Stephen Manallack: Australia’s Response to Racial Attacks on Indian Students Was Poor Crisis Management

Stephen Manallack, MD, Manallack Pty Ltd.

In an exclusive interview with Image Management, author Stephen Manallack, MD, Manallack Pty Ltd., speaks candidly about the evolution of communications’ function, how PR in Australia is different from PR in India, Australia’s management of the racial attack on Indian students and his upcoming book, Soft Skills for a Flat World.

Q. How do you think the communication’s function has evolved during your time in the industry?`

I have very rich memories of when I started in journalism. The system was, you didn’t go to college, you went straight to a newspaper office, and newspapers employed dozen cadet journalists. The way they let us know that we’re entering a rough world is they’d have 4 typewriters and 4 desks for all 12 cadets. It was like survival of the fittest. That wasn’t good.

Some of the biggest changes are happening right now. People who’ve been in this industry for a long time can talk about how companies are more now accountable, how government standards have gone up, and how stock exchangers are demanding more information. There have been important changes.

But there is no change in my time as big as the internet. Because of the associate behavioral change, consumers are now in-charge. With consumers in charge, we as communicators, corporations, organizations, even social clubs, we can no longer communicate with people as if we are just giving them information and they should take notice. Because they won’t take notice unless it is genuinely interesting content. To me, this is the most exciting time, because if you think every organization in the world understands the need to provide genuine content for its community, then the role for PR, communication specialists becomes enormous.

Q. Why/How did you become interested in South Asia and India? How did it start professionally?

It happened in a very Indian way, purely by chance. I put out a book in 2002 called You Can Communicate and as a complete surprise to us, we sold quite a few copies in India via Amazon.

We didn’t plan it or anything, but people heard about my book, so organizations such as Communications Society or the Marketing Group wrote me e-mails saying ‘could you write article for our magazines?” and I started writing for those magazines, just occasional articles and then, I got invited to write for one of the biggest business websites out of Mumbai and that was how I began my connection with India.

And then, what happened on the other side of the equation is that Australian firms started to see my activity in India, and said ’Could you help us with the Indian markets?’ So we became a thought leader in that space, but the beginning of it was truly like happenstance.

But once this started, I thought let me do this quite deliberately. Let’s develop and create Indian knowledge and position myself as a source to the west of knowledge about India. So, for example, there is very little understanding outside of India, about Indian culture, and what it is to communicate and deal with Indians. So I studied that and I became a specialist of cross culture communication, and I think one day I could be an expert.

Q. What do you think are the differences between PR in Australia and PR in India, if any?

I think the differences aren’t too dramatic but there are differences. I think at the senior level, within corporations within Australia, the public relations professional generally has the confidence and time of the CEO.

I think it is important to have the attention of the board, to be a professional or trust of advisor to the board. But then again, what is the board composed of? Ex- lawyers, ex-accountants, business people why not make sure there is a communication professional there? It would be a benefit to the board.

As a working professional, the most important thing is to have the attention of the CEO and the board. I think within major corporations in Australia and India, that is the big difference. A lot of these people work much less on publicity, and much more on corporate communications strategy. That’s the change, but I think that has happened here in Indian as well.

Q. How do you think Tourism Australia and the Australian government reacted to quell the perception post the racial attacks on Indian Students from a PR and communication standpoint? Do you think they have done enough, or is there something else you suggest they should do to set that perception right?

In the short term, the response to the situation was very poor, from a communication stand point as well as a management of the issue. Within Australia, it was a very poor example of crisis management, because it was a crisis. We are mutually dependant, we have your students come to Australia, and we benefit from that. Whether they come to study or be citizens, it is important to our future. It’s very exciting.

The initial response was simply to deny that it was problem. And if you are a communication specialist, you know that your obligation as a leader in time of crisis is to get to the bottom of the situation and so you keep an open mind. If you deny something, you have a closed mind and so I think we caused an immense media reaction in India because they could see that our leaders were denying that there was a problem and that motivates the media to really go and explore the issue.

