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164. Decoding a letter to the Editor (the FF* controversy)

June 27, 2012

If there is a title for the most famous letter from a CEO to an editor in recent times it will be the one from Sachin Bansal of Flipkart to Indrajit Gupta of Forbes India. No other letter to an editor (exchanged on a weekend) has drawn the kind of eyeballs as this one has. As I write this blog the letter along with the Editor’s reponse which is published online has been viewed over 38,000 times in less than 3 days.

As always I write as a student of reputation management to help other students and curious bystanders learn from this entire episode how to better deal with such situations in the future. To start with, the letter should have focused on refuting the statements that the company believed are not true and left it that. But they failed to use that opportunity in doing that and took some missteps which has led to an all-out war on various social networks which has led people to take sides.

I’m a fan of both Forbes India and Flipkart. (I have read Forbes India from its inception and I have interacted closely with the author of the story in question in the past. I believe he is not a person with vested interest nor is his editor. Similarly I like Flipkart and I think it has a great future. Karthik who heads corporate communications at Flipkart and is mentioned in the editor’s response is a friend and he left the company that employed me around the same time I joined). I think this episode will be remembered  in the history of public relations and journalism for along time on what should be done and not done when an issue like this erupts. On that I will write after I have read the article.  In the meanwhile I have highlighted in italics sections of the letter to the editor below with my comments in box brackets as ten lessons for reputation management students and professionals to learn from.

***
When we agreed to speak to Rohin for this story, we had a very different picture of what it was possibly about. [Lesson one is in the world of transparency this does not matter, whatever picture one has, a story is written to sell and being as open and clear from the first interaction is always the best thing to do.  The impression one gets from the editor’s response to the letter is that the CEO chose not to give clear, direct answers – while this can be debatable as to what is clear and direct this is not an impression one should offer]

I’m saddened that our views on the work culture, across Rohin’s meetings with our people have not been given any weight-age at all. [Lesson two is for companies to record all conversations with the journalist and then link those audio files as proof for whatever they are worth when controversies like these emerge. The journalist decides what weightage to give. Either you agree to be part of the story or you don’t. Key messages, body language (and unfortunately what you wear) are important during a meeting with a journalist. Your team has stated off the record that they felt the meeting was very formal and defensive and your team would not be making that up]

For instance, my colleague, Mekin Maheswari, spoke about the very high sense of ownership and gave practical examples like our warehouse software being built by engineers who then go to the warehouse and try it out to see if it affects the shipping process.  [Lesson three is as the editor states that the initial hypothesis a journalist starts out with changes as the reporting gathers momentum and he or she has the right to change the angle to what he or she feels readers should read. Questioning that is fine but a remedy is never in sight and the best thing to do is prepare better for next time]

I am left wondering why these long interviews with our people talking about work culture wouldn’t be appropriate in the story. [Lesson four is to think  – Who does not have great work culture these days. If you do not you cannot be in business. The point is that no one writes stories to state the obvious. Stories are written to state, that which does not met the eye.]

But wouldn’t it be reasonable for me to assume that when an esteemed publication like Forbes is making allegations of an unfavorable work culture at Flipkart, it also quotes perspectives from current employees? [Lesson five is to know that this is the way the world works. Time to understand that perceptions are not just what your internal audiences think of you but what your external audiences thinks and the alumni constitutes a big stakeholder group in this highly connected world.  Never rub employees the wrong way unless they have caused financial or ethical damage to the company]

In a similar vein, Rohin could have simply asked us for details on the number of people from IITs, IIT Delhi or IIT Delhi’s Jwalamukhi hostel vis-a-vis people who are outside this so-called circle. I can list at least 6 people (off my head, there are more, I’m sure) in the management team who are not from IIT Delhi or Jwalamukhi hostel. Wouldn’t it be fair to include such a list and let readers compare if there was favoritism to IIT Delhi? [Lesson six is to never come across as complaining. Suggesting to the editor what the journalist should ask comes across as complaining. Do not complain once the milk has spilt. Focus on being media trained and learn to move on.]

