Case studies from History (1)

I am looking forward to a very intense fall traveling schedule which will take me to Mumbai, Istanbul and Cairo in the space of a few weeks.

I will start with the last one, because I will be covering a whole new topic which I never discussed before in a public occasion, and that is

Propaganda vs. True Public Engagement

How is Propaganda different from True Public Engagement?

Is one leading to the other, or are the two opposed? And, has this changed with the advent of Digital, which removed all barriers to access making each individual a potential, if temporary, news channel?

More importantly, perhaps, did the transition to Digital usher an era of more authentic Communications, where people talk to people directly and information is free to travel across the world?

My impression is that after a very short period of under-evaluation, Propaganda has learned its digital ropes quite well, if nothing else because Propaganda has money and it can afford the best consultants.

One of the largest contracts I led was the Digital campaign for the 2009 European Elections: the Party that was our client won, even though with age I stopped claiming merit for that victory. Barack Obama is widely credited to have won especially the 2008 election thanks to masterful use of Social Media; across Europe, new euro-skeptic parties thrive on digital-only communications.

The Goebbels of our time have demonstrated they are as good at manipulating public opinion as they were in the ‘40s because Digital and Social Media are a channel like any other: they are not un-stoppable, they can be (and are) monitored. If anything, for this purpose they are better suited than most channels, because all that goes through them is already in machine-digestible form: as a matter of fact, some of the most advanced Artificial Intelligence applications are classified and used in military grade surveillance.

Moreover, both sides of any dispute have become so good at storytelling that very often it is quite difficult to figure out who are the Good Guys. I presume we can all think of contemporary geo-political scenarios that fit this description.

When I look at the world we all live in, alongside glorious examples of citizen journalism I see evidence of digital tools being very effectively used to recruit and indoctrinate distraught youngsters to become terrorist chrysalises, ready to blossom into the next Breivik or Abdeslam.

So I started looking at the past, where I found two stories that I believe are of relevance, as they show how in the past crises not dissimilar from the ones facing us right now have been addressed using two of the fundamentals of Communications: Messages and Reputation.

You can call these Case Studies from History.

[more to follow…]

Back from Kyiv

Adventurous trip, marred by the fact I missed the outgoing flight due to an overrunning meeting to finish off with a renewed, scary acquaintance with aerosinusitis (if you don’t know what it is, call yourself fortunate and move on).

So all the trouble was in the trips, because – contrary to gloom-and-doom media reports of “Ukraine on the edge of the abyss” – absolutely nothing out of the ordinary happened during my stay.

The Russia / Ukraine conundrum

To a foreigner eye the Russo-Ukrainian situation has settled into an uneasy balance. After all, the Crimea annexation happened in March, 2014, a time when the Russian economy, despite the global recession, was still growing at a 1.4% clip thanks to $100+/barrel oil.

Eighteen months later, the combo blow of sweeping sanctions and sub-$50 oil (entirely driven by the american shale sledgehammer) have Russia in a -1.5% GDP tailspin.

Eighteen months ago, Putin had the world believe that nothing could stop Russia if it set its mind to. Today Ukrainians are probably more in a positive mood than Russians.

However, much still is to be done in Ukraine: the first time it tried to break free of the Soviet Union, in 1941, it chose the wrong ally in Nazi Germany, a mistake which still haunts the reputation of the Ukrainian people more than they realise, but this time (1991) it firmly turned to the EU as a role model: never heard so many times people speak about “upholding European values” as in these two days in Kyiv.

The politicians I met here seem to have what it takes (business background, global perspective and experience) to reform a state organization probably still firmly rooted in Soviet-era bureaucratic practices, bring about a system of check and balances which to this date does not exist, while fighting the pressure of oligarchs. A tough job, if I ever saw one!

My presentation…

..went technically bad. Not just a minor glitch: the remote did not work well (too far) and the technicians were not prepared to manually advance the slides when I asked them to; and when they finally did, they would not stop and had to go back. Worse than it ever happened to me in many years of public speaking.

At the root of the problem is the still far-from-universal acceptance of Macs by the people who organise the technical side of conferences.

Everything is boned down to the lowest common denominator of boring text slides shown on Powerpoint, the single biggest crime against humanity ever performed by Microsoft, but I refuse to show a presentation that looks like something put together in the 80’s.

