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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Xenophobia and Bigotry is Closer Than We Think

Now I do not want to take on the title of being an opportunist here, but this does feel like the right time as well as the ideal opportunity to get my message across. Something I have been wanting to write about and communicate to readers for quite some time. You know what they say, better late than never. Just late last evening, a journalist friend of mine brought to my attention through his Facebook status update the shooting of a member of the Ahmadi faith in one of the urban centers of the Punjab Region. It coincids with the day when on this day in history back in 1974, the Pakistani parliment had the Ahmadi sect declared non muslims in order to please the leaders of the religious community. 

Considering the incident that happend this week in Punjab, it was fortunate that the person who was shot at survived and did not become just another forgotten gunned down victim of Xenophobia towards the Ahmadi community. Many of us who hail from the educated lot of urban Pakistani society have some idea about the rise in intolerence towards religious minorities, as well as the persecution and discrimination faced by them on a day to day basis. Whether be it the Ahmadi's, the Pakistani Christians nationwide, or Pakistani Hindu's who mostly live in the province of Sindh. Intolerence and Xenophobia though growing out of control towards minorities is closer than we think. It begins within our own community and very own ranks. No one ever even remotely suggests the idea of discrimination amongst ourselves, even amongst the pre dominant Sunni Islam sect that form a majority in this country. Even amongst this community there is a lot of prejudice towards members who are not religious, in other words towards non practising Muslims. This is just not limited further solely to Non Practising Muslims, but in some cases includes those Sunni Muslims who are not full fledged practitioners. We might not want to come to terms with accpting this ground reality but we show a great deal of intolerence towards members of our community, so how can we possibly expect ourselves to show tolerence and compassion towards religious minorities which includes a sect that has been deemed not only another religion but is seen as symbol of blasphamy towards Islam. 

I would like to propose some examples just for the sake of food for thought to get people thinking on the lines of what I am trying to say. A lot of us, our elders, as well as people our own age group, we have been conditioned into believing that anyone who is short of being a full fledged practising Muslim is a Kafir or an Infidel or at the very least a lost soul that needs salvation and should be brought back to the path of the rightous no matter what it takes. To illustrate for example, it has become a common sight to be mocked, ridiculed and made fun amongst people for not being fully religious. It would not be an uncommon occurance if those of us who are non practising are mocked over whether we pray 5 times a day or not, or whether we fast or not. Mockery is also pretty common when it comes to the life style so many of us follow, for example, we might get mocked and harassed over our life style choice be it our preference in social life, be it our preference in arts and entertainment, it can also be on something as trivial as us watching television or reading literature that talks about religion from a neutral perspective.

Two examples from my own personal life, I would like to throw in the basket here are one occassion at a gathering, some one in my age bracket tried to make fun of me in front of others by asking me 'how many times I had prayed that day' with that big devilish smile and all the front teeth prominently visible and on one occassion. i got labeled as some one heading down a path of blasphamey for reading Karen Armstrong's 'A History of God'. Now this book is not only one of the world's best selling books, but the writer of that book has openly showed admiration for Islam and frequently visits Pakistan with a message of compassion for humanity. I have even been accused of being a potential blasphamer for not praying in congregation during namaz times. People truly love to discriminate here on the grounds of religion.

These are relatively smaller scale examples of growing xenophobia towards non practising Muslims. A more accurate description is one very rapidly changing trend that is taking place nationwide, and it is something you will find even among the affluent of Pakistani society in the urban centers such as Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. What I am talking about is the impulsive and emotional desire of religious Pakistani's to do everything in their power to try and revert non practising Muslims back into the spectrum of being full fledged practitioners. It is almost like magical or supernatural force possesses them and they can not control themselves and feel obliged to change the other person no matter what. Some do follow a positive approach towards it by taking in an interest in you and your life, and by displaying compassion, trying to be a good role model in front of you, making efforts to communicate to you the benefits of having religion in your life and the change that it will bring.

Now though I am not a fan of preaching, but that method I do not disapprove off, it is a sign of a good educated human being to be a good listener. It doesn't hurt to listen if something is communicated to us in a positive manner and which appeals to our common sense. However what I am against are the other methods that people use to try and change you. These include attempts at guilt and fear inducement. When we talk off guilt and fear inducement from the religious context, we are actually talking about the attempts by others to instill a sense of fear of amongst us, fear of God, fear of the grave, fear of the After life, fear of what the hell fire awaits us even if we make the tiniest mistake in our life. Guilt inducement on the other hand, is attempts to make us feel guilty, make us feel bad about our way of life, our life style choice, what to do, how and who we are on an individual level.

