As the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit 2011 came to an end yesterday, one could not help but feel that there had been a notable absentee from the event’s illustrious guest list: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Dr. Singh has spoken at every Hindustan Times Leadership Summit since 2004 and his decision not to attend this year is an interesting one.
Particularly in light of the fierce accusations of poor governance, corruption, and ineffectiveness that are being increasingly hurled at his government, the Prime Minister’s decision to limit his public statements and media interactions is a classic sign of a passive communications strategy.
With the opposition turning up the heat and attempting to twist and control rhetoric to attack the government, the PM’s effective silence can be seen as a dual attempt to gain control of his image while also limiting the possibility of increased damage to his credibility. But while this silence does afford him some control over his image – the media-shy Dr. Singh has always been the quiet, industrious doer and not the boisterous arguer like Pranab Mukherjee or Digvijay Singh – it also makes him lose control over the rhetoric in the political space. An event such as the HT Leadership Summit, then, would have not only allowed Dr. Singh to produce a controlled, coherent message from the top of government that repudiated the opposition’s accusations, but also one that shifted the political rhetoric to topics that the UPA would much rather be talking about.
The other factor is that purposefully shielding the Prime Minister from the press is akin to burying your head in the sand, waiting for the storm to pass. There is some truth to the notion that our country has a short collective memory; additionally, the culture of 24-hour, fast-moving news cycles ensures that top headlines often become waste paper in the matter of weeks. But even if the topics of discussion change, the opposition’s attacks are not likely to reduce – if it’s not 2G and corruption, it’s FDI and Walmart – and the Prime Minister needs to seriously reconsider his communications and PR strategy. A sustained silence will only increase the intensity of criticism and cause damage to his political clout, perhaps irreparably.
5 Communication and PR tips for the Prime Minister:
1) Control the message – The PM needs to address the public and journalists more often so that he can gain control over the rhetoric in the political sphere.
2) Direct the message – Dr. Singh needs to shift the topics of discussion towards topics that the UPA would like to talk about, instead of just rebutting opposition claims on the back foot.
3) Focus, Focus, Focus – His infrequent press interactions means that they inevitably cover a very wide range of topics which ends up diluting his message. He needs more frequent, single-subject messages.
4) Increase visibility – As the leader of the country, Dr. Singh should increase the rate of his public appearances. This will not only help him stay more firmly in the public consciousness, but will also help boost his image as a proactive leader
5) Be an authoritative leader – The PM needs to present an image of a strong leader of government who is not afraid of debating his detractors.