Tinu Cherian has served as a volunteer for PR/Media Relations for the Wikimedia movement in India since 2009 and is an active member of Wikimedia Foundation Communications Committee. Previously, he was on the Board of the Wikimedia India Chapter (2011-12) and was also Head of Communications, PR & Media Relations Team, driving a volunteer team (2011-12).
In a candid conversation with Image Management, Tinu shares his experience about being a social media celebrity, how it came about, and the challenges that come with it. He dwells into the conflicting nature of PR professionals’ efforts to control the narrative of their clients and Wikipedia’s neutrality. He also gives an insight into brands’ current usage of social media, what is wrong with it and how brands can sustain their popularity on social media.
Q. You are closely aligned with the Wikimedia Foundation’s PR efforts in the country. How would you describe their PR strategy?
I started editing Wikipedia since 2005-2006 as a regular editor with contributing articles. By 2009, I began to realize the lack of large communities in India and thought of starting Wiki academies and meet-ups across India. The first regular meet-up in India factually started at my home. It was just a small gathering of around 20 Wikipedians, mostly from Bangalore and few from Chennai.
Some people were of the opinion that we should meet up regularly and we decided to meet monthly, and this is how the Bangalore Wiki meet-ups started. I used to go for different academies and I started catalyzing meet ups in other cities like Chennai, Delhi, Bangalore.
I also realized that there is no indigenous press coverage for Wikipedia in India. Whatever was published in India in this regard was re-publication of New York Times. I am a software professional and have no idea of Public Relations and Media Relations. I tried to work upon it and started media relations in India. Gradually we started talking with journalists and connecting with more people on Twitter. We started with coverage on meet-ups and any global Wikipedia related news.
Sometime back in 2009-10, there was global news that the number of Wikipedians is going down. I saw it as an opportunity and started showcasing that it is growing in India. We have 20 Indian language Wikipedia sources, excluding English. I got coverage on how the communities are getting built in India and content is growing. I started moving from main stream press to include regional publications. I used to spot most PR professionals, and convert their Wikipedia coverage into stories.
There was certain news that said Kasab’s date of birth was changed on Wikipedia, another one stated Bhagat Singh’s date of birth or hanging date was changed etc. I used it to make good coverage for Wikipedia from such incidents.
I started explaining how things work on Wikipedia, why it is important to have verifiable content etc. The fact that anybody can edit it can result in wrong edits, but things get reverted very soon.
Back then, there was no India chapter and the foundation was also not concentrating on India. Later the foundation started a small office in Delhi, followed by another chapter in Bangalore. It is a Wikimedia India Chapter, it is an affiliated organization of the Wikimedia Foundation and I used to be on the board. I stepped down last year due lack of time for some personal priorities, but I still contribute as a volunteer. Eventually the foundation also saw the importance of India. I was part of the Foundation in the communication committee, and they started helping me in the PR activities. It was a volunteer activity but I started getting support from the Foundation’s PR team also.
Wikipedia PR activities in India are still driven by volunteers. We have volunteer press team which I was heading till last year. Though I stepped down from the head position, I am still part of the press team.
Q. There have been several instances of tension between Wikipedia and the PR industry (particularly with the Bell Pottinger case as well as Roger Bamkin incident). How do you perceive the relationship between PR and Wikipedia?
It is a tricky relationship because one of the core principles is to avoid conflict of interests. When a PR professional is editing for his client, their bias is evident, and it is bad from the community’s perspective.
But everyone knows that PR professionals edit content and one can’t monitor and prevent it entirely. When someone like this gets caught, it becomes bigger news. To avoid such embarrassing situations, we request PR professionals to not edit the articles directly. We haven’t formulated a specific policy for paid editing, though there have been some attempts. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations, UK has come up with guide lines on how PR professionals should work with Wikipedia, stating some good practices.
There is something called ‘Talk Page’ on every Wikipedia article. If one thinks that something is incorrect, they can use the talk page to share why it is wrong and mention their credentials there. We recommend PR professionals to create their account in their own name instead of the clients’ name, because it is against the username policy. They should create an account and specify the conflict of interest, the name of their client and the company. This brings openness and transparency. There are exceptions where editing is acceptable, for instance a spelling mistake or grammatical errors etc.
Wikipedia keeps factual information. One cannot claim that their client or the client’s company is the best in any category. They should leave it to the Wikipedians for comparison. One should never edit such things directly.
Wikipedia tries to have a balanced view of facts. Some information about the company one is representing could be negative but factually correct, so it should not be removed. If any information is incorrect, one can share that on the Talk Page and explain why it is wrong or why it should be changed.
Q. Do you think Wikipedia’s open source platform can be manipulated by PR professionals?
It is open to manipulation by anybody, not just PR professionals. But there are lots of Wikipedians watching these articles and they find such manipulations quite often. It is very embarrassing for who has done it, and so it is best to avoid such situations. It is true that it can still be manipulated, but if PR professionals or PR agencies come with an open and transparent approach, it is always appreciated.
Sometimes factual information can be wrong. The other day, a leading actress told me that her date of birth is wrong, and she sent me the scanned id of her passport to validate her claim. It was a genuine case, so I edited it. But there have been incidents when I have had to politely refuse the request of changing information or creating articles for companies. Whenever there is a genuine request, we always entertain it.
Q. With a massive Twitter following, you are considered one of the country’s top social media influencers. As someone who is not a celebrity, but has more Twitter followers than most of them, what do you attribute to your popularity?
