Ahead of the next elections, both the government and opposition parties are revamping their media strategies to include social media

To defend his budget, Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram interacted with select economists, professionals, and students on Google Hangout — a multi-person online video-chat platform — on March 4.

On budget day, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) had telecast the budget live on its new premium YouTube channel, while live-updating its Twitter account. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set the ball rolling with an interview on Doordarshan, followed by a press conference by Mr. Chidambaram. With private television stations running special shows, the government deployed its most articulate voices to give the official perspective during studio discussions.

The budget was an instance of the government’s new attempts to leverage all forms of media — from the traditional one-on-one interviews and pressers to microblogging — with the objective of “expanding its outreach.”

PR offensive

Explaining the rationale behind the government’s media strategy, Union Minister of State of Information and Broadcasting Manish Tewari told The Hindu, “It is the job of every government to communicate with the people and use every medium possible to do so.” He highlighted the role of a Group of Ministers on Media, which has strategised the United Progressive Alliance’s new approach after facing scathing criticism on various fronts. Top ministers brief the media during key events, and visited State capitals recently to put forth the government’s views.

The government’s presence on social media has steadily expanded. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) took the initiative on Twitter, and the latter now has almost half a million Twitter followers. The I&B Ministry followed suit, and has a four-member social media cell. A ministry official says its Facebook site has 1,00,000 likes. It has conducted a live Twitter conference on community radio. And it has launched a digital volunteer campaign to encourage citizens to take on the task of “propagating the government’s message.” The results have been mixed, but the ministry urges everyone to see it as a “beginning.” There is also a bid to infuse energy in the public service broadcaster, Doordarshan. A new editorial team is in place for new prime-time shows, which are being widely advertised. And at a time when private news broadcasters are coming under fire for sensationalism, DD is selling its quiet and relatively sober discussion programmes as its USP. A public relations offensive is planned for the print media as well. The I&B Ministry has instructed the Press Information Officers of all ministries to send “success stories” of schemes, after getting it approved from their respective ministry secretaries. These will be published as advertorials.

Few think it is a coincidence that the government’s efforts are taking place as elections approach. The principal opposition, Bharatiya Janata Party, was an early starter. It has a 100-member IT cell, using all forms of social media to promote the party’s message. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was on Google Hangout last year, and has used Twitter effectively. In its Jaipur Chintan Shivir, the Congress party took a conscious decision to reach out to new constituencies using the social media.

BJP senior leader Ravi Shanker Prasad dismisses the government’s efforts, and told The Hindu, “They have no substance. The conventional media has exposed them and so they may try to explore the alternative media but they have nothing to sell.”

The party’s spokesperson, Nirmala Sitharaman, says that the government’s forays into social media do not seem organic. “They have come out with a missionary zeal but if it was organic, there would have been continuity and gradually build up impressions. In this case, they are buying off space by investing more resources and people.”

While denying this was a reactive strategy, Mr. Tewari admitted, “Certain political organisations take a while to adapt to new forms of communication.”

So is the government’s energy to do with promoting the Congress party’s interests? “There is no Chinese wall between the party and the government,” he argued. But the Minister was emphatic in denying that state resources were being used to promote the party. “DD and its programming are driven by the Prasar Bharati board. It is our duty to communicate which schemes have had a positive impact on the common man in a cogent way.”

Sustainability and efficacy

Analysts say the government woke up to the power of the new media after the Anna Hazare agitation and Delhi gang rape protests. But while welcoming his “enthusiasm and initiative,” they have mixed views about the efficacy of Mr. Tewari’s efforts.

Image consultant Dilip Cherian, who has advised the Congress party in the past, says there is a clear shift in gears. “The budget is a case study. They had a good player in P. Chidambaram; they had a subject which was obtuse and needed top-down wisdom; and it was an issue that affected everyone and citizens were highly engaged. Google Hangout provided an additional imagery to convey ‘we are cool’ message.”

Mr. Cherian is given to understand that the government plans to allocate Rs.125-crore government plan for digital communication. Another Google Hangout on road reform and toll collection with Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways C.P. Joshi is being planned. But he adds, “This will be a passenger-driven and not a driver-driven initiative. The Congress is very hesitant to give up its aam aadmi image since they are the voters. But it has understood there is also a need to engage with the digital voter.”

N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman of the Centre for Media studies, says the government is missing the distinction between a media strategy and a communication strategy. “The nature of the message is more important than the nature of the medium. What are they communicating?” Pointing out that each medium had its own message limitations, while the ministry’s institutions were ‘primitive’,” he added, “they do not have the systems and institutions to sustain the strategy.”