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Monday, May 21, 2012

Food for thought part II : Religious people love to Discriminate

Discrimination it seems is a bitter and unpleasant reality of every day life in the land of the pure. Every day whenever so many of us wake up to the morning paper, or log onto news websites or social media, we are routinely bombarded by news and information with respect to discrimination and abuse that Pakistanis are facing in some way or the other. Tales of discrimination faced by religious minorities and sectarian minorities (the smaller sects in the Muslim community) has become fairly common in Pakistan.

It all starts with discrimination before it leads to scenarios that are far worse, and those that initiate a form of discrimination feel no kind of remorse for their actions. Many of those practicing discrimination on religious grounds think it is a justified practice since it is their responsibility as those that have accepted the right path to bring others to their fold, using hard or soft tactics. Religious minorities and minority Islamic sects are not the only ones who face a fair degree of discrimination, even among the followers of the dominant Sunni Islam sect, the non practicing Muslims or those that identify themselves as not-religious face a great deal of discrimination and harassment in some form of the other.

I have previously written about how many employers across Pakistan in Pakistani companies discriminate employees based on their religious affiliation of whether they practice or not. Companies have been known to avoid recruiting religious minorities and Muslims from minority sects, this practice is far too common and has gone on to include even non practicing Sunni Muslims. Non practicing Sunni Muslims face discrimination and marginalization at work from such employers, they are often overlooked for career opportunities, and often face harassment or poor behavior and performance reviews based on solely on their so called lack of religiousness.

It just confirms that religious Sunni Muslims who have picked up on some Wahabi influence and are some what right leaning finding the idea very unbearable that there are other Sunni Muslims out there who are not full fledged practitioners or as religious as them, in fact they are even at discomfort when other Sunni Muslims do not share the exact same sentiments as them, which in some cases are very xenophobic and intolerant in nature. Recently I was messaged on Facebook by a former Math teacher of mine from school with insulting messages, I am guessing inspired by the nature of my activities on Facebook. I can only assume the latest thing that might have incited him was probably my Facebook status where I condemned the decision of the Pakistan Telecom Authority to temporarily block the micro blogging website Twitter from Pakistani Servers for alleged blasphemous content circulating online. These religious nut jobs in the past have advocated for bans on Facebook, YouTube and Blogspot also.

He accused me of being too westernized in my orientation and accused me of being some one who is ashamed of being a Muslim. His message included accusations of me trying to be 'Caucasian' and he openly said to me that he prays that I get kicked around and mistreated by Europeans so that I might see their true colours and then will proudly embrace my Muslim heritage. He kept implying that Europeans/Caucasians are on a mission of sorts to mistreat us purely because of our faith and sooner or later we will all get what is coming to us. He was not the first of his kind, and will certainly not be the last, as due to the content of my Facebook activities I have also been subjected to death threats by a religious person in the past, who argued it was justified to his 'ishq-e-Sunnat-e-Rasool' sentiments. I also see this as a failure in our society as a whole to recognize human individuality that establishes that all of us are unique individuals that differ from one another, it establishes the failure of our society to allow people to live outside of compulsory group cohesion. Those that show a diversity of views, attitudes, opinions are shown a great deal of intolerance as if it is a crime to have an individual identity as well.

People such as these will always be there in big numbers and that too for many many years to come, if we can't silence them, the least we can do is stand up to bullying, discrimination and harassment from the right leaning religious people. They are not worthy of our compassion, their not worthy of being overlooked again and again. There is risk involved, in some cases even our lives might be at stake for speaking up, but voices need to be raised before its too late, we have the biggest thing going in our favour, Islam itself which is a religion of peace and the fact that our Creator, the Almighty has given us the greatest gift of Freedom of thought, it is because of this very Freedom of thought that there is no compulsion in Religion.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Public Relations, no one does it better than SBC

The month of may by far has not been the best of months for cinema goers with only a few major film releases hitting cinema across the United Kingdom and the rest of the world. Usually most big banner or major up and coming block busters are held back for the summer months so as to take into account the summer holiday season, when people take their annual leave from work, and the young people attending school, college or university have time off.

One of these movies that hit our cinema screens this month of May was the eagerly anticipated 'Avengers Assemble', which brought together some of the iconic super hero's of Marvel comics including the likes of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America and Thor, with an equally formidable star cast. However another eagerly awaited movie to come out this early summer was British actor Sacha Baron Cohen's latest venture 'The Dictator'. By now this legendary Cambridge educated actor is a house hold name among English Language cinema goers, for those still unfamiliar with him, he was the genius behind the rather controversial and mildly difficult to watch  films such as 'Borat', 'Bruno' and 'Ali G'.

I was fortunate enough to be in the British Capital when this movie hit cinema screens and be able to have the opportunity to watch it in the cinema on the day the movie was released to public a few days following its premier red carpet event in Central London. That event was not your conventional red carpet event either, Sacha Baron Cohen managed to give it the touch he has become very popularly known for, keeping in line with the theme and the characters of his latest venture. His latest venture 'The Dictator'. The plot of this comedy film revolves around the character of Admiral General Aladeen, who is the supreme leader of a fictional oil rich country in North Africa by the name of Wadiya and is seen as tyrant dictator by the West. Well the real story happens after the character arrives in New York City to deliver a speech at the United Nations on the demands of the Western leaders.

