Three meetings I have been part of this week underline what has been happening around us for some time now. The intent to do good visibly, and do good while making profits, is all around - and growing.
Consciousness about social good (and social issues) has never been at this high, with media and citizens on social media alike voicing concerns and raising issues that millions of Indians resonate with. Corporate houses caught on early, and the largest of them have decided to be the most responsible, with stated intent to be so. Corporate brands like Tata have demonstrably shown what they can do and earned the respect of the world for that. There are many, many others who are doing their bits in myriad ways to give back to the society that consumes their produce and helps them produce.
What I’m not so comfortable with, is the cynicism with which such attempts by corporate houses to do good is viewed by a segment of society. And that only gets compounded because of the cynicism with which large segments of media view them. Granted, they make profits, and would like to build a reputation for being responsible corporate brands, because that makes an impact on consumer choices. But if they are doing things on ground that impact society positively, either by doing good for society, or by doing business responsibly, or both, isn’t that something to be encouraged?
When Paul Polman came to India and painstakingly articulated Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan 2020 to journalists in Mumbai, I happened to be among the bunch invited to interact with him. Interactions with members of my trade post the meeting, and post putting out in print what his vision for Unilever for 2020 was, convinced me that journalists are shrouded in too much negativity for their own good. And guess what? Even media houses are not spared.
When Rajdeep and team at CNN IBN drove home citizen journalism some years ago, I sensed the same negative vibes from this tribe that calls itself the fourth estate. So what if the show gets a sponsor, so what if it makes money, so what if it turns out to be popular among viewers? That’s what TV programming is meant to do. Why do all those things blind us from the positive impact of the show? When The Times of India, or The Hindu more recently, release a campaign that voices social concern, why do we dismiss them as gimmicks for popularity and recall? Even if they were, they make positive social impact.
So when a manufacturer of fuel-guzzling vehicles contributes tangibly towards bettering society, should we remind them of the damage their vehicles cause to the environment? No, there are different forums to do that. By all means, speak about pollution. But also speak about what they are doing right, even if it means lesser eyeballs. Where there’s good done, appreciating it, and encouraging it, is our job.
The importance of views has increased manifold with news getting commoditised and being increasingly controlled by the source or intermediary. But the liberty that views gives journalists is something that needs to be punctuated with responsibility.
I am also convinced that this cynical bent is not just a disease that has afflicted journalists. This, I infer, from the commentators on social media and bloggers, rooted in the belief that negative commentary will get them more views. Unfortunately, it does seem to.
One theory is that anyone with an audience, journalists included, reflect on what’s wrong with the world and everyone in it with aplomb; that this feeling of power only grows with every piece of critical opinion. I think painting all media and all those on social media with the same brush is not fair, but there is some truth in the theory too.
The media must do its part to encourage genuine attempts by corporate brands to be good social citizens. Profits and social good can co-exist. They should. That is the only way forward.