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334. The curious case of Charudatta

July 7, 2013

Corporate India and corporate communications in India has seen a lot of online chatter in the light of the untimely demise of a much loved and well respected professional. The issue got larger because of the size and reputation of the organisations or brands involved with it and I will not refer to any names of companies or living people in this blog as the matter is sensitive and sub-judice. (DISCLAIMER-  I’m connected with one of the organisations referred to here as an employee of its international office. But I write this in my personal capacity, as a human being first and the promoter of The PRomise Foundation next. Neither my past, present or future employers have anything to do with my writing or have authorised this piece.)

However, I would do grave injustice  if I do not write this blog, both as a case study and a diary of an incident that will repeat in the future given the circumstances that have come to become par for the course. Well first things first – I have no regard for people who take away their lives. But to each their own and sometimes what may seem bearable to some maybe unbearable to others.

I have voiced my opionion on Twitter when Jiah Khan committed suicide last month as an immature act but sometimes it is easy to comment without actually being in the shoes of the one who is suffering. A suicide note helps sort out the mess but in the case of Charudatta there was no such note that has come to light. A few observations  and learnings follow based on conversations I have had with few friends in the media and the various reports I have read.

a) At the time of his death Charudatta was not an employee of any organisation. If his previous organisation had harassed him the best thing for a learned man to do is to blow the whistle either by sharing his plight (in this case by using his connections as a former journalist and a seasoned communicator) or writing a blog with facts and ask for police protection – that is what I would do if I were in a similar situation.

b) In general, while it is easy to blame an ongoing situation it is also possible that other circumstances could have led to one taking their own life including health issues, financial problems and until a thorough inquiry is undertaken there is no point playing the blame game.

c) Dragging the PR firm into a controversy is the flimsiest things media or rival PR firms can do. while the PR firm definitely had no role to play in the death there have been several blogs and articles that point fingers at the PR firm which in my opinion is led by vested interests. At best the PR firm would have taken steps to protect its clients interests given the complication of the case

d) Some reports that featured in various outlets are baseless and speculative which creates unwanted chaos. Some examples are these –

1. Business Standard

2. MxMIndia

3. Business Standard

And here’s the Forbes India story that let all hell break loose.

Well, neither the formal body of PR firms in India which has member firms comprising all except 3 of the Top 10 firms nor the informal grouping of corporate communicators have come forward to voice their opinion on this issue. It is interesting to note how a group of 9 journalists (majority of whom were involved in the Forbes India original story that set the cats among the pigeons) and one HR officer at Charudatta’s previous employer.

Learnings from the aftermath of the suicide –

a) Getting an orthopedic surgeon to perform a cardio-vascular surgery can never ensure a success. Similarly, a bunch of journalists are moving into corporate communications roles now and then. Some of them believe they are better paid while others end up in tragic circumstances. The point to note is Public Relations and Corporate Communications is getting increasingly complex and certainly needs formal training and eduction. Connections and relationships is just one part of the professional qualification. But dealing with egos, expectations and endless demands is the other part. Not to be discounted is a sound base in strategy, execution of tactics and multiple nuances that surround organisations. That is why in-house Public Relations is one of the few professions that has over a dozen names and offshoots – Communications, Corporate Communications, Corporate Affairs, Corporate Relations, Public Affairs, CSR, Internal Communications and many more. If you cannot deal with pressures then this is not a career path to choose.

b) The PR firm representative may have acted in good faith. But if a family had not authorized him or her to speak to the media on the cause of death he or she had no business making that small mistake and pay a heavy price. Suicide is still taboo and most families naturally feel ashamed to state that one of their own has committed suicide. They often will pass off the death as a heart attack but when the truth cannot be concealed in high profile cases an issue is certainly bound to become a crisis. Hence there seems to be a tragedy of two errors that have led to everyone missing the point and focusing on the trivial rather than the core issue. If you are not authorised to represent an individual or organisation don’t cross that line, even in good faith unless you are acting as an individual.

c) While some of the Group of Nine carried the note shared with them by the heads of the PR firm, they did so by putting it up on their Facebook page instead of uploading it on a public site. Similarly, the PR firm which has been wrongfully implicated should have shared their note on a public online forum rather than selectively send it out. Leaders don’t do different things, leaders do things differently. 

d) The point we forget is the nature of the death and what led to it. Instead the focus is on mudslinging and who said what after the death. India is a nation that forgets and sadly this episode will soon get buried when another issue comes up. What we need to do  is focus on the real issues of threats, depression, politics at the workplace and ways to tackle it. If we can’t get our act together with issues as basic how are we going to rule the world.

e)  Lastly, I wrote earlier in the month about another PR firm and how its client are ridiculed on social networks. You can download and read the same here. I say again that a PR firm will most often act like a law firm protecting its client’s interests in good faith acting based on available facts. It is easy to rumour monger and tarnish each others reputation. If only the time and energy wasted  on badmouthing another organisation was spent in building the reputation of the profession much good would be achieved. 

I want to end by saying the oft-repeated line: Tough times don’t last, tough people do. 

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