Bad PR: T. SHER SINGH
The Tail Wagging the Dog
Sunday, July 22, 2012
First things first. I don’t want to give you the wrong impression: I am a big fan of all that the “United Sikhs” does, and sincerely hope and pray that a) there will be more institutions like them; and b) they’ll grow by the day, so that what they do so well, they’ll do more and more.
But today, I write to express a disappointment. Not to hurt or harm, but in a constructive way, hoping that it’ll start a dialogue and even an introspection which may lead to bigger and better things.
I have been following the hyperactivity around the impending arrival of the London 2012 Olympics, including the ton of missives, press releases and reports of the plans conjured up by United Sikhs in tandem.
I have been troubled by what I have read and what I‘ve been told, but have waited patiently, hoping to be proved wrong and not wanting to be either a Cassandra or a party-pooper.
Yesterday - Saturday, July 21, 2012 - was the much heralded day when centenarian marathoner, Sardar Fauja Singh, would do his bit of the Olympic torch relay through the streets of London. United Sikhs had elaborate plans around it … all undoubtedly well-intentioned.
I have had mounting concerns, however, as I read the plethora of “press releases” and their regurgitations in the media. All of my fears were confirmed yesterday.
Here are my thoughts, but in no particular order.
1 The world was told that Sikhs would do langar seva along the route run by Fauja Singh. ‘Roti’ would be served to those assembled on the street-side to celebrate the event and cheer on the marathoner.
2 To begin with, you don’t announce to the world you’re going to do seva. It instantly ceases to be seva, even before the deed is done.
3 The purpose of langar is not PR. It is seva.
4 It is not langar if you go out on the streets to push food on those who don’t need it.
5 If it’s PR you want, you don’t announce to the world how you’re going to do PR. Because PR happens only by ambush. Once you take the surprise away, it becomes negative PR: people resent your motivation and become desensitized to it … even hostile.
6 If you want to feed people in an abundance of generosity, feed them something they’ll like. Langar-style fare - roti and sabzi - is not everyone’s “cup of tea”. If you want to feed someone who is hungry, give him/her something that will be instantly and universally welcomed … without you having to give a long lecture on what it is you want them to eat, unsolicited, and having to assure them that it will not kill them.
7 If I was standing out on the street, amidst a crowd of strangers, in a city paranoid over possible terrorism, at a time when the danger is at a heightened level, I am not going to accept food from a total stranger, thrust in my face, totally out of the blue. And particularly if the food is of a relatively unknown concoction.
8 PR works through under-statement, never through overkill. Seva works through humility, real humility. PR works through feigned humility. Therefore, even though both are ingrained in the concept of humility, one is not compatible with the other.
9 Sending out press releases proclaiming your plans throws humility out of the window. Hence, no seva, no PR.
10 Have you given much thought about why Fauja Singh does such good PR for us? He is humble. He is under-stated. He doesn’t claim to do seva when he runs. He just runs.
11 You ain’t gonna get any PR by simply latching on to Fauja Singh’s star. You’ll have to do more.
12 Lord knows we need PR for our community, and it is wonderful that United Sikhs wants to do take on the job. But I thought United Sikhs was a seva organization, not a PR one. There’s nothing wrong with doing both … it is possible to do so. But while seva must, by defintion, be done by amateurs, PR, by definition, must NOT be done by amateurs.
13 Are the people organizing the seva at United Sikhs also looking after PR? Not a good idea.
14 If you had someone who knew the least bit about the concept of PR, you would’ve been told the following:
15 Forget the roti. Hand out water to those who are standing in the sun, hour after hour.
16 The Olympics is an ideal venue for this seva. But don’t hang on to Fauja Singh’s coat-tails. He’s doing a splendid job of PR on his own; he doesn‘t need your help. And being in his proximity will not rub off any fame or acclaim for you. That is, go to venues where he isn’t in sight. You are Britons; so be British ambassadors. If you do that well, people will notice on their own your civic sense of duty and how well you’ve fulfilled it. They won’t need to read a press-release or a news report about it.
