The Miss World contest offers an ideal window of televised opportunity
to address social perceptions in India, says Allwyn Fernandes, vice-
president, Burson-Marsteller Roger Pereira, India
It would be easy to dismiss the protests that have convulsed Bangalore
over the Miss World contest as an indication of India’s unwillingness to
accept the modern world. The truth is much more complex. It arises from
a PR failure to read the signals and to attempt to treat the contest as
an event management exercise, rather than one of perception management.
Every society has its dissenters and a thriving democracy like India’s
allows them to express their views freely. Perception management
consultants anticipate the negatives well in advance and work towards
enlisting support and overcoming fears, thereby marginalising the
Event managers, on the other hand, work towards staging a successful
show and neglect the more intellectual pursuits necessary for a project
of this magnitude.
Anyone who watched the recent general election campaign in India would
have realised the kind of turmoil this country is going through as it
gets sucked willy-nilly into the global system with the aid of satellite
Against just two channels six years ago, cable operators now download 45
channels. For an audience used to sanitised serials and religious epics
these channels have been a culture shock.
India’s success in winning both the Miss World and Miss Universe crowns
in 1994 has captured the minds of India’s young women. Managers of local
companies have been quick to cash in with beauty contests of their own
and girls from the most conservative families have enthusiastically
taken to showing off their charms. Is it any surprise then that a
section of an otherwise male-dominated society is alarmed at what it
sees as a threat to Indian values?
Bangalore is not new to violent protests. Remember Cargill and its
hybrid seeds and, more recently the protests against KFC? Yet today the
same farmers who wanted to throw Cargill out are making a beeline for
Cargill seeds and KFC continues to thrive.
All this should have taught PR practitioners to learn from their
mistakes and get it right this time. Instead of trying to understand how
and why the Cargill and KFC issues turned out to be non-issues, these
unfortunate practitioners chose to pat themselves on the back in the
media on how they won the business.
What a let-down. And now, what could have been an ideal opportunity for
building a case study in perception management has turned out to be an
exercise in ensuring security for the contestants.