Not too long ago I had a conversation with a has-been Pakistani politician in which they were nostalgically reminiscing about their time at the center of government. “It was so fast-paced. The action, the drama, the constant snap! snap! snap!” they gestured with their fingers. “I felt like I was in the West Wing. In fact it was exactly like the West Wing.”
Ew. I mean, I appreciate a nineties reference as much as the next millennial, but I confess to feeling a surge of ire at the fact that this person was comparing their time in power to something as tawdry as an American TV show. It struck me as demeaning to the seriousness of their charge, an insult to the duty they had been entrusted. Perhaps this is too severe a judgment on my part (mellow has never been my thing), but it revealed a little too much to me about how this person viewed their position – that of a glamorous character in a fictional enterprise rather than an agent of real change.
I really think we need some image consultants in politics in Pakistan
Still, I have always thought a good TV reference can do wonders in our age. Consider the show Scandal. A modern-day soap opera on primetime TV, it revolves around a powerful public relations expert and the world leaders that keep falling in love with her. It’s snappy, current and fairly addictive if you have a Sunday free. I think of it often if for no other reason than because I have felt, and have said many times, that I really think we need some image consultants in politics in Pakistan. We need people with foresight who understand that, in the age of the Twitterati and Facebook and near-constant connectivity (electricity permitting), an image is worth quite literally more than 1,000 words and can guide that power to a productive end. Like the chick from Scandal does every week.
I should probably say here that I am recommending the PR genius-thing to our civilian government in particular, because of the seriously odd way that Paksitan rolls. I mean, the ISPR has an official Twitter account, but we all know how its agenda is enacted by lots of fake, ferocious accounts seemingly run by scantily clad women. The ISPR is also responsible for funding movies like Waar (it’s like the Rocky Horror Picture Show of patriotic movies), and don’t try very hard to hide it.
You think I’m joking about this but I am completely serious. A communications strategist/image consultant/press liaison is something that most governments rely on to prune and streamline their image and message. They would be the ones who would have turned to, for instance, Hina Rabbani Khar before she went on her trip to India as Foreign Minister and said, “Girl, ditch the bloody Birkin bag”, thereby saving everyone a lot of grief and public ridicule.
They might even have coordinated a better press response to Malala’s Nobel Prize win, a welcome change from the stony silence that we heard instead. More recently, they would have told the government that adding Dawn columnist Cyril Almeida to the Exit Control List made them look petulant, weak and powerless, adding that there were better ways of salvaging their image of being whipped by the army than targeting a journalist. As we know, they came to this conclusion on their own anyway since the world press harpooned them within hours, but my point is a PR person would have anticipated this firestorm and made moves around it. Win win.
Have you noticed that the current American election campaigns have almost little or nothing to say about fundamentalist Family i.e. Christian values? This is a profound and marked change because for the last several election cycles debates in both left- and right-wing parties have used religion and its ensuing scriptural limitations as bases for riling their, well, bases. So what changed suddenly? Did Americans stop caring about abortion or gay marriage in the last four years? No, arguably not. What changed were the confines of the dialogue and volume of some of its participants. By mediating the narrative, the issues of the election itself have changed. The present campaigns didn’t rely heavily on religious dogma, and so the press didn’t report on it, and people eventually stopped asking about it. That is the power of image. Sometimes it can change the whole picture.
Would the same technique work, I wonder, when talking about our relationship with India, or the separatist movement in Balochistan, or the military’s role in our foreign policy, or sponsored terrorist cells? Can the manipulation of public perception change pervading ideas on blasphemy or the rights of minorities? I am not sure, but it’s worth a shot. If anything else, having a government spokesman savvy enough to understand how the stories that carry can’t be silenced and so should instead be dealt with head-on would be a vast improvement to whatever travesty of a communications strategy the state is using right now. Because the bottom line is: in the age of smartphones, you have to be smarter.