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Inside an Indian Media Crisis Training

Will you evacuate?! How many people died?! The people want to know!!

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I had the pleasure of play-acting the role of a hyper Indian journalist arriving at the scene of an explosion at a factory. This is how a typical mock interview went:

Trainer: Sir! Sir! Are you the one responsible for this horrific accident?!?! Are you the one to blame? How many have died?

Trainee: I…uh…

Trainer: How many more will die before you get the fire under control?! Should the area be evacuated? Can this be ruled out as a terrorist attack?!

Trainee: We don’t…

Trainer: You don’t? You don’t care for your dead workers?! The people want to know!

Corp Comms Client (to self): Hard. Core.

Yes, this is a dramatized version of what it’s like to speak to the media in India, but only slightly when considering crisis situations. There are several examples of Indian media going into frenzies, and not only at scenes of accidents and explosions. At a high level business conference earlier this year, I physically had to hold back six retail and business reporters from mobbing the event’s panelists.

The aggression might be caused by the intense competition among the 145 news channels, more than 5,000 daily newspapers, seven business dailies and around 100 million Internet users competing for scoops and drama. This is often compounded when spokespeople take a “chalta hai” attitude. Literally translated, chalta hai means “it walks,” but colloquially it’s similar to “chill out, relax, move on.” It’s a common response in India, often denounced and occasionally tragic.

Keep Calm and Chalta HaiThis is where people like Allwyn Fernandes come in.

Allwyn is an 18+ year veteran of Edelman in India and a former senior editor at the Times of India; he has run hundreds of media trainings for everyone from India’s most prominent business executives to India’s shyest factory managers.

Allwyn creates realistic media interaction scenarios ranging from ambush interviews to press conferences to phone interviews. The ambush interviews are the best. You can sometimes hear him down the hall playing the role of an irate reporter (he’s actually very nice when not in simulation mode).

The trainings address many areas including messaging, crowd control, tonality, language, posture, lighting and even how to respond to a microphone being thrust in your face. There’s deliberate confusion, putting words in your mouth, anger/escalation, pouncing on misstatements and persisting on difficult questions. The experience causes many trainees to lose their chalta hai grins and realize that maybe they really should prepare for these fully plausible situations.

It’s somehow very cathartic to put our clients in the hot seat, rather than steering them away from it. However, at the end of the day, we are helping them learn how to navigate crisis in the future. Participants leave the trainings with a set of tools and experiences to fall back on when faced with something they would otherwise be unfamiliar with. These scenarios cause CEOs to sweat and sometimes revisit how much of a cavalier attitude they take towards the media, and that ultimately helps them communicate more effectively.

Disclosure: No trainees were harmed in the writing of this article, and yes, I have always wanted to shout “the people want to know!!” in an interview.

Darius Razgaitis is a global fellow for Edelman in Mumbai, from New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @mrdarius.

Image created using keepcalm-o-matic.
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