17 If you’re doing PR, remember, it involves image … which involves putting the community’s best foot forward. Which means, you must be dressed to kill. Not formal, just trendy. Nothing wrong with wearing salwar kameezes as long as they are the smartest thing in sight. Turbans? Hastily tied ones or bee-hives or 18th century garb will not do. Whatever you do, whoever you are, if you aren’t smartly dressed, stay at home or mingle with the crowd, but don’t, please don’t appoint yourself the community’s ambassador.
18 United Sikhs: doing what you set out to do was, prima facie, a brilliant idea. But you’ve dropped the ball. Badly.
19 You want to do it right? It’s easy. Sikh-Britons are a community which is easily a million strong in Britain, and one of the most affluent and educated. Here’s what you can do:
20 During the next three weeks, have a Sikh stand at each quadrant of every corner in the general vicinity of each Olympic event, and hand out water bottles to anyone who needs one. Don’t say a word. And no press-releases. No lectures about Sikhi needed, if you are visibly a Sikh. No pamphlets. No blaring t-shirts or banners. Just smile and welcome the visitors to Britain with grace and dignity.
21 Then, three weeks later, after the whole shebang is over, watch how PR takes on a life of its own. The media will come to you, you won‘t need to call them. The tail will follow the dog, as it should, and will wag on its own.
22 It’s not too late. Do it at some venues, if not all. Buy water wholesale. Money? If you’re sincere, even one person with a half-decent job can afford to buy tens of thousands of water bottles at wholesale prices through his/her personal daswandh. And, with a few heads together, you can do wonders! Don’t waste time on getting a decision from a committee.
23 The trick is in making sure the tail isn’t wagging the dog. Just do it because it is a good thing to do. Not because it is good PR for United Sikhs or for the Sikh community, for heaven’s sake.
24 If it’s PR you’re after and not seva, it’s only worth doing if it generates good PR. Bad PR merely requires more PR; in other words, if you do the job badly, you’ve actually done harm, not good.
25 Good PR happens when you do other things right. If you set out to do PR and neglect the 'other things', bad PR happens.
* * * * *
If you think I’m going overboard, just look at how much PR you achieved with your ‘langar’ yesterday. Since your performance yesterday, 24 hours have already gone by; the news-cycle is over. I’ve checked the world’s media. Not much, if you ask me. Getting badly written pieces in a few desi outlets is not PR.
Fauja Singh did better. But I think he would’ve done better if you’d left him alone and not thrown a pall over his parade.
P-L-E-A-S-E … go hire a PR consultant … or stick to what you do best … real seva! And, for the real seva that you do, again, my heartfelt gratitude.
Conversation about this article
1: Jessie Kaur (Ealing, United kingdom), July 22, 2012, 8:35 AM.
Wow! Well-thought out, well-said! Will someone please make sure everyone at United Sikhs gets to read this? And everyone at the Sikh Coalition and Saldef too. There's much food for thought in it.
2: Davin Singh (Nevada, USA), July 22, 2012, 10:30 AM.
I too worry that not enough thought is being put into projects by our leaders and institutions. We're getting there, but not fast enough. Without professionalism in everything we do, even in our volunteerism, we'll keep on missing the mark. And that is simply not acceptable any more.
3: Simran Singh (United Kingdom), July 22, 2012, 11:38 AM.
This will not be appreciated or understood by everyone. However, Sher makes valid points. We misunderstand seva and PR. In his uniquely thought-provoking style, Sher gets to the point. In the amidst of the rush for PR and press exposure, we lose a sense of direction and of what essentially underpins our philosophy. I am reminded of when some misguided Sikhs persuaded a senior British politician to wear a turban to a gurdwara. He was not bearded, it was a hot day and he looked like a satsuma about to explode. The Sikh organizers laughed it off as a publicity stunt but it was too late. The turban had been depicted as a comical prop in a typical desi function. No amount of laughing it off could repair the damage of the picture being shown by the media. United Sikhs is a great brand and do some brilliant work. Sadly, PR is not their forte.