So I think in the first place, it was managed very badly, and the reaction was bad. Generally speaking, when there is a problem, there is something underlying it, so why not accept that. And then study it, evaluate it and change it, because what we want is everyone to live in safety, and that’s by and large what our community is.

In my city, which is the city which had problems, one in of five people have Asian ancestor, one in nine people speak an Asian language. Indians have been the biggest source of migrants but other migrants have come from Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy, Malaysia, New Zealand and so on. We are genuinely following the Indian model of a multi-cultural society but we don’t communicate that very well today, because I don’t think Indians know that. So I think we’ve improved, the government is doing some good things.

I think tourism is missing the point. We have beautiful things, both natural things and in terms of our vibrant cities that the Indians enjoy. The cultural life, the parks, the natural beauty, is something to see. It’s a great thing, and then to come in to a community where you can buy any kind of food from around the world in my city, so everything is there. I don’t think we do those things very well.

Q. Do you think PR will become more or less relevant when companies look at integrated marketing strategies?

I think it has the potential to be more relevant but we will have to be active. I think the big change we are facing with the internet is the way people are doing their transactions in forming communities and relationships. We’ve moved from the hall of marketing mix being dominated by product, promotion, price and place – the four P’s of traditional marketing, which in many ways often left PR a little bit on the edge. Now we’re moving to what we call the four C’s – content, context, connectivity, leading to community. I think this goes to the heart of what PR specialists can do. We have to be proactive about it and start talking to boards, to senior managers, and so on about we’re going to react to this change in our organizations. What should we be doing? Bring together all the people in the marketing mix and create an approach to content that is a serious approach to content.

In the past, a lot of companies felt that they could fully control information and manipulate it in a sense like propaganda. You can’t do that anymore. People will simple go away, go somewhere else, if you give them wrong content. For example, if you have product, an advertiser will tell you ‘buy this mobile phone because it will make you look attractive’, won’t they? But a PR person will say to the mobile phone company “let’s put genuine content on our website. Let’s explain how it works, let’s give information, let’s serve what the consumers want to know. Isn’t that it? That to me is the difference, I think that opportunity is just sitting there waiting to be grabbed, and if we grab it as a PR industry, we’ll rule the future, if we don’t grab it, someone else will.

Q. Finally, please share something about your upcoming book Soft Skills for a Flat World with our readers.

I first started thinking about this when the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce industry did major study and it found that there was a major shortage of soft skills in India.

I found specifically that among graduates, computer graduates, engineer graduates and other graduates from universities, employers were saying – ‘these people are almost unemployable, because they cannot communicate, they have not been taught how to communicate’. And that made me start to think, if there is that gap, then there is a way to fill it but the opportunity is not to simple say, ‘Gosh! We’ve got a problem on soft skills, let’s see what they do in America, let’s see what they do in England’ and I set to say, “No, what excites me about India is that you can get the best of both worlds here in India”.  You can get the best of India, as well as the west. Wouldn’t you try to create that?

And so my book is essentially an attempt to mix those two together, to find that unique Indian approach to soft skills, that builds on the wonderful history and excitement, ideas and approaches and takes the best of the west, mix them both together and produce something brand new.

I’m excited about it because this country, people are saying this is going to be Indian century. I’m saying, what kind of century will it be? The world doesn’t need India to be another America, or China or UK, or Europe. It needs India to be the best of what it is.

My small contribution on the soft skill side is to say, lets create a template that can be used to teach a person who is struggling to change from being a very poor person, laboring or wanting to get a new skill, or lets provide something at the right level for someone who is graduating from university, or for someone who is already established in their career. And with a common thread across all of that, let’s equip them to work in their own culture and get the soft skills they need to succeed. So that’s what I set out to do.


Interviewed by Kunal Pal for Image Management

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