A CEO’s rant about unbiased bloggers vs. the current state of media

Yesterday, Xiaomi India head Manu Kumar Jain shared something on Twitter that is fairly rare – it wasn’t a photo of himself shot on a Poco F1 or a tweet touting Xiaomi’s top slot in the Indian smartphone industry! It was not about Xiaomi at all!

He wrote,

Source: Twitter

Whoa! Who, what, where, when?

Wait, is he referring to Rajiv Makhni? After all, Rajiv Makhni is a well-known tech blogger, has a show on smartphones, called Gadget Guru, for NDTV, writes about phones in the Hindustan Times, and goes on stage for a phone brand to talk good about it. Like his appearance on stage in Centric’s phone launch, and the follow-up story in his Hindustan Times column.

Hindustan Times

No? He wasn’t referring to Rajiv? Yes, he wasn’t. Manu was referring to Gaurav Chaudhary, aka @TechnicalGuruji (going by the replies and insinuations) who has 1.74mn followers on Twitter, 841K followers on Instagram and 11 million subscribers on YouTube!

Not just Manu, even Anuj Sharma, marketing head of Xiaomi, chimed in on similar lines, asking quite snidely,

Source: Twitter

I’m assuming he wasn’t speaking about Rajiv Makhni either, going by the replies.

So, why shouldn’t Gaurav Chaudhary do what Rajiv Makhni does? In fact, going by strict definitions, Rajiv Makhni belongs to ‘mainstream media’ (NDTV, Radio Mirchi and the likes), while Gaurav’s online presence is all his own, built by himself from the ground up. If Rajiv has the license to attend brand events, talk good about those brands on stage (for monetary payment or not, only Manu can explain), why shouldn’t Gaurav?

Is it because Gaurav was on stage for Samsung, the brand Xiaomi is fighting tooth and nail with, in India?

To be sure, Xiaomi has unseated Samsung from the top slot, though the old Samsung is continuing its fight with Xiaomi.

[Disclaimer: I cannot stand Samsung phones anymore. I started with the Galaxy series, my wife had Note. Have moved between multiple Galaxy phones and found that, like Microsoft Windows, the experience deteriorates over time. I subsequently moved out of Samsung, to Google Nexus 5 and 6P, and finally to OnePlus (5t). My wife moved to OnePlus 6t too recently, after decade-long iPhone ownership. Personally, I cannot recommend OnePlus enough – possibly THE best phone I have used in the past 2 decades of owning mobile phones.]

So why are Manu and Anuj so upset that they had to pause their Xiaomi promos on their timeline and talk something generic?

Is it because Gaurav was one of the people who unveiled the new Galaxy M Series? And shared pics about it too, proudly? How different is it from what Rajiv did, I wonder.

Or, take this interesting case of framing the narrative, for instance.

The World Health Organizaton released a list of ‘10 threats to global health in 2019‘ recently.

Most media outlets covered this news around the 22nd-23rd of January.

Here is the news in the Indian Express, framed from the point of view of air pollution and climate change, one of the 10 threats.

Here is the news in the Business Standard.

Here is The Times of India, online edition, listing all the 10 threats.

And, after a week of the first round of coverage, here is The Times of India, PRINT edition (in print for the first time), framed from the perspective of one of the 10 threats – drug resistance aka Anti-microbial resistance (AMR).

Now, this seems harmless enough, but for one major red flag in the front page of the very same edition of The Times of India (and Economic Times, incidentally).

The front page of all editions of The Times of India, on the same day, had full-page ads by pharma brand Pfizer. The ads were about AMR!

For context, WHO released the report on January 14, 2019.

And Pfizer registered the stopamr.in URL the very next day! This is smart, timely work!

And, for comparison, it is like the Indian Express framing the threats from the perspective of air pollution and climate change, with full-page ads of a home air purifier brand. The crux is that a brand somehow becomes aware of the editorial bent of the news (how will the threats be framed in news? Which threat will be given importance?) and using that powerful editorial validation to its advantage and place advertisements on the same day, same paper.

