Government ministries have an additional task. Their work will not stop at merely drawing up detailed schemes for approval or giving advice to the Cabinet on important decisions. In keeping with a recent order, each ministry has to also draft its own SMSes, Whatsapp messages, Facebook posts and tweets to promote the social programmes they design.

These are all elements of the communication plans that each ministry has to send along with Cabinet notes to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Cabinet secretariat for their approval.

“An effective communication strategy is essential for establishing pro-active engagement with citizens,” says an order issued by Nripendra Misra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, dated September 15, referring to detailed rules issued by the Cabinet Secretariat on May 19 for ministries to promote government schemes and decisions.

The communication strategy suggests a well-coordinated media blitzkrieg that includes inserting favourable opinion pieces in newspapers and television channels, as well as getting independent experts to endorse the government’s schemes and decisions. Ministries have also been allowed to pay social media “influencers” to multiply the reach of its messages.

The communication plan attached with the cabinet note must include all or a combination of the following:

“Publicity on television and national/regional/local newspapers.

Articulation of benefits on National and Local Media. 

Opinion piece articles in leading English, Hindi and Regional dailies on the nature and scope of the decision and how it impacts people. 

Bulletins on AIR News/AIR FM/Private FM Radio Stations. 

Interviews on Electronic Media/Radio and TV Talk shows.

Special Mass Media Programmes.”

In tune with the goverment’s emphasis on reaching citizens through social media, ministries have been urged to prepare “personalised SMS texts, Whatsapp Posts, video messages, mailers with such videos, images and captions” to keep citizens informed of their activities. Facebook posts are to be deployed to “tap its wider reader base”.

The task of disseminating these message has not been left to the nodal ministry alone. Other departments have been told to add their heft to the public outreach. “Cabinet/CCEA [Cabinet committee on economic affairs] decisions and policies may be tweeted and shared on Facebook by other concerned ministries/departments also,” the cabinet note reads. “Other ministries and departments may individually link the cabinet and CCEA decisions with their respective plans and programmes etc.”

This new strategy is considerably more detailed than the procedures followed earlier. Before this, ministries only prepared a press brief to be forwarded to the Cabinet. This note consisted of the gist of the decision, some details and background, targets, the major possible impact of the programme and the expenditure involved.

The hazy line

At first glance, some of the recommendations may seem to blur the line between public outreach and propaganda. For instance, the guidelines suggest that “it would also be advisable to reach out to influencers who have worked on a particular issue or are influencing voices on the particular issue”. It notes that, for example, “on National Health Policy, tweets and Facebook posts by leading doctors and health experts can have a strong impact”. This tactic can be particularly deceptive because people using social media to promote a product or an idea often do not reveal if the endorsement is laced with an inducement or a conflict of interest.

In another part of the same document, the cabinet secretariat has said the ministries can also resort to paid promotions. However, it recommends that these should be resorted to “only after ensuring value optimization of such methods”.

It isn’t clear whether the purportedly independent experts will actually disclose that they are writing articles or backing its policies on TV at the nudging of the government.

Outsourcing it

Unable or unwilling to undertake these tasks, some ministries have contracted out the job to private social media management and advertising agencies.

“There is nothing wrong in the government circulating information on the decisions it believes are for the benefit of the people to every possible citizen using all possible mediums,” said a secretary level official in the Union government who did not want to be identified.
“But, I do not think most officials in the ministries are best placed to write draft Whatsapp messages, SMS, tweets and Facebook posts for approval.”

He said that the need for constant communication outreach has encouraged many ministries to give contracts to private professional agencies but added that private professionals had started being engaged for the tasks even before these new directives.

For instance, in 2016, the Union ministry for agriculture and farmers welfare issued a tender for a social media agency that can “provide amplification of Digital Marketing Communication and Messaging through planning and execution of a Social Media Marketing activity across both Paid Media and Non-Paid Media avenues”.

This included, “Planning and Executing a ‘Key Influencer Program’ on Social Media platforms.” The influencer programme was to engage top 100 influencers in the industry to give a multiplying impact of its messages across social media.

Mint newspaper reported:

  “An agency had this query for the ministry, listed on the website alongside the tender: ‘In case for a campaign, we are to engage with influencers of repute for eg: Gul Panag, Ranveer Singh etc. They would expect a monetary benefit for the same. How are such influencers to be paid? Will the ministry pay directly or via the agency? Is there a budget set or is it to be included in our proposal?’

The response: ‘Ministry will decide this as on required basis. Payments will be made on actual for approved proposals.’” 

The Union ministry for food processing industries has also put out a fresh tender for a “social network management agency”. Its tasks will include being responsible for making “the content viral on the internet and other social media sites”. The agency will also have “to find influencers that can be used to increase the visibility of ministry’s social media campaigns”. These would have to be “industry leaders”, the ministry has said in its tender.

Niti Ayog is also on the hunt for a social media managing outfit.

But traditional methods have not been forgotten. The communication plan also lists “last-mile outdoor publicity”. This includes letters to elected representatives of local bodies, hoardings, wall writings, street plays and “field publicity at government offices”.

In September, the principal secretary to the Prime Minister also sent a template design for advertisements to each ministry. The sample advertisement of a new railway line in Uttar Pradesh, carrying a pre-approved photograph of Prime Minister standing and alongside the slogan in Hindi” “Ab hoga safar samay par. Surakshit. Tez.” Now you will travel on time. Safe and fast.