4: Manjit Singh (New Delhi, India), July 22, 2012, 1:48 PM.
Important messages in this for all of us ... and not just for those who work in PR. Thank you for a daring and timely piece.
5: Fateh Singh (Kharagpur, India), July 22, 2012, 6:08 PM.
I would like to see a response from the London chapter or the HQ of United Sikhs. This is a learning moment for all of us. But it'll only be productive if the very people who are involved in the project become part of the dialogue.
6: G.C. Singh (USA), July 22, 2012, 8:20 PM.
Exactly my thoughts. I appreciate what United Sikhs has done and is trying to do in many spheres. But I find it troubling that they are blowing their trumpet rather too loudly with endless emails, and press releases announcing the Langar of 5000 Roti rolls during Olympic torch relay. Langar is selfless service as epitomized by thousands of unsung and unknown volunteers who cook and serve meals without any fanfare at Harmandar Sahib (and gurdwaras the world over) every single day to millions of people, irrespective of caste, creed, race, religion or social status in society. But I am sure that this mis-step is only a part of the growing up process and we should all support their noble endeavors for the betterment of humanity.
7: Parmjit Singh (Canada), July 22, 2012, 10:55 PM.
"Hastily tied [turbans], bee-hives or 18th century garb will not do ..." Sher, your articles are usually so beautiful. They are one of the few things worth reading on the net. I don't think I've ever fit the descriptions that you say "won't do". However, it blows me away each time you express an issue with this. It seems like there is some personal issue that you have with this. The hate with which you express it takes away from all that you have to offer. It also gives your detractors to completely lose the beauty in the rest of your message. Most of the world thinks any turbans are bee-hives and 18th century garb. I don't think I'm going to convince you of much, but you've got to be one amongst the most intelligent people in the Sikh community; maybe that will let you hear your own voice. Thanks for the amazing articles.
8: T. Sher Singh (Mount Forest, Ontario, Canada), July 23, 2012, 4:58 AM.
Dear Parmjit ji: Thank you for raising this issue. I assure you that there is nothing personal in my choice of words, nor is there any hate. There is, however, a ton of pain and heart-break when I see some of our brightest and most dedicated youth make a mockery of Sikhi, the turban and our values by the way they a) neglect personal grooming while being in the public sphere, and b) turn themselves into cartoon characters under the misguided notion that wearing a turban badly or in an idiosyncratic way adds to their air of piety or expresses a deep commitment in what they do. My distress and frustration, which you have sensed in this piece as well in others, is over the belief that many of our current PR problems arise from the proliferation of such bizarre practices in some pockets of our community. I am fully cognizant of the fact that these sartorial aberrations are all post-1984 phenomenon and have come to the conclusion, after much thought, that these are brahminical practices that have been introduced amongst us by our detractors and the most gullible amongst us have lapped them up without giving it any intelligent thought. I have grown up in an era when the smartest people around in India were, by far, the Sikhs of India ... and this fact was recognized and remarked upon the world over by anyone who came into contact with them. It was consistent with the higher standards that Sikhi requires of us. I believe that both form (style) and substance are central to the practice of Sikhi, and it is for this reason that the foolishness I see around me (particularly amongst those who take it upon themselves to tackle PR on our behalf) troubles me to distraction.
9: Dr Birinder Singh Ahluwalia (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), July 23, 2012, 11:30 AM.