The plot of the movie aside, the cultural stereotyping aside, the political and social themes aside, even the subliminal messages of the film aside, one can certainly no one does public relations than Sacha Baron Cohen, the man himself. When ever he develops a fictional character for himself as he previously developed Borat, Bruno and Ali G, he takes his character(s) which he himself also portrays to the next level. SBC not only lives his character in the movie itself, but also lives in the character off the silver screen. In the case of 'The Dictator' he has managed to do exactly that by showing up dressed as Admiral General Aladeen not only for the Red Carpet premiers of the movie in major cities across the globe, but has stayed in character as Admiral General Aladeen for interviews he has given to well known television channels and talk show hosts such as John Stewart. In those interviews on television, he has appeared not only dressed up as Aladeen, but has been in full character as Aladeen himself, almost kind off serving as a continuation of the movie story or an extension of the story line. This gives the audience a feel of how real the character is, when they get to experience the character on the screen beyond the film, and out and about in major cities like London and New York in the disguise of his character.

This makes for an excellent public relations exercise, as it gives Sacha Baron Cohen the opportunity to personally interact and engage with his audience, while at the same time adding an element of innovation and creativity in his approach. This also provides SBC with a platform and an opportunity to communicate his social, political, economic and cultural views to the wider audiences in the disguise of his character, and since the characters he plays such as Admiral General Aladeen are fictional in nature, even though some of his humour might be marginally offensive in nature for so many people, it is taken in good humour. These measures contribute a great deal to the brand equity of SBC as an actor and displays his genius talents before the world. This unique and innovative approach to public relations is indeed remarkable and note worthy, and can be a source of inspiration for innovative thinking for others, not just in the field of showbiz and television, but also in media, academia and the corporate world. For now, some of these interviews can be caught up with on Youtube, my favourite one is as follows:

Friday, May 18, 2012

Public Relations and the Value chain

Corporate organisations have come a long way since the era when their day to day operations were all about pleasing their shareholders. Since shareholders were responsible for providing the necessary capital and finances through ownership they were regarded for many years as the only stakeholders involved that the organisation needs to engage in a relationship management exercise with. Over time the definition of stakeholders has gone onto include all the relevant parties involved in the complete value chain process associated with the organisation. Stakeholders now comprises of employees, suppliers, end customers, supporting industries as well as the wider community as a whole. The importance of maintaining and managing relationships with all the relevant stakeholders has given rise to the practise of public relations management as well as relationship marketing.
A lot of organisations engage in public relations activities through the development of Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives (CSR) that add value to the organisation, and in some cases can also become the source of competitive advantage. This is particularly when it comes to competitive advantage in the form of corporate perception. This is just one of the types of Public Relations exercises initiated by organisations and there are countless practices that are undertaken and they vary by organisation to organisation, since most organisations differ from one another through some way or the other, hence their needs for a strategic public relations plan differs as well. Some organisations try and ensure that they already have a proactive public relations campaign in place in order to be well prepared in case they in the future due to some reason or the other face a public relations nightmare. Most importantly public relations is about developing and maintaining an important line of two way communication between the organisation and its stake holders, since this line of communication also is a valuable source of stakeholder input and feedback, which can lead to innovation, improvement and development of new ideas.
Managing a public relations nightmare can be quite a daunting task for many organisations regardless of their size and industry and those engaged in a proactive public relations campaign do it mostly for the purposing of preventing damage to corporate reputation or minimising the extent of possible damage. Most however have a reactive approach to managing public relations, which implies their activities are in response to a public relations crises that has either suddenly emerged or is on the horizon. A commonly found approach in the industry is the use of well-known or local celebrities to endorse the product or brad by acting as a spokesperson for the organisation in Question. The choice of celebrity would be determined by not only the budget that the organisation is willing to invest in its public relations campaign, but also relevancy based on their target market. In an era where we have moved from mass marketing to segmentation, targeting and position, it has become very important to get to know the characteristics of your desired audience. We should also remember the value associated with the celebrity involved and whether their endorsement can add the level of credibility to the public relations campaign.

Some popular local examples include cricketing super star such as Shahid Afridi and his endorsement of a local telecom company or a popular television actress like Mahira Khan endorsing a brand of a high calcium and low calorie packaged milk. The endorsements of such celebrities extends well beyond just appearing in television commercials, the organisations using their respective services also organise events where the fan following of such celebrities has an opportunity to interact with them and get positive reinforcements about the benefits of the use of the product or brand in question. The former were examples of a proactive Public Relations campaign, one can also find examples of where the services of a celebrity are acquired for the purpose of reputation management and damage control. A good example of this was Pepsico Pakistan’s when it was involved in a controversy surrounding their very popular brand of potato chips called ‘Lay’s. The controversy surrounding Lay’s was that the potato chips contained some ‘Non-Halal’ substances in their production process, and in a Muslim majority country like Pakistan, if questions regarding the Halal nature of the product are raised, it can be quite the public relations nightmare. In order to address this, Pepsico Pakistan employed the services of pop singer turned religious televangelist Junaid Jamshed who is considered by tens of thousands of people in urban Pakistan as a credible authority on religious practices and norms. His endorsement of Lay’s potato chips and backing them as Halal certified played a significant role in what would have been an out of control public relations nightmare for Pepsico Pakistan. This PR nightmare would have included substantial consumer boycotts of the products, erosion of brand equity and also legal action that might have taken against Pepsico by governmental organisations.
It isn’t necessary for organisations to just make use of celebrities that are deemed credible. In developed markets such as the United States and Great Britain, the trend is shifting towards using actual customers or users of the products and services as part of public relations campaigns. Satisfied users of a company’s products or services add far more credibility to the marketing communication through the public relations campaign. They not only endorse the product or brand of their choice, but they are also proactive supporters and defenders of the brand in times when the brand or product might come across relationship crises of sorts. In the age of online and social media, the satisfied loyal customers have significant tools at their disposal in the form of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and countless blogging sites. With time, it is entirely possible such practices in public relations might make their way to Pakistan and companies based here understand the value of user generated feedback.