I usually solve this by asking them to use my computer, even though it often means giving up HD (unbelievable how many projectors still exist that do not have HDMI connectors). This time however I didn’t, trusting the fact that the presentation consisted mainly of videos.

This was a mistake, even though in the end the videos saved the day, because they allowed the audience to generously follow my remarks even while I was fighting with the capricious remote.

To be true, however, I rarely received so many compliments after a presentation so, to partly make up for the lousy performance, I decided to make a movie of it (as it was supposed to be) and post it here: who knows, some in the audience may still enjoy it in retrospect.

Travel stats 2014

As 2014 is drawing to a close, I checked out my travel statistics on Tripit: it says I have clocked about 42,000 km traveling to 18 cities in 7 countries in 2014, down from 46,000 km to 23 cities in 13 countries in 2013.

My overall track record says I have been to 48 countries in my life, including essentially all of Europe and North America, beginning to show some presence in Asia, but missing almost completely Africa, South America and Oceania.

The only surprising fact in all of this is that in each of the same two years I traveled another 40,000 km by car !

My Moscow

What did I learn in this last trip to Moscow?

Well for one, the Moscow Metro is now my bitch, thanks to the super app by Yandex: it knows where you are (yes, Milan, New York, London, Paris: there is free open wifi (almost) everywhere in the Moscow Metro, shame on you !!!), you touch where you want to go and it will show you the route.

On a translittered map you can actually read out should you need to ask for directions.

Secondly, weather. This is my first time in early spring, the weather was quite nice, but still hovering not enough far from 0°C to leave the coat at home; however, russians need a good oil shock to teach them to be a tad thrifty with their heating: any close environment is at least 5 °C too hot. If you will spend your day in a conference room, dress lightly to avoid overheating.

Thirdly, timing. Russians put italians to shame. You set an appointment for 11AM which effectively means “sometimes during the late part of the morning”. Or later. Pack a book: since you’ll be waiting you might as well use the time productively.

Then language. No, they don’t. Speak english, I mean. Hotel receptionists, store clerks, policemen, metro employees, restaurant waiters, taxi drivers none of them does – and this is an international metropolis that’s bursting at the seams with international business transactions; yet, unless you climb the corporate ladder quite a bit, do not expect english literacy.

Which does not mean you can’t get by. I bought metro tickets, coffee, food, a SIM for my phone (to avoid being ripped off by Voda) and I topped it up after a couple of days. All without speaking a word of Russian (except “Spasiba”) with people who did not speak a word of English (except “You’re welcome!”)

And while we are on language, the alphabet is not as hard to fathom as it initially seemed: I can read the greek alphabet and there are quite a few commonalities so I bet in another week I would be able to read with decent fluency. Which obviously does not mean understanding, but a surprising number of Russian words are actually simply translittered from other languages (French, English, even Italian) so you will be surprised at the number of signs you can actually figure out

The long road to Kyiv

As some know, I will be taking part as a speaker at the Communication on Top regional event in Kiyv, Ukraine.

Not my first time in Ukraine, but last time I was there I did not spend any time in Kyiv as the event was taking place in Yalta, which is a sea resort in the southern part of the country, on the Black Sea.

An ukrainian friend helped me a get a sense for what’s going on in that country at the moment, (and as usual it’s way more complicated than the media report) but I find it interesting that Europe is seen as a hope for fairer and more efficient government; of course even I, who always professed a strong pro-Europe stance, know that Europe has many defects and needs a lot of work to improve its ways: yet, the accession of countries like Ukraine and Turkey would have the immense benefit of breaking down stupid “blocs” (the muslim bloc, the ex-soviet bloc) which make no sense whatsoever, if they ever did.

That said, it is also for me a great opportunity to voice my most passionately contrarian opinions which do not get much hearing in Europe: for example I like throwing a marketing monkey wrench in the beautiful clockwork of ethereal concepts like Return on Experience, and I like to throw a feedback loop monkey wrench into the marketing smorgasbord of measurement for the sake of measurement which invariably gives out the alpinist answer to the question “Why should we measure this?”

(the alpinist answer – should you not know – is “Because it’s there!”)

My India – learnings

A very instructive journey, which prompts me to come back to learn a little more; I sure can understand how people say that traveling to India changes them.