Beyond culture, the only other concern I’d like to point to is the seemingly feeble attempt at disclosing the Homeshop18 connection. It is added as a disclosure while talking about competition – and that indeed seems fair. But given the magnitude of the allegation (a cover story, with an apocalyptic headline, no less!), wouldn’t a more prominent disclosure be appropriate to let people make their own judgements? [Lesson seven is that never to particpate in stories with publications that have sister companies that compete with you unless you do not care about the fallout. For example AV Birla Group has a stake in India Today Group or Business Standard is majority owned by the Kotak Mahindra Group. If these publications ever want to do a story on your company and you compete with their owners, remember however, unbiased they are in their approach chances are there could be negativity that would then lead to a ‘grapes are sour’ situation – beware.

[Lesson eight is if you have already stated the only other concern above why bother about trivial tweet statistics below. Do not be trivial.]
Finally, I’d also like to highlight something rather simple and inconsequential. Your last cover story on Future Group got promoted on Twitter 4 times. The one prior to that – on BRIC countries – got 3 tweets as promotion. The Flipkart story, in less than 24 hours, has got 8 tweets from the Forbes India Twitter handle. I do understand that Forbes has a print issue to sell and that a Flipkart cover is good fodder for sales, but considering the story will go online next Friday, do we expect further unusually high level of Twitter push on the same? Could I please request that the moderation in promotion displayed by Forbes India on its other cover stories be applied to us too? [Lesson nine and this one really outdoes all the other valid points above : Which CEO sits and counts tweets of past cover stories and shares them with the editor and requests moderation. If you are doing the right things and there is nothing to fear, which I believe is the case then this point, which you yourself say is inconsequential does not need to come in a letter that should focus on refuting false allegations]

If you find it appropriate, could I please request you to carry this response of mine in the Forbes blog? We agreed to speak to Rohin based on a specific angle that was communicated to us. [Lesson ten is a valid request and  has led to so many more eyeballs for both Forbes and Flipkart. But the issue of specific angle does not happen any longer. Journalists are not friends of the companies they write about. They are friends of the readers who read their stories – important lesson in corporate communications]

***

I have become a bigger fan of Flipkart – for being on the cover of Forbes India (and the reason why it features there is not important for fans like me but just the fact that a 5 year old company is noticed by Forbes India is a big deal). I will continue shopping on Flipkart like I do every Monday for gift vouchers as prizes for my weekly quiz. I will also continue being a big fan of Forbes India for daring to do a story that is indeed helpful to Flipkart. I’m sure Home Shop 18 must be complaining why a story on them has not been done.

The bottomline is – it is best to spend time to prepare well for an ‘interview with a journalist’ rather than spend time counting tweets later. It is important to practice the right body language that can only come from being open and transparent that gives out the right message of the unspoken word. It is important to prepare with FAQs, get media trained and focus on key messages if you know you are being featured by Forbes or for that matter anyone.

More to come after I read the article later today. But in someway Flipkart has helped Forbes leverage this story with this letter. The arrogance about ‘digital domination’ at the end of the letter could be avoided because in the age of “reputation is not everything but the only thing” print media can still make or break.

Until then enjoy this joke I found on twitter – Flipkart should launch a business magazine and do a negative cover story on Homeshop18. That shall make it even.

Time will tell what happens to Flipkart and what happens to Forbes India. Both are in strong, safe hands as of now.

*{FF in the headline stands for ForbesIndia-Flipkart}

Shortlink –  http://bit.ly/APonLetter

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Shrey Khetarpal permalink
    June 28, 2012 5:38 am

    Interesting observations Amith. I was quite surprised with the contents of the letter as it really did not address any issues cited in the story with the exception of work culture. However, I do think the story could have been more balanced as even the pictures reflected gloom at Flipkart! I do not doubt Rohin or Forbes India’s credibility but a scandal does sell more copies 🙂

  2. June 28, 2012 9:19 am

    Good one Amit….its a good analysis and your attempt to focus on turning this drama into a learning opportunity is appreciated. Loved lesson 9! 🙂

  3. Sandip Janee permalink
    July 1, 2012 12:29 am

    Amith sir,

    Thanks for the brilliant decoding of the CEO’s letter to Forbes.Indeed an insighful view for us students who want to learn and imbibe how to decode communication and the do’s n don’t for a future event like this one. Looking forward to your posts now.

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