of communism brought about a sense of misplaced euphoria, a massive illusion: this is the final triumph of democracy. But freedom did not happen in Russia after the Soviet Union disintegrated; and it did not happen in China in spite of rapid economic growth and broadening prosperity under state-controlled market capitalism couched in fervid nationalism.

The raging Beijing Olympic fever is about nationalism, not democracy and freedom. It is a corporate-hitched global propaganda about China rising under authoritarianism, not a new chapter on freedom and democracy.

Freedom did not spring like a long-awaited spring after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact worldwide authoritarianism has increased. China has no doubt ceased to be an immediate threat since its economic growth has become increasingly tied up with search for energy and other raw materials, foreign direct investment, and exports, especially to Europe and the US.

Today China, paradoxically, is the US’s biggest foreign lender; and so, no wonder, human rights concerns, including Tibet, have ceased to be an issue in US-China relations. Whenever US trade officials visit China, they urge China to spend more on consumer goods and raise the value of its currency; they seldom mention democracy or Tibetan human rights.

For China, consuming what they manufacture is more important than political freedom. Democracy has not been rising in the Muslim-Arab world, where authoritarianism holds sway. Between the US and Saudi Arabia and other seemingly pro-American Muslim-Arab countries in the region, where fundamentalism has a large appeal, human rights and freedom are never a hot-button issue. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, the US leveraged financial and military aid to make Pakistan an ally against Taliban and Al-Qaida terrorism.

And to maintain its hold over Pakistan, the US muffled the issue of even the black-marketing of nuclear technology by one of the world’s most notorious scientists, Mr AQ Khan, who recently implicated the Pakistan military in his nuclear wheeling and dealing.President Pervez Musharraf might have receded in the background because of the recent popular upsurge, but the military still rules the land. And the Taliban exercise control over a crucial border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The US cannot give up the realpolitik of dealing with non-democratic regimes, such as North Korea, regardless of its messianic fervour of spreading freedom universally. The song and dance of freedom and liberty seems to be a posture of public diplomacy for winning the hearts and minds of the Arab-Muslim world after its ruinous post-Iraq war handling of insurgency.

There is no gainsaying the fact the US remains vulnerable to terrorism so long as tyranny and the ideology of hate prevail abroad and for which, some experts believe, there’s no other solution except to expand the democratic form of government and its freedoms. But Arab/Muslims look at China, where 1.3 billion people work day and night to make goods for the entire world without much concern about freedom.

The US cannot bulldoze democracy into any country.

Elections in Afghanistan, the Palestinian Authority and Iraq raised some hope that eventually a sharing of power might bring about the beginning of democratic law and order. But freedom to vote is not enough because it does not mean the end of violence, poverty and unemployment, which provide fertile ground for more terrorism.

Look at Zimbabwe’s President, Mr Robert Mugabe, who told the world at the recent African Union forum to go to hell. Mr Mugabe looks to China, not the US or South Africa.

The rhetoric of democracy must include economic aid, including preferential trade for poor countries that have been making valiant efforts to grow economically and control terrorism at the same time. Instead of crouching toward China or Russia as a model, they should look to the US. That is the biggest challenge for US international diplomacy and the next President.

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University)

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

If guns don’t kill people, who does?

Free to die in gun violence

From The Statesman
ND Batra
On several issues the US Supreme Court is as divided as the country itself. On the bench there are some justices who might be called constitutional fundamentalists or literalists, who believe that the Constitution means what it says, and they know it.

On Thursday, the US Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 majority that Americans have a constitutional right to own handguns for self-defence, giving its interpretation of the Second Amendment (the Bill of Rights) which was ratified in 1791. The amendment reads: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

The question before the court was whether the right to own a gun was limited to service for the state military force or for personal use. Justice Antonin Scalia, a constitutional fundamentalist, writing for the majority, said the Constitution does not permit “the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home”.

Justice Stephen Breyer, known as a liberal pragmatist constitutionalist, wrote a dissent in which he said, “In my view, there simply is no untouchable constitutional right guaranteed by the Second Amendment to keep loaded handguns in the house in crime-ridden urban areas.” All the 10 amendments that make up the Bill of Rights exist in dynamic balance and don’t confer any absolute right on Americans.For the last 32 years, Washington DC has had the strictest gun laws in the country.

Of course, that did not make the city free from crime. In fact the city, the seat of the greatest power on earth, earned the notoriety of being the murder capital of the country. The gun ban not only did not reduce violent crime but it also challenged some people who regard the Second Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights as a sacred trust. Of course, they had the support of the National Rifle Association, one of the most powerful lobbies in the country.

Both Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain, Democratic and Republican presumptive presidential nominees respectively, were quick to endorse the US Supreme Court decision. No politician can challenge the gun lobby and survive in the US. The case arose in 2003, when Mr Dick Anthony Heller, an armed security guard, supported by constitutional fundamentalists, filed a suit against Washington DC, when the city turned down his application to keep a handgun at his home for self-protection under the provisions of the Firearms Control Regulations Act, 1975. Apart from banning handguns, the law required that all firearms be kept “unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock”.

The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled for Mr Heller, striking down Washington DC’s handgun ban on the ground that Americans have a constitutional right to own guns and, therefore, a total ban on handguns infringes the right. The Supreme Court majority did not absolutely rule out gun regulation. As Justice Scalia said, the ruling did not “cast doubt on long-standing prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons or the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings”.

The justices in the ruling majority, Justice Scalia said, “are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country” for which Washington DC has “a variety of tools for combating that problem, including some measures regulating handguns”.

Every year, 30,000 Americans including children are killed in gun violence at home, in the streets, in schools, colleges, workplaces as well as by accidental shooting and suicide, in spite of a plethora of state and city laws ranging from licensing, registration and background checks to outright bans.

The culture of gun violence is reflected and reinforced by the media. Movies, television programmes and popular music do not always spur viewers to spontaneous action; but their delayed, cumulative effects are immense. Television commercials, for instance, impact viewers, which keeps the market economy thriving. If commercials make people buy, repeated violent programmes too can incite some viewers, especially children or those who are mentally disturbed, to kill people, especially when guns are available freely.

A few years ago, for example, Queen Latifa, the rap star, featured in Set It Off, an R-rated movie about four desperate women who go on a binge, shooting and robbing banks. The movie was linked with several copycat fatal shootings, including that of an 8-year-old girl, Tynisha Gathers of Bridgeport, Connecticut, who watched a bootlegged copy of the movie along with three other girls. Later while replaying a scene from the movie, Tynisha was shot in the head, as it was shown on the tape, with a .380 calibre semiautomatic handgun lying in the house. Imitation and role-playing, no doubt, excite all children. Tynisha’s 10-year old sister was held in custody and charged with manslaughter.

Gun-dealers and movie-makers hide behind their constitutional rights to bear arms and exercise unfettered free expression, of course, only to make money in the free marketplace. Unlike constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights, Americans have no fundamental obligations, except to pay taxes.The courts have been very reluctant to award damages in cases of personal injuries caused by the media, unless there is a definitive showing of “clear and present danger”, amounting to direct incitement of violence. Punishing the media for mere negligence, the courts have said in several media-related personal injury cases, would chill free expression and lead to self-censorship, thus negating the purpose of the First Amendment.

And they tell us again and again, I mean gun industry lobbyists, guns don’t kill people, people kill people. But this has not been a comforting thought to parents of children brought up in an environment of toy-guns (which look indistinguishable from the real ones) and senseless media violence. Every year hundreds of children either become victims of gun violence through media imitation or cause injuries to others. The US Supreme Court does not have any answer to such social dilemmas.

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University)