Or, the inverse – by placing advertisements on their product/service/theme, they spend money with the newspaper and seek editorial bent to highlight their theme in the news about the 10 threats since it bolsters their front page ad’s credibility too.

Now, having been in PR and marketing communications for a very long time, I don’t mean all these as insinuations of right or wrong. This is the nature of media now. If you, as a media outlet, cannot be supported exclusively by subscription revenue, you operate for advertisers, through advertisers. We, the audience, know all this and willingly buy into the whole thing. We take media’s reportage with a pinch of salt – this is not wrong or right – this is simply the new reality of media. So, please park your moral judgements for a minute – those are beside the point of this post.

We do not expect a Katrina Kaif to actually use a Redmi Y1 phone, or a Shah Rukh Khan to drive a Hyundai Santro. We may have, a century ago, but now we have eased into the understanding that they are being paid to say whatever they say.

We then turn to views of phone-centric or car-centric influencers, either on mainstream media or social media/blogs. Should we take their words as-is? Why? Why not make the same assumption that we make for Katrina and Shah Rukh Khan, that these gadget influencers may be working with some of the brands and may not want to say some of the negative things about those brand of gadgets? Is that unethical? In a perfect world, of course – it seems unethical. But why should only the Times Group make money from brands in exchange of brand-friendly narratives? Why shouldn’t a Rajiv Makhni or a Gaurav Chaudhary? Why do we hold them to a higher moral standard, while continuing to buy Times of India and it minting money from advertisers?

There are 2 scenarios at play here.

One, ‘buyer beware’. The Times of India’s city editions have a tiny disclaimer below the masthead. That, supposedly, covers every paid promotion inside the paper, it seems. The bottomline: let the audience (buyer) decide what they want to believe and what they don’t want to.

Two, these are not illegal. There are no guidelines in India like FTC rules in the US. FTC rules are strictly enforced, and bloggers and social media influencers have to abide by them. In the absence of such strict rules in India, a disclaimer or disclosure is a conscious choice. Many bloggers abide by it to maintain their credibility (even on a per blog post, per tweet basis!), and many don’t bother at all, making as much money as possible in the process till rules are framed.

So, piling on bloggers alone seems massively unfair, just because they have been roped in by a rival brand. This selective moral posturing is a dicey issue, in every possible way.

You could argue, “C’mon Karthik! Manu cannot say anything about Times Group’s business model. He needs to advertise in their paper and get reviews out too there!”. Oh I understand. Perfectly. But that doesn’t mean he could target Gaurav, who doesn’t have Times Group’s clout.

To be absolutely sure, my personal view is that Manu and Anuj are right. I belong to the school of thought where there must be a disclosure every single time there is a monetary exchange between the brand and the media owner, even if your views are not colored by the money (that’s something your audience will decide, after reading your views AND your disclosure together).

But I’m also acutely aware that a disclosure is not a legal mandate, in India. Is it unfortunate? Perhaps. But it is what it is. Plus, like most people know that Katrina doesn’t grace a Xiaomi launch event from the goodness of her heart, why don’t you also assume that Gaurav need not grace a Samsung phone launch event from the goodness of his heart? So what if he is paid for his presence and for his review (I don’t know this for sure – this is just for argument’s sake)?

If he was promoting life-saving medicine or financial investments, there are specific legal guidelines under pharma and financial industries for sharing opinions. In the gadget and devices category, the only thing that applies is, ‘caveat emptor’… or buyer beware. Everything else is simply ‘good to have’ and ‘morally right’.

PS: I have written extensively about the nature of (social media) influence and influencers in the past.
1. Evolution of social media influencers and the influenced
2. The case…for and against Hrish Thota a.k.a @dhempe
3. Manufacturing a blockbuster article on Mint, using Twitter trends
4. Dummies guide to Shah Rukh Khan’s tweets – real or acting?
5. Do All India Bakchod and The Viral Fever need to disclose material connection between themselves and advertisers?
6. Influencers promoting the brand and brands promoting the influencer