One first consequence is a desire to know more about the history of this great country: a perusal of Amazon offering in the way of manuals reveals an abundance of books about british India and a relative scarcity of books about the whole story of India; also I am not seeking a 1000-page tome, but a more svelte format that I can digest quickly.

My impression is that the country India really started with the british domination – before there were four large states more or less perennially at war with each other and under the influences of the various potentates in the region.

This was repeated over and again by several people – no such thing as India. Dozens of languages, five main religions plus many more others, an enormous diversity in ethnicity: all of this points at a situation for me reminiscent of the Balkans – only 1,000 times bigger.

Secondly, the language. India may have “the largest english speaking population in the world”, but don’t mistake this for the statement “everybody speaks english”:  even if a privileged 20% speaks good english that leaves 80% who barely does or not at all. Even in big cities like Mumbai and Delhi we met a lot of people whose english sometimes was very basic.

Third, a few European shell-shocks: I was expecting poverty and lack of basic hygienic facilities to strike me, and they did. I was expecting the assault of beggars and salesmen, and that I did not get. I enjoyed walking for hours in bazaars in Mumbai and Delhi, stopping at carts and looking at stuff – yes, they obviously try to exercise their trade, but never aggressively and a simple “No” works almost universally.

I also enjoyed bargaining when I bought something – even though I have no illusion of beating the experts – nobody was ever pushy or aggressive.

Fourth, size matters, in so many senses. How do you lift 200 million kids from stricken poverty? Nitin complained about having too much work and not being able to find employable people for his business. Of course the road workers or janitors do not speak english: if they did, they’d probably get a better job as clerks in some company. Size also pushes the inequalities to extremes not experienced anywhere else I suspect. The beggars living in the streets and eating God knows what next to Bentleys rolling down the manicured Delhi avenues.

Talking to Cyrus we discovered that house prices are higher than in Milano, yet the intrinsic value of the buildings honestly cannot be compared – the price must be supported by the utilitarian value of real estate, which points to a layer of population similar to the European middle class in purchasing power, but can you imagine two-and-a-half times Europe’s middle class concentrated in 5 or 6 megalopolis instead of perhaos 30 or 40?

Fifth, this country exists in its present form since 70 years only: I purposefully excused myself for asking blunt questions about ethnic or religious strife, about the relationship with Pakistan or the feelings towards the Brits.  After 150 years of unity of Italy and one and a half millennium of roman empire my country still hasn’t really figured out where it stands on its own identity: these are things that run very deep and may require a few more centuries to really settle, but I am ideally positioned to ask these questions, I am italian and everyone loves us, essentially because we are a threat to nobody.

Sixth, we were very fortunate to spend our time in Delhi as guests of Roma on behalf of Mahindra Corp., not only for the exquisite hospitality in itself, but also because we lived in a house. While this is nowhere near experiencing living the city (we had two excellent gentlemen looking after us, preparing our food an driving us around) yet this was so different from the hotel life in Mumbai. Both ABCI and Mahindra’s hospitality were nothing short of superlative, but I am so glad I had the opportunity to experience both.

Of course, “blending in” is not an option: I am way too tall (even though someone told me that my complexion is not too far from that of indians), and Mirella’s platinum short hair attracted so much attention a few ladies asked to have a a picture taken together with her; but there is something, even after only a few days of wandering, that made me feel at ease even though I was and will always remain a foreigner, something that made easy asking for directions to porters or store clerks, that made language difficulties manageable. I guess I will have to spend a little more time on this.

Speaking of which, Yogesh and Deepak already said they will invite us again next year, and my wife said she is already booking her time to come along.

My India – 7 of 7

An optimized route meant we were able to see everything we wanted today. We started with Qutb Minar, the tallest minaret in the world: all built in masonry, its sheer size tells you what the use of steel has done to the art of tall buildings. And – talking of which – check out the pictures of the Iron Pillar, which stands rustless since centuries, and the stump that was supposed to become a minaret twice as tall as the one you see, had it not been for the death of its sponsor.

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We then moved to the Lotus Temple, built by the followers of the Bahá’ì faith:

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And to the Tomb of Humayun, a mausoleum built by a mourning Queen for the death of her husband. Not quite as extreme as the Taj Mahal, built later, the inspiration is however similar, the love of symmetry absolutely evident. It is obvious that other well-off (but not quite as well-off as an Emperor) attached their own, smaller mausoleums to that of the royalties, while other had their sepulchres added in teh chambers of the main mausoleum which in fact is called the City of the Moghuls because of its over 100 dignitaries’ tombs it contains.

