INOX’s outburst and a lesson on framing in corporate communication

Last week, an unusually large number of people reminded INOX about how overpriced their popcorn was, on social media. Considering the fact that INOX (and every multiplex theater) has been shut down for the past 40+ days owing to the pandemic-induced lockdown, this should come as a massive surprise. But, what is more surprising is that INOX brought this upon themselves because of something they did and how they said it.

Seen from the perspective of how INOX’s rival, PVR did the same thing and said it differently, this is an important lesson in communications framing, within the context of public relations and corporate communications.

First, the background.

7 reasonably big upcoming movies are going directly to OTT – Amazon Prime, to be specific. This includes movies in Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada.

The move has obviously rattled companies in the theatrical exhibition business.

INOX responded.

So did PVR.

Allow me to analyze both responses. Let me start with INOX.

The title. In all caps, which is equivalent to shouting, in online parlance. To give them the benefit of doubt, I presumed that this is how they format their announcements, to start with. But I found their earlier announcement/statement from last year on a very similar topic – when Jio announced their plans for first-day-first-show.

The title is not in all-caps. So, this is not the routine format. This is intentional. They did want to shout.

Next, the first sentence: “INOX would like to express extreme displeasure and disappointment on an announcement made by a production house today…

Note the use of extreme words to open the point of view: “like to express extreme displeasure and disappointment”.

When you start with that, you are priming your readers to get into that mood, of extremities. Would they also feel the ‘extreme displeasure and disappointment’? Obviously not. Readers are not in the theater running business. They are in the watching business. So, their feeling would just be extreme, and latch on to the emotions that are primed further in the letter.

The use of ‘displeasure’ in particular is a sign of asserting superiority. In comparison, disappointment is a milder emotion that lets the reader join you. But displeasure paints yourself in a post of privilege above the readers and alienates them. It makes readers think, inside their heads: “Oh, INOX is displeased? Who do they think they are?”.

Next, “In these troubled times, it is disturbing to see one of the partners not interested in continuing the mutually beneficial relationship“. The ‘troubled times’ referred to is common to all of us, not just INOX. Isn’t the production house in troubled times? Of course, it is! The framing here makes it seem like INOX is the only one in troubled times.

The next part is the worst, to put it mildly. You could literally feel the unbridled rage as a senior honcho in INOX is dictating this to his/her underling: “Such acts, though isolated, vitiate the atmosphere of mutual partnership and paint these content producers as fair weather friends rather than all-weather life-long partners. Needless to say, INOX will be constrained to examine its options, and reserves all rights, including taking retributive measures, in dealing with such fair-weather friends

This continues to focus on troubled times on INOX alone, as if the other party is doing it for fun, only to meddle with INOX. That is obviously not true. The use of words like ‘fair-weather friends’ further gives an impression of INOX pointing fingers everywhere else but refusing it look at the situation with empathetic eyes.

Then, “INOX would like to reiterate that as the backbone of the cinematic value chain“. Is INOX the largest player in the movie exhibition space in India? Perhaps. But when you emphatically assert that while also using emotively finger-pointing words like ‘fair-weather friends’, that smacks of high-handedness more than responsible leadership.

In principle, INOX’s argument has merit. But the way it frames the argument demonstrates arrogance and holier-than-thou stand. When someone or a corporate entity showcases that, that becomes a natural sign for the reader to mentally bring down that arrogance.

So, what had to happen, does happen!

How should INOX have framed it differently? For that, look no further than PVR!

How is the tone and framing different? Here are some cues.

The opening statement: “As PVR we believe that the theatrical release is the best way for audiences to experience the labor and creative genius of our filmmakers“. The use of ‘we believe’ makes the readers think of it not as a categorical assertion, but a point of view. Almost as if they are open to other points of view as well (which becomes apparent as you read further).

And, “the labor and creative genius of our filmmakers“. To acknowledge the core of the issue in a positive way, even if they are being impacted by the decision. Because PVR seems to be seeing it from the audience’s point of view, unlike INOX that sees it only from its own point of view.

Then: “The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has caused an unfortunate shutdown of cinemas. We are confident, once we get to the other side of this crisis, there would be enough and more pent up demand from cine-goers who have been cooped up at homes for the last many weeks. We are likely to see demand by force on a sustained basis, once we reopen“.

unfortunate shutdown” – acknowledging that this is unfortunate, not planned.

We are likely to see demand by force on a sustained basis, once we reopen” – This is asserting leadership without rubbing it in the readers’ face. They use their industry knowledge to foresee some positivity and showcase leadership by knowledge and not words.

And then comes their disappointment: “Needless to say, we are disappointed with some of our Producers deciding to go straight to the streaming platform/s. We were hoping that the Producers would accede to our request to hold back their film’s release till cinemas reopen“.

This is not ‘extreme displeasure and disappointment’. In fact, PVR does not express displeasure at all. Just disappointment.

And, “hoping that the Producers would accede to our request” – ‘request’. Implying, we are keen on talking this through and see what best we could do. We are not at war with each other.

Then, the best part – a solidly grounded reality check: “That said, this is not the first time films are being premiered on a streaming platform/s. Cinema exhibition has regularly faced competition from new emerging distribution platforms over the last many years, and it has continued to enjoy cine-goers patronage and affinity“.

This is once again asserting leadership by using knowledge and not merely talking about it.

The closing line: “I would also like to use this opportunity to express our appreciation for all the producers who have publicly voiced their support for the theatrical platform and have decided to reschedule their releases to accommodate the reopening of cinemas.”

Both INOX and PVR isolate the act to one/some production houses alone, and not offer a sweeping indictment. But INOX does this isolation by pointing fingers and framing them as ‘selfish’ (fair-weather friends), while PVR does it more gracefully – ‘disappointed with them’ and look at the brighter side by thanking those that are sticking with them.

Doesn’t PVR sell overpriced snacks and popcorn? Of course, they do. But, they got a lot less blowback for their statement because… words matter. INOX was literally inviting scorn by using every possible negative reinforcement, uttered from a position of power and arrogance. INOX even started hiding not-so-charitable replies on Twitter, which led to further damage with the Streisand Effect kicking in!

PVR, which is equally impacted and could have easily gotten an equal amount of angry replies and comments, escapes cleverly because of the way they focused on their communication. Their framing doesn’t provoke you to immediately pounce on them, as INOX’s statement does. You’d probably think back on PVR’s overpriced snacks much later when you mull over the overall issue, but there’s no immediate impetus for you to pull them down.

This is worth reiterating again for impact: words matter!