Attempts of guilt and fear inducment if successful manage to create a lot of problems for the individuals who are naturally not ready to have a religious transition in their lives. These include loss of sleep, paranoia over death, hell fire and the afterlife, social withdrawal, judgmentalism and loss of self esteem. In other words it creates a sense of social and emotional insecurity among the individuals who are convinced by the religous people who themselves believe their God's chosen warriors to spread the good word, and with social and emotional insecurity  comes depression, anxiety, high levels of stress, which can have a strong effect on individual health (both emotional and physical health), social skills, common sense and ability to think positively. Before we go and say that the state of bigotry towards minorities is getting out of hand, let us look closer and observe the level of bigotry closer to home. It is closer than we think.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Business Case for Public Relations

For quite some time now there has been a general misunderstanding with regards to public relations management and having a proactive public relations campaign amongst individuals and organizations across the globe. Many see it as a step child of marketing or as a function secondary to core marketing functions and activities such as research, advertising and promotion, strategy and brand management. Failure to recognise the importance of a public relations campaign and the need for a public relations campaign and having a proactive approach towards is what at times leaves organizations, individuals and even governments vulnerable and unprepared when disaster strikes, or they are confronted by unplanned events leaving them with more than they can handle. A disaster whether be it natural, man made or corporate comes without warning and unless organization's have a contingency plan already in place, they are caught off guard and unprepared. 

Throughout modern history, there are countless examples of where there has either been a corporate disaster or a set of circumstances, where it has proven to be a source of embaressment for the organization and a public relations nightmare. These include issues with product quality and human safety, such as the ordeal that Toyota had to go through last year especially with regards to its vehicles in the American market. Safety issues with the braking system on several of its models forced Toyota to withdraw thousands of its cars from show rooms from not only the United States but from across the world. This was a big source of embaressment for an Auto mobile giant that for decades had enjoyed a flawless reputation. 

Not too long, the energy giant BP had to face the biggest embaressment in its corporate history which eventually lead to the resignation of their star CEO who had taken BP to new heights and had been a profitible leader for the organization. This corporate disaster had come in the form of a massive oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico just off the Alabama Coast in the United States. Mounting pressure from various groups ranging from environmentalists to the president of the United States proved to be a massive public relations nightmare for the energy giant. The government of India, last year faced a significant Public Relations challenge on its own, so did the government of South Africa in the run up to two of the largest sporting events of 2010. Word had gotten out, that the atheletes village set up for the commonwealth games was below par and unsafe for use, while the public relations challenge that South Africa faced in the days leading upto the Fifa World Cup was over incomplete infrastructure and the high crime rate in South Africa's urbans centers. 

Even the sporting apparel giant Nike which is renowned around the world for its slogan 'Just Do It' and being the manufacturer of choice for countless sporting celebrities was not immune from a potential public relations nightmare. Countless activitsts accused Nike of exploiting labourers in the developing world though its 'Sweat Shops', where workers had long working hours and inappropriate working conditions. Glaxo Smith Klien faced a huge embaressment in New Zealand a few years ago when a couple of high school students while conducting a science experiment discovered that their world famous drink concentrate 'Ribena' actually has no traces of Vitamin C, this was inspite the product's association through its marketing activities with high quantities of Vitamin C.

At the same time, there are countless examples in modern history, where a good proactive approach to public relations campaign has proved very beneficial to the organization in Question and has made tremendous business sense. The best example that comes to one's mind is Apple Computers and their Pro active Public Relations campaigns that involved their founder Steve Jobs who has personally been there at the launch of all major innovative Apple products such as the Iphone and the Ipad. Both of these products are a tremendous success story, as the Iphone managed to create the bar for standards in smart phones, while the Ipad created an overnight market for Tablet PC's. Nintendo, the gaming console giant and a veteren of the industry is amongst the beneficiaries of having a proactive approach to public relations. It was because of their proactive approach to public relations, that they were able to transform their gaming console the 'Ninetendo Wii' into a massive success story in the presence of heavy competition from technically superior products such as Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's Playstation 3. Ninetendo's Wii manage to outsell both the Xbox and the Playstation 3 for two years in a row. Public Relations in the form of Word of mouth is also another Public Relations tool that many individuals and organizations use to achieve success. It was 'word of mouth' that transformed both Starbucks and Facebook into massive success stories from their humble origins. 