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Last stop of our visit was the Jama Masjid mosque – built by the same Emperor who also built the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort, Shah Jahan, the mosque is immense, although not at all the largest in the world. However I must confess that its main attraction for me was the sprawling bazaar at its foot, a close cousin of which no doubt must have inspired the Merchants in the Temple episode in the Gospels.

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We concluded our day at the huge Connaught Place market, where we bought a bunch of nice presents. This was a particularly instructive stop, because as we were looking for stuff, two times youngsters offered direction to this or that without any evident form of retribution; perhaps they were scouts from stores, but they both were a little too well dressed for this.

Anyway, the second one pointed us to the Nirula Handicrafts Bazar, a five story handicraft market located at 1, Doctor’s Lane, Gole Market, (5 minutes tutktuk ride from Connaught Place) which I highly recommend for everything from jewellery, carpets, silk and pashmina shawls, wood or silver carvings – you name it they have it.

It may sound intimidating to enter such a labirynthic complex on your own, but is was not at all – we bought what we wanted, got sold something else, said no to something else, but always in a good-natured way: a carpet merchant invited us to visit his store and when I said no, he asked if I was having a good time. I said yes and asked about him; he humorously replied his day would have been better if I had visited his shop.

My India – 6 of 7

Today can be summed up in one sentence: Taj Mahal.

We left this morning, bound for Agra – they have build this super 6-lane expressway between Delhi and Agra and absolutely nobody uses it. Our Agra guide Daneesh says it’s because the toll is bloody expensive for indian standards at around INR400 each way.

Anyway the biggest problem with this expressway is getting to it: it took over an hour from Safdarjang (where we are); I guess we keep forgetting this city has half of the population of Italy!

The Taj Mahal is everything you ever heard about, plus some. Like many monuments we have seen here, the exterior is perhaps the most impressive part: designed by Lahauri, the same turkish architect who also designed the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, this place is all about symmetry, from the minutest details to the grand design of the gardens surrounding. It must have costed a fortune to build to the point that the son of the Shah Jahan, upon hearing he intended to build a black Taj Mahal for himself on the other side of the Yamuna river, dethroned and threw him in jail until he died. The body was then buried next to the sepulchre of his mom, thereby ruining the perfect symmetry.

Our guide Daneesh spoke pretty good english and not only explained everything in great detail, but also guided us to the best picture spots and himself took a number of these; he also then fed us to a couple of shops that likely paid him a commission, and we ended up buying earrings with the Star of India stone typical of Agra, but while they obviously make a living milking the tourists, I must say, the selling and price haggling was all done in good spirit.

On the way back, at around 5:30PM finally the SIM card bought two days ago went live, but for reasons unknown does not connect to any data network: I suspect 3G coverage is spotty at best; upon returning to Delhi, more south east asian food (no guilty feelings, we skipped lunch) and a few more presents.

Tomorrow we have a long list of things we would like to see, but I suspect we may have to ditch a few…

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My India – 5 of 7

There is so much to see in Delhi, we’re almost certain to run out of time before we are nowhere near done. Today is Sunday, which means we went looking for a Catholic Church, of which there is no scarcity in Delhi; unfortunately the scheduled Mass in English at 9:45 at St.Luke’s has been converted to a 9:30 Mass at Father Agnel School.

Of course, without Nihal we’d have no hope whatsoever to find any of these places, as the SIM I purchased yesterday on my way to the restaurant still does not work

Need mobile connectivity while in India? Voda’s roaming rates are not as gouging as in Russia, but still very, very high. Best solution, I figured, is to turn off data roaming on your phone and purchase a data only prepaid card for use on another device – in my case an iPad.

The process however is not that simple, you will need:

  1. your passport
  2. two passport-style pictures (don’t ask, I still do not know…)
  3. someone local’s mobile phone number

Little stores selling prepaid card are plentiful, and clerks do their best to understand. You buy the card (pay attention to the format, as they will sell you a full SIM, while your iPad only accepts a mini-SIM; ask them to cut it down to fit the iPad SIM tray.

My Airtel card with 3GB of traffic is 755 + 150 rupees of service charge.