From what I have heard about the United Sikhs, it is a good organization doing good work and I applaud them for that. However, on this langar thing with S. Fauja Singh running the torch, they have had it all wrong. The Olympics is a century old event in modern times and is an athletic event. With London, Great Britain, now the venue for athletes to showcase their talent, Fauja Singh was chosen for his legendary feat of athleticism, where he has defied existing ideas about age-related limitations of humans. Along come the United Sikhs planning a public langar at the torch run around the Olympics! Why? Imagine if even one person gets sick by eating food being distributed unsolicited on the street! What impact will it have on the Sikh-Briton community, or on the Sikhs of the world, if someone distorts the story as a possible act of terrorism? >United Sikhs has a role to play but not of this type, for sure. This is a time for London and Britain to shine, and it is not a time to be doing what you have already announced to the world as religious PR. You may have noted that Israel's request for an official commemoration of the Munich tragedy was rejected. Why? Because this is not the forum for other causes to be doing their thing. Imagine if Catholics, for example, came out on the streets and started distributing religious literature. Of course they have the right to do it, just as you do to distribute rotis, but how do you think the populace would react? Would it be good PR? Langar has an important place and purpose in the modern world, but certainly not the way you have chosen to use it.
10: Dupinder Kaur Sidhu (Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S.A.), July 23, 2012, 1:32 PM.
Well said. Completely agree. Also, request to the editors: Can you please post pictures of S. Fauja Singh with the Olympic torch?
11: Gurjit Singh (London, United Kingdom), July 23, 2012, 2:09 PM.
Seems like most of the folks commenting here are not from London. I was at the first of the 15+ langar locations. The reaction from the English crowd was fantastic, many comments such as 'what a wonderful idea", "I'm not hungry but what a nice thing to do." Tens of thousands of Londoners now know more about Sikhs then they did before the event.
12: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), July 23, 2012, 4:09 PM.
If it is to be defined as 'Guru ka Langar' then strict customary rules must apply. Naam juppna, singing of shabads must go on when langar is being prepared, apart from the strict cleanliness. Then ardaas has to be offered before it becomes a Guru ka Langar, Keeping in mind "anh pani Guru ki tehl seva sikhan di" - Bread and water belongs to the Guru, and pleasure to serve and share is that of Sikhs. Prof. Puran Singh went a little further when he declared: "No Sikh with a grain of faith in him could possibly think that he owned the bread." Guru Nanak was a revolutionary and gave us the institution of Langar. For the first time he made all downtrodden, destitute and needy sit in one place - with everyone else - regardless of caste, creed, colour, gender, status or religion. There was no question of economic apartheid. They all became equal to sit together and share food at the community kitchen. Today a Sikh gurdwara without a free kitchen is inconceivable. A gurdwara was not just a place of worship but also a training centre to learn "vich dunee-aa sayv kamaa-ee taa dargeh baisan paa-ee-ai" [GGS:26.1] - "In the midst of this world, do seva and you shall be given a place of honour in the court of the Lord." At any time of day or night you could see the voluntary service of sweeping, serving water to the thirsty, and the serving of langar going on.
13: Binny Kaur (London, United Kingdom), July 24, 2012, 3:54 AM.
I was part of the event. I saw love, respect, passion, positive energy, etc. The langar was prepared with the same respect as it is everyday in the gurdwaras. Young and old worked together with nitnem and Waheguru being chanted. Ardaas was done, bhog was done. I felt immense respect in the eyes of the non-Sikhs who were tired and hungry while waiting for the torch bearers. The langar was welcomed by them, especially when they realized it was free and fresh. I think this was a big PR for the Sikh community. We need more events like this to increase awareness about our community. The flyers, the T-Shirts, the banners, the dastaars, all helped do it. We all thoroughly enjoyed it.
14: Mandeep Singh (London, Great Britain), July 24, 2012, 2:47 PM.