These examples of a proactive public relation campaign validate the importance of having a proactive approach to a public relations campaign and how it makes good business sense to have one in place. Firstly a good well planned public relations campaign is relatively more economical to conduct as oppossed to a full fledged marketing communications plan and can be more effective as well. Not only is a good proactive public relations campaign good for the company's bottom line, but at the same time a good proactive campaign contributes significantly towards the brand equity of the organization and its products and services. It creates a very strong towards the company and what they have to offer. At the same time, it allows the organization to transform itself into an employer of choice amongst the talented and innovative job seekers who during economic boom have significant choice and bargaining power when it comes to career options. A proactive public relations campaign also manages to shield corporations and individuals from legal reprecussions which at times could come with a hefty fine or restrictions on business activities, at the same time it creates opportunities for building and consolidating relationships with those in the wider community and the external environment. 

More Than Just a Video Game

Marketers at various corporations have always tried to think outside the box and develop innovative strategies to advertise their products to their target market. The massive growth of broadcast media meant that it was only a matter of time before most messages communicated get lost in the clutter and it was only a matter of time before marketers thought of alternative mediums to get their advertising message across to their desired audiences.  It is there, it is very real and it is probably here to stay. For those of us who have grown up playing video and computer games over the years or have ever even casually played them are well aware of the fact that In-game advertising is a part of every day life. Though it is not a recent phenomena, in the recent years In-game advertising has become an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars, according to an estimate by Massive, Inc, it is expected to hit the billion mark in a few years time. It is not surprising considering the phenomenal growth the gaming industry experienced particularly at the hands of gaming on smart phones. 

To define In-game advertising we can say that it is advertising that appears in the video game over the duration of the game play. In-game advertising can appear in the form of adverts in the corner of the screen to billboards and hoardings in the background to the actual use of the product within the game. To put it more simply, In-game adveritising is more or less product or brand positioning inside a video game, similar to how products and brands are intentionally positioned through film and television. In-game advertising has provided marketers with an opportunity to position and promote their products to their desired audiences by targeting gamers especially in the age of high definition and three dimensional video gaming experience. Various products and services, particularly those belonging to major multinational corporations have managed to make a place for themselves iinside video games through In-game advertising. These include the likes of Google, Wal-Mart, Nike, Coca Cola, as well as Fast Food giants like KFC and McDonalds. 

Game developers such as Electronics Art have benefited a great deal due to In-game advertising, as their developers are the brains behind some of the best selling titles across major gaming consoles such as Sony's Playstation 3 and Microsoft's XBOX 360. Some of their best selling titles feature FIFA, which is the best selling football videogame in the world and Need For Speed, a racing game which features some of best modern day sports cars available in the market. Need for Speed provides probably the best platform for an Automobile manufacturer to showcase their brand as well as their best and upcoming models. Fifa on the other hand gives its gamers the opportunity to play as their favourite team such as Manchester United or Arsenal where on occassions brands associated with the team, as well as the specific tournament league are prominently visible throughout the game. These include the official sponser of the league itself, the official sponsers of the team and the logo of the apparel manufacturer to every micro detail. Not to mention the hoardings that on the edge of the pitch that display various brands as they do in real life during an actual game. This is especially relevant, if the video game is based on an actual event like the Summer Olympics or the FIFA World Cup, where all official sponsers of the event are present in the official video game as well. In a way, advertising messages are being recommunicated to the audience by breaking through the clutter.

Many companies and brands are attracted to the idea of In-game advertising as not only are they able to innovatively break the clutter, but also because most gamers when engaged with a video game can play continously for hours with total undivided attention.Those passionate about gaming are rarely involved in multi tasking while playing the game. However there are limitations to what marketers can achieve through In-game advertising and their efforts to communicate their message might prove to be in vain. Marketers must be fully aware that their audience might not be mature enough to understand the signals communicated to them or responsive to the message. This may likely result in the message going un noticed.

A country like Pakistan is a good example of where inspite of the popularity of video and computer games, In-game advertising might not currently be the ideal medium for advertisers to spend their budget. Most current generation gaming consoles such as the XBOX 360 and Playstation 3 and their games are very high priced for the affodability of the average Pakistani. Though there are affordable alternatives available such as pirated games being played on home computers, advertising that appears in most video games are relevant to developed markets where the purchasing power of most consumers is relatively high or game's country of origin where those brands are a part of local culture. In order to yield full utility of In-game advertising, messages communicated through the video game needs to take into account not only the socio-economic climate of the gamer, but also what brands are familiar and relevant to the desired audience.