Then be prepared to wait: 48 hours after my purchase, the SIM still does not work, but the clerk said monday it should.

Back to the Mass, luckily the starting time was not meant to be really precise, so even if we get there at almost 10, we still manage to attend the full service.

Then we need to go back to the mobile store, but before that, I need to have two pictures done; Nihal locates a photo studio for me which sells me the minimum package of 25 pics for 170 rupees; the cost is very low, so I do not argue, but who the hell needs 25 pictures (or more) for document use?

Anyway, once the SIM activation is sorted out (I mean, hoping it is…) we can start our visit and we select the Red Fort, a beautiful fortress-cum-imperial-palace.

At the entrance we discover there are three lines: one for indian men, one for indian women (shorter) and one for foreigners (shortest); in all our visit we see perhaps 10 westerners, which is amazing. Mirella’s platinum hair attracts quite an attention, to the point a family asks permission to be photographed in her company – in fact the cosmetics billboards leave no doubt that a fair skin and hair are highly desirable, which is sort of funny when you think how painstakingly we seek to achieve bronze-colored skin during our summers!

After an unceremonious McDonald’s quick lunch we head for our first market visit, at the so-called South Extension, one of the many sprawling commercial complexes dotting Delhi: we know what we are looking for, as we have received good info from both Cyrus and Nitin, the best saree place in town and maybe in India – Nalli’s. Shopping there is very easy and satisfying and we get a full load for all three ladies in the house; however, for reasons unknown, Nalli sells no petticoats, but give us the address of another store.

We walk out with this little card with what we think is the name of the store and start asking around – parking in these areas is nearly impossible, and Nihal needs to drop us where we want to go and leave immediately so we are on our own.

India may have the largest english speaking population in the word, but even if 500 million of its population were fluent, there are still another 800 million who are not: the first guy we ask point vaguely down the road and predicts 10 minutes walking. After almost twenty we ask another who directs us somewhere else and finally, a uniformed private guard pronounces the place too far, we need a taxi.

Once we get hold of Nihal again, we’re off to Central Market, which is only 3 kms away, but the traffic, well – in this area, with all the roadworks because of the Metro, there are no words to describe it. Walking is really no option: no sidewalks, broken roads, fumes and the deafening din of horns blaring all the time makes it really uncomfortable.

When we get there we discover that Laipat Nagar is not the name of store, but of road chock full of shops selling clothing; our first two forays are unsuccessful, and owners seem not able to even point us in the right direction. The third one however point us to Varuns, at 3-11 Central Market, Lajpat Nagar II. If you need a petticoat, they have a bazillion colors: bring your saree and they will find the perfect match.

I am surprised the other stores (literally around the corner) could ignore that this shop exist, as it seems to be quite unique, has an enormous range of just one article and therefore competes with no other, go figure.

My India – 4 of 7

This could have been a boring transfer day, but we were lucky and instead decided to kill a couple of hours just wandering around, finding a most interesting street market sprawling a few blocks around the area where our hotel was located.

This turned out to be not that exotic for us, as it resembles very closely the street markets that you have in every italian town or village, typically once a week.

Of course, meats and fish will be better refrigerated (that is to say, refrigerated at all), both barring that (major) difference, there were many similarities: the extreme care with which vegetables are lovingly arranged to look their best, the fact that sellers with similar products tend to hang close to each other, so you will have the onion area, the potato area, the live chicken area, the fresh flowers area… 

Not much effort is made to protect against a a scorching sun, so the couple of hours spent there were quite exhausting.

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This is the official motivation for indulging in a reflexology foot massage at the airport, which we both found quite relaxing, although painful (for me) given the sorry condition of my feet bone system.

The flight to Delhi is a short hop of less than two hours, but what a difference those two hours make!

If Mumbai is hot and humid, Delhi is cool, the air is breezy and clear; it’s another 26 million people megalopolis, but the contrast could not be starker: clean roads, well-kept houses, this must be the Switzerland of India.

For our first evening out, we choose to follow the recommendation of my good friend Nitin Mantri, who I hadn’t seen in ages, and have an excellent asian fusion dinner at the Sidewok in Khan market: food is truly excellent ad, as usual, very affordable.

Close the evening at Rick’s downtown – Nitin has set up a great agency in Delhi which has grown to over a hundred people and has now offices all around the country. If you need good, professional PR there, look no further!