One of the reasons for this popularity is that I was one of the early adopters of Twitter. I started in 2009 and twitter was just 3 years old and it was gaining popularity in India. That was my advantage and not all celebrities were on twitter at that time, hence it gave me the chance to showcase myself.
One of the policies I follow is that I stress on two way communication. I always say that one should engage, converse and interact, not just broadcast. Many of the celebrities started using it like radio.
Twitter is a two way communication. I go around talking to people and that is how I catalyze the initial amount of people and then I started following more people. So when one follows people, it is likely that people will follow back. Once that relationship is built, people also interact.
As Twitter gained popularity, some of my tweets started getting more RTs, started coming in newspapers and TV, I was chased for many news stories on social media and Twitter and that is how it gained momentum.
Once someone has a critical number of following on Twitter, other people also start following. It’s like giving a speech on roadside; more people get drawn in if they see a crowd. Although, be it a speech or Twitter, people stick around only when one can add value to them in some way.
I do lot of research on how to build following and relationships on Twitter. I try different organic and non-organic methods, such as following large number of people and see how is they follow back and if there are any patterns. It all started adding up and that is how it became what it is.
Q. I’m sure as a popular Twitter figure, you must be approached by brands and corporates for “paid tweets” and other promotions. What is your policy regarding these and how much transparency do you allow?
There are brands that approach me for ‘paid tweets’. I generally redirect to services like sponsored tweets. There is a site called sponsoretweet.com, where one can submit their tweets and it becomes a ‘paid tweet’. It also mandates that you put an implication that it is a paid tweet, saying that it is sponsored.
The paid tweet concept is not very popular but it’s still in the infant stage in India.I always make sure that if there is a conflict of interest and I am paid for it, I disclose that it is paid because transparency is credibility.
The major brands have not approached me but sometimes whenever there is something interesting is happening, like some contest, I post a friendly tweet, without taking any money for it.
I want to share an interesting experience, Chetan Bhagat was promoting ‘My Kai Po Che’ dream on twitter for the movie ‘Kai Po Che’. The idea was to tweet something of a dream company and give it a name and a brief description.
I participated in that but it was a cheeky comment. I took a small dig on Chetan Bhagat and I knew I wouldn’t win. Three people were going to get individual Mercedes for a weekend as the prize, and obviously I didn’t get it.
When the result was announced by Chetan Bhagat, I said mine was the top tweet, to which he replied, you were close.
Then, I thought, if I don’t get a Mercedes, let me ask other brands, we are still testing things on twitter. I tweeted if I don’t get Mercedes for a weekend, I would like to have another well known brand of luxury car for a weekend and I tweeted and people started re-tweeting it.
Interestingly, the employees at Mercedes saw that, and sent me SLk350 convertible, all the way from their Pune headquarters to Bangalore for a weekend and I liked the gesture.
I used the car and tweeted about it. A lot of newspapers wrote about that story because I already connect with the journalists, lot of publicity came out of it and it became viral. This is one of my ways of engaging.
Interestingly once it became viral, another well known brand of luxury car approached me for a similar offer, their car for a weekend, but I politely refused. I could have still taken that offer but I seemed morally incorrect to me. So, that’s one other way of engagement.
Q. How would you assess the way Indian brands use Twitter? Have they been able to evolve beyond the use of the hashtag?
To be very frank, the brands still are pretty clueless about how to use the social media. They know that everybody is there and they want to be part of it, but they don’t know how to use it effectively yet.
There are B2C brands that use social media as customer support, but it is not optimum utilization of a platform like Twitter. They are still stuck with hash tags, and it’s true that when they throw a few expensive tabs and smart phones as prizes, people get excited and start participating. Such methods sustain only the initial stages. If every brand is going to host a contest, they will run out of participants eventually. Brands have to be more imaginative and creative to catch people’s attention, just like advertising.
In initial days of advertisement, people used to see all advertisements but now you have to be really very creative and innovative to stand out.
Q. Which Indian corporates do you think are consistently poor with how they use social media? Any advice for them?
I would say the other luxury car brand that I was talking about earlier. Initially, they probably didn’t see the value of responding to my query. They should have responded in a friendly manner. In social media, it’s all about agility. Brands need to be aware to speculate that they could have missed a mark.
For example, there is a famous story about United Breaks Guitar. One mid time musician was travelling on United Airlines, and his guitar was broken, he talked to the customer care for about 9 months but they did not respond. Then he came up with a beautiful video named United Breaks Guitar and it became viral.
Apparently the shares of United Airlines came down by 10% within a week. Had the company responded during the initial times, those things could have been avoided. Brands have to be more agile and more responsive on social media. They are putting great risk to their reputation by not being active on social media.
After the incident that I mentioned above, the other luxury car brand became more active. In fact several such brands started running contests. They realized that they can’t be standing outside the social media arena. The brand I tweeted at took a while to respond to my first few tweets. So it’s really very critical that they respond faster.
Mercedes replied within 30-60 minutes. They got back to me and asked me for my contact number, and then they called me and said they are going to give me the benefit, and as a social media person I loved that gesture. There is no money involved here but just a friendly gesture and I also reverted by giving the publicity that they deserved. This incident became viral on Twitter, and I also shared it on my Facebook and lot of media covered it. ‘Bangalore Mirror’ had one full page story on it. It took some time for the other brands to realize the impact of being agile and responsive on social media.
Interviewed by Kunal Pal for Image Management