Media magic

Sarwar Ahmed writes that media and business need a truthful and candid relationship so that both can improve

The Daily Star
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

By Sarwar Ahmed

It was one of the rare occasions when I got to hear Mahfuz Anam, The Daily Star editor, speaking about the responsibilities of the media. Bangladesh Brand Forum organised a discussion on the role of the media and businesses. Like a fresh breeze, and without much ado, he told the audience of how he, a socialist oriented student, has become a capitalist entrepreneur, thanks to running The Daily Star.

Not only that, he sounded more like a business professor, expounding the importance of brand and the trust a brand carries. I was amazed at the simplicity of how he explained what a brand is. Taking a bottled water in his hand, he explained what was simply plain water is now a promise carried by the brand. The promise is now of pure hygienic water that will not impair our health. The brand is synonymous to trust. Over a period of time, the brand conveys trust and that is what brings back customers again and again.

Explaining the symbiotic relationship in the growth of any business, he said it is through the media, consumers get to know what businesses have to offer. The credibility and reputation of the media also rub on the message being advertised.

He was quite astute about the need to make profit to ensure the long-term sustainability of any business. He qualified his statement by adding the element of ethics in business. Ethics is what makes a business trustworthy, and this convergence of profit and ethics is what makes a business sustain well into the future. Ethics in business without profit is empty and profit without ethics is evil, Mahfuz Anam emphasised.

So where is the divide between the media and business? Business folks summoned their courage to speak out. If you do not appease even a small bit newspaper, you can be assured of a jaundiced story the next day. It is that bad. To that, most media personalities present acquiesced of the drawbacks within their community and that was what made businesses shy away from the media.

The discussion was also graced by Amitabha Datta, just recently retired as the president from the Ananda Bazar Patrika Group. It was fascinating to hear his experience of thirty-four years career during the gradual transformation of West Bengal from a Marxist-socialist to a business oriented state and the role of the media in this transformation. The transitioning of West Bengal from a profit-is-evil to a liberal economy was nudged on by the media. Profit in those days was a dirty word, as is profiteering now. However, people do understand the need for business and profit and West Bengal is now alluring big name IT groups to set up their base.

Who educates the media? Journalists lack knowledge in specific fields and are prone to write shallow reports without going in-depth. Amitabha felt it was the businesses' responsibility in their own interest, to make sure they educate the journalists in their specific fields.

To build trust between the media and businesses, it requires clear and transparent communication. Amitabha highlighted the example of Tata where a fire accident in an internal company function led to unfortunate deaths and burns of employees. Tata did not hide the fact. They opened the doors to the media, keeping them informed of what had happened, how many died, what they were doing with the injured. This clear communication and transparency brought media sympathy and heightened Tata's reputation as a responsible corporate house.

A pertinent question arose on how can the media be independent of the owner-shareholders, especially now that the media has taken a turn to be more than a cottage industry? The formula to be so was spelled out by Motiur Rahman, editor of the Prothom Alo. He reminisced about the point in time when Prothom Alo was launched with three objectives: 1. To be the number one newspaper in Bangladesh, 2. To be independent of shareholders by becoming a viable business so that there would be no recourse to taking financial help and lead to questions of compromise, and 3. To be non-partisan, impartial and objective, thereby win the hearts and minds of their readers. In his own quiet and suave way, Motiur Rahman had all the pride to tell us of how well Prothom Alo had achieved all the three objectives and is what a newspaper should be, the conscience of the people.

Should we, should we not call the media for a heart to heart talk, and build up relationship with the media? This was a dilemma -- Rubaba Dowla of Grameenphone questioned. Mahfuz Anam in his sharp and simple way explained that the relationship between the media and businesses is like a doctor-patient relationship. You can have the best of relationship with your doctor, however the doctor has the responsibility to tell you the bad news if you are in that shape. Similarly, you can be good friends with the media, however, if the media needs to tell a sorry story about you, please don't interfere. This of course gives you the opportunity to better yourself too.

It was a wonderful dialogue that left us a lot wiser. As Ferhat Anwar, professor of IBA, summed up, the media has a catalysing role in the development of the country. Trust is a factor that grows business and its absence can make giants fall. A media-business partnership based on the principles of trust and transparency will lead to even more economic growth of our country.

The writer is the managing director of Syngenta Bangladesh Ltd.