1) The press releases were meant to inform the non-Sikhs what we were doing in the area close to the Olympic village, and to seek further participation in this activity. 2) The food distributed appears to have been wanted, accepted by the recipients, and enjoyed. I believe all the food prepared was handed out and none left even for the people handing it out. 3) There are always going to be people, in any population, who do not like roti. However, there appears to be no evidence in this instance that the 'roti-rolls' were not acceptable to the people who accepted them in the same good faith, spirit and good cheer, as they were offered. Also, a few days after the event there appear to be no reports of anybody suffering from any ill effects of consuming the 'roti-rolls'. I understand there were food hygienists present in some of the gurdwaras at the making of the food and its preparation for distribution. 4) I expect a lot of goodwill was generated, even though the recipients may not have understood and appreciated the 'seva' done. I was told by people actually doing the 'seva' that the 'roti-rolls' were appreciated. All of them, about 15,000 of them. 5) I suppose this was public relations. Where is the harm in this? 6) Water in bottles was considered for distribution to the populace. However, the local authorities and the 'brand police' were vehement in their refusal to permit any bottled water to be distributed. It was not for the lack of good intentions and trying. The distribution could have been done only with the consent of the local authorities and the 'brand police', and not by antagonizing them in any way. 7) I am heartened to see this article provoke a dialogue in the points the author has so thoughtfully raised. This dialogue should continue and it would benefit from having more contributors and participators, whatever their views.
15: Jag (London, England), July 24, 2012, 8:43 PM.
Sending out press releases and emails helped to raise awareness and to help gather the hundreds of volunteers, which can only be seen as a positive because it brought more Sikhs onto the streets to serve and provide langar. Had there been no PR, then would word have reached as far and wide as it did? I can honestly say that United Sikhs' intentions were pure from both a seva and a PR standpoint. A simple gesture from the Sikh community to offer food prepared and made in gurdwaras went a long way in helping promote the values of humility, equality and love. And that is PR worth having.
16: A. K. (United Kingdom), July 26, 2012, 8:09 AM.
The torch passed our streets on Tuesday, the hottest day of the year so far - we were standing there for a long time, waiting for these inspirational members of the community to shine their torch. We got no water or branded Coca Cola at all. I would have welcomed a smiling Sikh offering me a refreshment, good PR or not.
17: Basant Kaur (Edinburgh, Scotland), July 26, 2012, 9:04 AM.
Aman ji: I don't understand your sense of entitlement. You say you were standing in your own neighbourhood. Why couldn't you go home and grab a coke from your own fridge? Or bring a can along and keep it in your knapsack? With some snacks, fruit, chips, sandwich? You need langar seva to look after your comforts, a few feet from your home? Are you unemployed? Physically challenged? There's something terribly wrong with the picture you have painted. I wonder if it is this very mindset which is warping things out of shape: a bunch of people who have developed this deep sense of entitlement, and another bunch who think it is seva to cater to them, instead of "dirtying their hands" catering to the poor and the truly needy. Calling it PR doesn't make it right. Yes, we need PR - but this ISN'T PR! Nor is it seva!
18: Parmjit Siingh (Canada), July 27, 2012, 4:44 AM.
Sher Singh ji, my post was a tad off topic so I did not expect to see it here. Nonetheless, thank you for the reply. You walk your talk in huge ways in shaping our future and I merely talk my talk. Please continue writing amazing articles. I have my own intolerances, including not quite understanding one of yours. The style and substance in your written message is something that no Sikh should shut out. We, and the 'garbed' people included, need your wisdom more than you need ours. Please do what you can to rethink and take care in expressing specifically what dress and in what context you take issue. So many of your articles should really be shared with a far wider audience.
19: Khushwant Singh (Chandigarh, Punjab), July 28, 2012, 8:25 AM.
If S. Fauja Singh's cause has to be furthered, one of the great ways would be to donate a copy of his biogaphy ('Turbaned Tornado') to your nearest library. As I understand today as his biographer, Fauja Singh is the global messiah of wellness and inspiration. His story needs to reach every nook and corner of the world. It is imperative that someone make a movement out of this. More of action and less of talk is the need of the hour, as our hero is not getting younger.