As a lawyer, I do not get asked too many questions by the public as to how I argue cases in courts. As a Member of Parliament, I do not get asked often about the dialectics of parliamentary debate and procedure. But as the national spokesperson of an all-India party, I am frequently asked about the dynamics and inner workings of the media and the role of a spokesperson.
I thought of writing on this earlier but aborted the idea mainly because of confidentiality issues. I felt that I could not be interesting without revealing the confidential and that I would be banal and boring if I stuck to the formal and the rhetorical. Second, I feared being misunderstood as being boastful if I listed some rules of the game of interacting with the media or if I reflected on the attributes of a good spokesperson.
On second thoughts, and especially for want of a better fortnightly topic (the nightmare of a columnist), I have decided to put some thoughts on paper, despite the persistence of these apprehensions. A prefatory caveat — no one should even remotely think that I am suggesting that I successfully follow the rules or that I possess the traits discussed. Most of the fun lies in the steep learning curve and in creating, adapting and reinventing the role as one goes along.
Truth One: The single biggest change in India over the last two decades has been the emergence of the 24x7 visual media, with all its attendant demands of immediacy, brevity, repetition, instant visual connectivity and cut-throat competition. Whether one lauds or laments it, it is an undeniable reality one has to deal with.
Truth Two: The print media have not been replaced by the visual media; it is unlikely to ever lose its relevance and USP (i.e., more detailed, analytical and comprehensive coverage). And the approach of the spokesperson to the two, contrary to popular belief, is not dissimilar.
Rule 1: Since time is short and measured in terms of cost of lost ads in the visual media, the self-contained soundbite is not a luxury but a highly-cherished necessity. Space in the print media is similarly scarce. Practising a response that encapsulates all the elements of what you want to say within 30 or 60 seconds is the most vital art of a spokesperson. One cannot forget Dr Johnson’s memorable words in a letter to Boswell: “I am sorry to have to write to you a long letter because I do not have the time to write a short one.”
Rule 2: It is much more important to avoid a self-goal than to hit a reverse kick into the opponent’s goal. Caution, even at the cost of sounding boring and predictable, is a great ingredient of self-preservation. Use of the safe “I’m afraid I do not know but I will check up and get back to you” is not demeaning; it is a basic survival skill. It helps that the institutional memory of journalists is not elephantine and too many things happen on a daily basis, so that tomorrow never comes.
Rule 3: The questions put are often partial and piecemeal and only intended to highlight an aspect the journalist wants to focus on. Moreover, hearsay versions are frequently inaccurate. It is best to ask journalists to repeat the exact words and describe the context in which that person has spoken. Asking for this larger picture puts things in perspective and prevents blunders.
Rule 4: In being accommodating, do not concede what the questioner is trying to get you to agree with. For example, to commence an answer by saying that I agree that this was wrong, but that such and such is an explanation for it, is often telecast or published only as a confession of guilt and the caveat attached to it is frequently omitted!
Rule 5: There is no point in losing one’s temper — the press is just too large and persistent to win a slanging match against. If anchors do not give enough time, they have to be repeatedly reminded; if opponents are insulting, it’s best to wait one’s turn instead of interrupting them and then point out the unfairness with the air of a martyr. (I have, however, once walked off in the midst of a recording with a particularly obnoxious co-invitee).
Rule 6: Unlike the print media, the visual media, due to their instant and direct connectivity with the audience, require a certain candour, sincerity and spontaneity of response. Fudging or evasion cannot be sustained in this medium. There is no harm in being humble and introspective in difficult situations — like being on the channels as the results of an electoral defeat flow in — and analyse them in the abstract while seeking to reform for the future. False bravado does not go down well, whereas being as honest as possible is the best policy in a highly defensive situation.
Rule 7: Law, as much as real life, teaches us that very few things are absolutely black or white. It is the job of the spokesperson to attempt, in the most sincere manner possible, to highlight those shades of grey that benefit his principal. It is crucial to be aware of them, since even in seemingly hopeless situations, a different perspective is available, which needs to be highlighted despite the inherent weaknesses of the white and the black areas.
Rule 8: When all rules fail, pray to God, because this is a treacherous field, where one million right hits go unnoticed, uncommended and unpraised, but one minor slip can raise hell.
Abhishek Singhvi is MP, National Spokesperson, Congress, and a senior advocate