Shunning the media was never Vijay Mallya’s style.
From giving colourful copies to even better photo-ops, the former liquor baron remained the apple of every journalist’s eye for nearly four decades. While CEOs across the board uttered sweet nothings with a focus on the investors’ calendar, lest they get a notice from market regulators for speaking out of turn, Mallya was an all-season business leader who seldom disappointed the media.
All this changed a week ago.
At a time when everybody from the central government to the market regulator, the enforcement directorate and banks was hounding him to recover over Rs 9,000 crore in dues, Mallya emerged on Twitter and accused the media of launching a witch-hunt. On March 11, he shot off three messages in quick succession.
“Once a media witch-hunt starts, it escalates into a raging fire where truth and facts are burnt to ashes.”
“As an Indian MP (Member of Parliament), I fully respect and will comply with the law of the land. Our judicial system is sound and respected. But no trial by media.”
“Let media bosses not forget help, favours, accommodation that I have provided over several years which are documented. Now lies to gain TRP?”
The businessman’s comments on the social media have made communication experts shake their heads in disappointment. “This is a PR disaster,” said N S Rajan, global partner and managing director of Ketchum Sampark, a leading public relations agency.
The head of another player in the communications field turned a little more poetic, but on the condition of anonymity. “Do you know the saying, badd acha badnam bura?” he asked.
In English, this would translate as “It is better to be bad than being perceived as bad”, or as Mark Twain once said: “Give a man a reputation as an early riser, and he can sleep 'til noon.”
Over the last three weeks, Mallya has maintained a one-way communication with the media. Starting with this first message after resigning as chairman of United Spirits on February 25, he has avoided any direct interaction with reporters. His spokesperson also sticks to the standard “no comments” line.
More recently, The Sunday Guardian published an email interview with Mallya — something the latter has discredited as an interview he never gave. While the paper followed it up by publishing the complete e-mail trail, Mallya said he has lodged a complaint with the cyber crime cell in Mumbai.
Crisis experts, particularly those involving the media, are now advising Mallya to clear the air by stating his intentions as well as the likely date of return to India. “Take stock of the situation and admit that you have a problem. Be logical and sincere about your intention on how you plan to resolve this issue. If you are able to convey this with conviction, people will give time. It has been done before,” said Rajan, who recalls helping one of his clients with a similar problem.
However, it wasn’t that Mallya did not try. A week after resigning from the United Spirits Limited, he sent his second message to the media that read, “Legal proceedings apart, I have been making efforts to reach a one-time settlement with the banks, and to that end, I have had three meetings and follow-up calls in the recent past. My efforts will continue – this settlement will be based on additional payments to the banks. Personally, I am not a borrower or a judgment defaulter.”
However, he continued to take combative posture on what was being said by the media. “Despite pledging blue chip securities and depositing significant amounts in the court, a successful disinformation campaign has ensured my becoming the poster boy of all Bank NPAs,” he said.