March 28, 2016

Modi's social media strategy is cunning, efficient, not effective. Agree?

Narendra Modi is no stranger to people interested in how social media is being used by politicians the world over. His media strategy, of which social media is always an important component, is sometimes credited for his landslide win in 2014.
modi-madison-square
Modi at Madison Square, NY


India's current Prime Minister Modi has the second biggest Twitter following among world leaders (after Barack Obama). Unlike Obama, he has almost shunned the traditional media. Journalists have to follow his Twitter account or listen to his long speeches on television for what he says or omits to say. Media  engagement is a no-no in his media strategy, ironic isn't it?

The provocation for our analyzing Modi's social conduct this time is a study by Joyojeet Pal, which was published in the Economic and Political Weekly sometime back and summarised in a press release by Michigan university where he teaches.

Michigan University's current research on Modi

Joyojeet, after analysing 6000 tweets by Modi (from his being a provincial Chief Minister to fighting national elections and after being the Prime Minister), has come to the conclusion that thoughtful construction of messages on Twitter has helped Modi build a powerful online brand.

The study tracks the content of tweets over a five-year period and finds that Modi has emerged as a 'benevolent ruler' whose tweets are now congratulatory and meant to inspire. This has helped in overcoming his problematic past mired in controversies, and emerging as a world leader. 

True, through his carefully crafted statements over the year, with matching actions, he has been able to hide his earlier image under a new, positive, persona. The same media that painted him in black started painting him all white when he fought national elections. What happened? There are many factors that worked in his favor but let's limit this discussion to social media.

Modi's social media engagement is part of his overall branding strategy

If you thought that Modi's tweets or other expressions on the web were/ are responsible for his popularity or direct engagement with the masses, you might be mistaken. Modi is a brand that is nurtured day and night by a multi-pronged branding strategy that has many components. Twitter is just one tool, and a great tool as it is instant and reaches all his followers without any effort.

One important aspect of Modi's strategy is not to interact with media. He meets media on social occasions, allows journalists to take selfie with him, but does not engage them in discussion. If he has to give an interview to a journalist, his team makes sure that he is well prepared to answer structured questions. So, unlike Obama, he does not face the press. The only exception is joint press conferences with foreign heads of states, and there too if a stray question hurts Modi, he answers it on his own terms. 

Despite no media interaction, Modi is everywhere. If he delivers a speech somewhere, no Indian television channel misses taking him live (well, almost always); when he tweets on an important subject, his tweets are seen on newspapers the next day; during crisis on a foreign land, he is there while foreign departments of other world leaders are still juggling with their responses.

The fulcrum of the strategy is to be in control, and to use all possible tools of delivery. 

There are many ways Modi uses the tools rather effectively. Some examples:

TWITTER account: Modi tweets regularly and generally talks aspiration and hope, cooperation, peace and other positive action. He tries to pacify flames when voices in the public domain turn critical of the government or his party on social and cultural issues. Despite provocation from his adversaries, he seldom speaks out on controversial matters in his tweets.

He uses tweets also to congratulate people on festivals and special days. He sends birthday wishes to his colleagues, world leaders, even his adversaries. He tweets to congratulate even his political foes when they win an election or are blessed with a grandchild.

As mentioned earlier, Modi is often the first one to tweet when there is a natural calamity or a terrorist attack. In such times, he shows solidarity, offers help.

His tweets get significantly large number of re-tweets. Part of it might by his back-end team; part through sister accounts (PM Office, other Ministries, I&B Ministry and its organs, party); part spontaneous.

YOUTUBE channel: This is another of his most vibrant social entities. Thanks to DD News, all his videos are of high quality. Most of his speeches are webcast live on his channels as well as the YouTube channel of DD News. His videos are present on many other government channels besides his own, PMO's and DDNews's channels.

WEBSITES, BLOG and FACEBOOK page: All Modi's accounts on social media have become more sophisticated but many would miss his rather good articles on his simple blog before he became the PM. He is promoted relentlessly by various mouthpieces of the government, especially the Press Information Bureau (PR agency of Indian government) and DD News. As one would expect, his social accounts and those of these agencies are cross-promoted to get him high visibility.

TRADITIONAL MEDIA: Though Modi does not interact with traditional media, he knows how to use it well. 

He uses the official media to the hilt, especially DD News, the public-sector television channel. All his speeches and other public events in which he participates are taken live by DD News. Afraid that he might say something that they'd miss, even channels not kind to him do take his events live. 

He is a showman, and so his actions (speech delivery, wearing local dresses etc) are either exaggerated or unconventional or both. Many of his expressions are unconventional and spicy. His jibes on political foes, his claims, his comparisons, his similes - all make him a top audio-visual material that no TV news channel in India can afford to miss. Newspapers and news websites cannot ignore something that is playing the day round on television sets, can they?

When Modi has to say something serious, he gets a statement recorded on DD News. That way too, he says what he likes, with all the punch that he can give to it and without facing questions from the media.

He speaks on the state radio, All India Radio, last Sunday of every month. In this mann ki baat (heart-to-heart talk), he has been talking about topics of everyday life - exam stress, corruption, drug abuse, farming, feeding birds and so on. He encourages listeners to send him feedback and suggestions and responds to them too, creating a feeling among them of his being so near and accessible.

Yet, Modi has seen decline in his popularity, why?

Modi believes in showmanship and is deeply in love with his image. He tries to look larger than life and encourages comparisons between him and great Indian and world leaders. He remains distant while giving the impression of being near. During social functions, he mingles with the public despite great security threat. 

Yet, despite Modi throwing all his weight during some of the recent provincial elections, his party could not win or just scraped through. Opinion polls have shown his popularity declining. There is an impression all around that he is no  longer the charismatic leader that he appeared during 2014 national elections. If he still gets good social comments, there is a growing number that now does not resonate with him. 

A small reason could be performance. All through his pre-PM days, he used rhetoric and exaggeration to prove inefficiency, corruption and other vices in the previous government. He also made tall promises that are almost impossible to fulfill. He can't deliver as per his promises and meet the aspirations that he raised during poll campaigns, for many reasons including federalism, democracy, inefficient bureaucracy, India's complex social web and so on, on which he does not have much control.

But the big reason is the lack of credibility of his communication strategy. Despite all his big ideas and sincere efforts for India's fast growth, he is increasingly being seen as a man who is not sincere about what he is saying. One who is too cunning. A man who suffers from narcissism. A man who wants to be seen on television channels all the time.

Perhaps people would love him being more graceful, a bit sober, a bit human and touchable. Indians - both his fans and critics - would like to let Twitter, YouTube and other tools do their job and let him sincerely carry on his, without ostensibly claiming credit for that.