Messaging and its massaging are an arcane art. Its ardent practitioners believe that the mere mastery of mirrors and smoke, does not suffice. There’s more to it. For starters there is the small matter of medium and metrics.
Who you play before, who you engage with and what’s your goal are basic building blocks. In Elections 2014, agendas may not quite have been set by English media. Its TRPs, after all, are a mere blemish on the face of national media. But there’s no doubt that the very same media (ignored by those in the imprecise metrics obsessive world) did set agendas for others to play along. And none more so than one solitary reaper who daily dominates that witching hour between 9 and 10 pm.
Are there three Arnab Goswamis? There is one who effectively diminished Rahul Gandhi in an inordinately long and torturous interrogation lasting in the region of 80 minutes.
Another Arnab avatar was the cowering coward who was cornered and whimpered like an inaudible jelly to commands of former Shiv Sena cub and now roaming MNS tiger Raj Thackeray.
Most recently, Arnab morphed into a cross between his larger-than-life media persona and petulant pigmy before a Prime Minister-to-be in his Modi interview.
These three versions of Arnab1.0, 2.0 and 3.0 seem to have very little to do with each other. While the rumour mills were busy discussing that probably Arnab himself would mould into a new avatar, nobody was sure till the Modi interview gave more clues. Perhaps the Modisarkar once in place would need a new English television persona in Arnab to play the foil to Rajat Sharma’s Hindi one? Yet both would be puppet mastered out of Ahmedabad or the PMO, of that there is no doubt. Whether those wicked rumours were right or wrong, the mighty Arnab himself seems to have begun his moulding with the Modi interview, we just saw.
To start with the timing.Arnab was being flayed mercilessly for his inability to swing a Modi Moment. Having conquered with Rahul and many more that followed, the Big One was eluding him. The entire elections (a long 7 weeks) had gone by and he was left panting.
There were flimsy flashes of Arnab’s rapier questioning. There were occasional elements of that deep research and analysis -- of course squelched unceremoniously with a smile by Modi’s better corralling of facts twice. Whatever it was, there was no doubt that it looked eventually like an exercise timed by Modi handlers for an Arnab who had got desperate, designed to send out three distinct messages:
One that Modi was a boss who brooked no questioning; two, thatArnab could at best be allowed the positioning of fawning interpreter. The third message was more complex. It was perhaps best summarized by a senior sociologist (who must unfortunately remain unnamed) who analysed that it was clear to everybody who watched Arnab and Modi that this was grandstanding that involved a gradual shift to a “centrist stand”. This apparently she claimed is the ‘default mode’ to which every leader retreats the moment they whiff power. It doesn’t matter whether you come from the Left or Right. Some magical force apparently is embedded into ‘The Seat’ itself. Clearly, Arnab was just the platform for that shift to be consummated before elections are over.
When we counsel clients who have to face the onslaught of either the Arnab aggression or that rat-a-tat of Karan Thapar invasion, we train them on just two things:
First, to define one key takeaway that they want the viewer to get. And second, to avoid the trap of getting in a twist about the questions. Long-winded interviewers after all often lose their viewers and allow our clients room to use answers to send ‘Messages’ often unrelated to the questions asked. Modi managed Objective One -- to define his take away but slipped up on Objective Two. He executed his finely crafted centrist pirouette but stumbled right after. Slap bang into the questions Arnab wanted him to run into. His inelegant Snoopgate evasion, where Modi stoically took refuge in court proceedings, was just one glaring example.
Trained clients can survive worse interviews by these unique creatures of Indian television. Whether it’s an acquisition, bad quarterly results or the crushing aftermath of political demagoguery gone horribly wrong, our clients once trained can usually cope with the worst that TV has to offer. And Modi is a fine example of how to get most of it right.
The Modi interview with Arnab when analysed from an image perspective is a template that illustrates many to-dos. Stick to your key message and moves avoiding answering questions that could trap you are executed skilfully,even as pugilistic an interpreter as Arnab is aiming to do a faux aggressive job.
Rahul’s interview with Arnab, on the other hand, is a primer on what not to do. He got stuck on rhetoric rather than the big message. He repeated rhetoric almost by rote.and then allowed questions to lead him astray. While he did stay on message as defined by faithful handlers, it hardly sufficed for the excessive air-time granted. Yet message training gone awry, converted Rahul from interview virgin into a parody parrot. Nuanced client training must be finely calibrated. Message repetition is perfect but must be finite. Worse – 80 minutes is defined as Image Harakiri and Arnab segued from grateful interviewer to entrapment agent swiftly. Graciousness is one thing, but giving Arnab free range is a whole different thing.
While Arnab dispensed with the normally mandatory Ji while addressing Rahul, it was firmly in place right through the Modi interview. Whose bad?
Perhaps that’s why these interviews were received so differently. Both interviewees knew their strengths well --- Rahul harped on RTI and women’s empowerment and Modi stuck grimly onto good governance. But the palpable difference was in how they handled their weaknesses. Modi artfully avoided questions related to Gujarat riots and Maya Kodnani but Rahul tied himself up in knots over the 1984 riots.
Clearly, while you need to know what to avoid, you also need to know what to overemphasize. Sadly, for Rahul his pitch for RTI and women’s empowerment though obviously sincere soon became obvious rhetoric. Lack of supplement facts and figures and enough points (new!?!) to survive 80 minutes just didn’t exist. Modi on the other hand used Platform Arnab to pirouette and then deftly execute a bourree to move ahead.
Content ultimately is king. Being in command over Arnab is a viewer magnet. Rahul was left panting and Modi smarmily swept ahead - peremptorily indicating “hurry up, I’ve gotta leave.” All great TV moments that viewers, used to a bullying Arnab, love. So Game Set and Match to Modi, as the Image Guru would say??
Dilip Cherian, Founding Partner of Perfect Relations, is widely known as India’s Image Guru. A syndicated columnist, he advises both Corporates and Political Parties. He often annoys anchors and taunts trolls. Follow him at DiliptheCherian@twitter.com