Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Was it a PR disaster?

Sometime back, I had raised the issue of Apollo Hospitals' handling of Rahul Mahajan episode to the PR Point, an online forum for PR professionals. I wanted to check if my fellow PR professionals thought that it was a PR disaster for Apollo Hospitals. Here is what I had written and the comments from members.

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I wrote

I do not know what happened behind the closed doors at Indraprastha Apollo? I do not even know what happened at 7, Safdarjung Road.

But whatever is happening should be of interest to any PR (wo)man.

Did Apollo doctors miss it? Or was it deliberate or maybe pressure? Maybe, they are speaking the truth? I guess not, because they have gone back on their words recently.

But if we take this as an hypothetical situation and if one of us were the PR (wo)man for the hospital (could be any company in a crisis situation) and if we had access to the truth, what would we have done?

There maybe immense pressure to suppress the truth or some value for not speaking the facts. If the business proposition is better than the PR admission, what will you do?

Mr. Santosh C Balan said


1. Get the facts very clear and double check if required as the whole case is under media glare.

2. First inform the police or court authorities when they are involved as they are the ones who will investigate the case. A lot of negative publicity could have been avoided if they would have taken the police authorities in to confidence. Why was it necessary to give the report to the media?? Did the media ask for it? Is the media going to decide or act on the report? I feel this was a blunder that they committed.

3. Why was it necessary to hold a media briefing? If at all there was a pressure from the media all queries could have been through the police. Only in case the Police give something contrary to the facts which may be detrimental to the hospital, then they should have used the media to purvey their version of the story.

4. In all such sensitive cases when there is excessive media attention, its always better to lie low. But the glamour attached to see their names in the media often tempts to give out such frivolous briefings which does more harm than any good.

Mr. Arun Arora who till recently was heading Maruti's Corp Comm said

My take on how I would have handled:

- Ascertain facts.
- In case found the our earlier statement was incorrect - admit it -
assigning a reason (preliminary report, technical error or human error
etc) - but come upfront and admit - mistake and issue a factual
statement - strictly in simple medical terms - leaving interpretations
to police / media and politicians.
- Keep a low profile

In between I wondered if the PR professionals at Apollo took the back seat, for which Rahul Anand commented

PR is in charge of media and they have to proactively move. This is a clear cut case of lethargy on the part of the PR team there.

Mr. Neelamegham observed

I am in fact happy seeing such matured views on the subject. I was in fact shocked to see the media on an upfront mood on Rahul Mahajan story - leave alone television networks - the Hindu (used to be considered a great newspaper of the South - perhaps still is like I do) put out the story in the masthead although in 6 out of 8 columns. Who is Rahul? A politician's son. What is the significance of that 'happening'. Many such unsavoury events take place everyday - perhaps some in a few politicians' bungalows of Delhi's elite areas. Most of Media audience are not interested in such 'highlights'.

There are many more issues that need 'highlighted' space. The media could have made an emboldened effort to elicit views from their
readers/viewers/listners on the subject like Office of Profit issue and the reaction to Hon'ble President's returning the bill with his comments, instead of wasting time and space on which politician's family is having what fun?

That is a valid point.

Rupali Kalav who is with SBI Caps stated that it was a disaster and said

Yes no doubt I feel it is a PR disaster but end of the day it is the media which needs to be hold responsible who has created all this hype. The 24 hours news channel is constantly on the look out for any news item just to keep their viewership.

Out of this episode, the only question that comes to my mind, why do
Apollo hospital needs to come out with a daily update report or have a
press conference. Rahul Mahajan is not a politician nor a known successful entity.

This is all the media speculation which has led to such a bad management. Just being Pramod Mahajan's son is no big deal that media needs to go overboard.

Ms. Meena Vaidyanathan of Honeywell commented

Good point to raise. What was to take notice is the "bad PR management" on Apollo's part. Whether they are speaking the truth or not became an issue, only when they went overboard (away from their regular policy, if I may add) with the press conference and the 24-hr medical update. Someone should have advised them that even if they were to present facts, it should be done in a manner that doesn't make anyone smell a rat.

For all you know the hospital is right and someone is just using the situation to create confusion. But because the process was badly managed, it has raise so much speculation.

So, in my opinion as an image management advisor, I would have advised the following:

1. Get the story on the test reports as fast as possible to quell rumours and make a fast and quick press statement (the fact that the reports came uncharacteristically 3 days after the incident only helped fuel rumours)!

2. Its not the hospital's business to report 24-hrs on the medical status of the patient. I thought the Hinduja hospital managed this really well in Pramod Mahajan's case. There were "updates" every now and then but no needless "press conferences".

3. A quote a day suits the personality of the politician. When a doctor does it, it shakes the complete faith of any human being. An absolute no-no in a political controversy like this.

Ms. Meenakshi of Pinstorm felt there was a conspiracy and said

I somehow feel the entire episode is a PR initiative by some who never wanted Rahul Mahajan to enter politics given the fact that Vivek Moitra was supposed to announce Rahul's future plan on June 3rd.

The Apollo hospital could have been under pressure to suppress the facts. And Apollo hospital wouldn't want to get itself entangled in a controversy might have bowed to the pressure only to realize that the media has become more prominent toll than it was 5 yrs back.

In addition, there must be someone who badly doesn't want Rahul to get into politics and who has the information as to what happened, leaking the news to the media.

All said and done it was a bad press for Apollo and the Mahajan's and good one for those decry Mahajan's

Mr. Jaganathan in a lighter vein said

Well the Apollo group is not known for PR activities. Incidentally does the hospital has the right to divulge the patient information to the public? But next time I go for a test at Apollo, I will surely ask whether the results are `qualitative' or `quantitative'. Can anyone tell me the difference between these two terms in the case of lab tests?

Rahul Anand after some serious thinking said

The hospital should have stayed away from giving statements to the media. As any company or spokesperson is entitled to refrain from commenting, the hospital should have taken a firm stance in its PR initiative. As many have commented here, they should have reserved their comments, until there was enough clarity on the messages that could be disseminated.

Media canÂ’t be blamed (TV Channels) for being inquisitive. ItÂ’s their job to report sensitive issues. More importantly, speculation was rife (rightly so) that it was another murder attempt at the Mahajans.

Media was instrumental in providing a larger picture of drug trafficking, which has resulted in many landing behind the bars. It is another debatable issue as to how long these anti-social elements will remain there.

The increasingly inquisitive media and the growing concept of citizen journalism will pose enormous challenges to PR professionals. The case of Apollo relenting to their pressure is a lesson (for PR pros) and reflects the task in hand for all of us in the days to come.

Finally, Meera of Aarohan said

That is a very important point - when does a hospital hold a press
conference for divulging details of a individual hospitalized. RM was
neither a person holding a public position nor was he a celebrity on his own right.

The reason being given that the media was pestering for information was lame.In this whole episode, doctors, hospitals and lawyers seem to be more interested in doing their own image building than maintaining ethics of their profession.

Further, the cavalier way and body language of the doctor conducting the press conference was appalling. It did not appear as a medical bulletin.

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Some really serious thoughts.

My personal belief is that if you are honest, you do not get into trouble. Speak truth. If you can't and are under pressure, do not take up an assignment. Better avoid than suffer.

Simple. Or is it?
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