“It is strictly between you and me,” the voice on the other side said on the phone. He was almost whispering into the ears of the listener in his thick Hindi accent. He was the side-kick of a big-shot Bollywood PR.
“We have issues with him and that is why we have approached you so that we can bypass him. We want to build a lasting relationship with you. But that can happen only if you let us bypass him. In any case, he is sitting there in Mumbai and you are in Kolkata. My boss is ready to put that on mail.”
The voice on the other side was also part of the team that handles the publicity of a Khan (take your pick from the top three Khans) in Bollywood.
The conversation was initiated as they didn’t want a specific journalist, which is me, to be part of the exercise and wanted to ensure that I, even by a slim chance, do not land up at the interview venue.
The offer was simple: Instead of asking their Bureau Chief in Mumbai to take a call on how the interview of the Bollywood Khan was to be done, the PR team wanted to fly out a senior journalist from Kolkata to Mumbai for the interview. Never mind the costs involved, the PR team was willing to go the distance to have a journalist of their choice interview the Bollywood Khan, who was also producing the film he was promoting.
In return for the ‘favour’, the PR team was willing to pay for the flight tickets and bear the entire cost of the hospitality of the journalist at a five-star hotel in Mumbai.
I wouldn’t say that this move from the PR came as a shocker but the way it was conducted reeked of unprofessionalism. One does not normally associate unprofessional strategies from this Khan because the word in the market is that, he has lately become acutely aware of his brand image after making some ghastly PR disasters in the recent past.
This effort to create a coterie around a star is not new.
Every PR, who handles a top star in Bollywood, strives to get only those journalists to get near the star who are considered ‘safe’. Only those journalists are encouraged who help in building a positive image for the star. In other words, journalists who are extensions of the PR team.
They are the ones who get the first phone calls, invitations, gifts and even junkets when the star wishes to communicate to the media.
By creating this coterie and rationing star access to those journalists, often a PR has been able to get around the strictest editorial policies that mandate that brand promotions (an upcoming film is also a brand) cannot get free editorial space in the newspaper. All newspapers in Mumbai mandate that.
So, that they wanted to create a coterie again was not new to me. What was new to me was the way it was done – a formal mail and official phone calls saying that we don’t want a specific journalist to interview a star.
This strategy was new. And it worked.
I have interviewed this aggressive-but-PR-savvy Khan at least 22 times in my career and I don’t need the PR to get a communication through to him or even come and meet him at his bungalow. But I decided to keep quiet. For two reasons.
- If the communication is that important, then we shouldn’t lose out on that because the PR is not comfortable with me.
- Nobody can bar a PR from forging new relationships. That’s a part of their job.
They are perhaps not doing their job the right way but they are doing their job. I was advised not to take up the issue and let the interview happen first.
The senior most person in the department decided to come down to Mumbai keeping in mind the importance of the communication.
As the Features Editor from Kolkata readied himself to come to Mumbai, we connected on the phone. He said that he had no intention to let anybody drive a wedge between our working relationship. To this I said, the star interview is more important and our working relationship can come later. We decided that we should forget this as an example of bad PR.
What happened after the Features Editor reached Mumbai was even more interesting.
It became apparent that the PR had no intention of letting the star talk to the paper exclusively. Instead, a durbar was arranged for the star with 10 journalists sitting in front of him. There were at least 20 journalists from different parts of the country at the venue.
These days, they call this ‘phenomenon’, Group Interviews.
Not only with the Khan, the case was the same with all the other actors in the upcoming film. All the journalists – including rival publications – were grouped together and made to sit in front of the star (and the actors of the film) and blurt out their questions.
The result was hilarious – every journalist picked up the best question from the durbar and included them in their articles. The journalist who managed to publish his article first, got the best ‘interview’.
The journalist who couldn’t accommodate the deadline, lost out on the pearls of vague wisdom from the Khan who seemed quite philosophical at 2 am in the night. Yes, that was the time when the Group Interview (for regional papers) happened.
Next day, the sleep deprived journalist was flown back home and by the time he could ready the Q and A, the best part of that group thingy was everywhere in print.
He did have a brilliant strategy to salvage the damage but then the solution was need-based.
In the end, we all agreed that we shouldn’t have heeded to the PR and taken a stand.
Even now there are journalists who like to assert themselves and take a stand. There are plenty of examples where journalists have collectively taken a stand in Bollywood.
For example, the Bombay PhotoJournalist’s Association took a collective decision of not clicking Salman Khan. The issue was sorted much later and the ban was finally lifted.
Or, take another incident in Chennai two years back, where several journalists walked out of a press conference as Shah Rukh Khan walked in three hours late.
Several senior journalists I know of, still take a stand to stop a PR or a star from acting unprofessionally.
But somehow the better part of the Indian media have prostrated in front a star’s publicist.
Most of us, journalists, find nothing wrong with it.
Yet, we call ourselves journalists.