The singular, individual voice that usually had no listeners has now got so amplified that it is rocking the entire communication industry.
What has driven this change? Why is there a sudden torrent of outpouring of incidents of abuse in the media and advertising world?
Partially, social media has been the reason for this change. But the bigger reason is possibly the struggle women are going through at the workplace and their desire to carve a safe place for themselves. A majority are uncomfortable and this has led to the muck being exposed and laid bare for all to see.
According to government of India data, 2,535 sexual harassment cases have been registered in the country in the last four years. The number of cases registered has risen year on year. There is no way to say whether this number is too low or too high. But the number indicates that there have been many lone voices in corporate India, and these voices are getting louder every year. There have been a couple of landmark cases where women took on their tormentors and made them pay the price.
The communication industry has slightly different dynamics compared to most other industries. This is an industry where young people work longer hours, are treated equally without hierarchy and individuals are given freedom to operate on their own. This very strength of the business is its biggest weakness. The openness and freedom to operate on their own is misused by a few people. Once the power is concentrated in a few hands, typically in hands of those who have a greater say in the output from the organization, they become the drivers of culture. Before they realize, the culture of equality and freedom becomes one of oppression and depravity.
The solution that the industry has to find is from this reality. It’s not that the industry does not want to solve the issue. For every issue that has been raised in public domain by the individual ladies, there are equal numbers of incidents that the agencies have addressed and acted upon. Every agency wants the workplace to be driven by the value systems that they put down for all the offices across the globe. The agency business today is as global as it gets, and there are defined rules of internal conduct that everyone must adhere to.
Yet, as we are seeing, the issue of misuse of position and privilege is rampant. When the abuse happens from men in power, it is often taken as a part of surviving in the organization, and this is what leads to prolonged silence.
What, though has changed is that number of women at workplace has increased manifold. This means the informal support group has expanded. The dynamic of this informal support group does two things; it names the perpetuators and warns the potential victims, and also becomes the place where victims can share their grief. Add the impact of social media, and you can see how the lone voice got amplified.
Protecting the Open Culture
Communication companies don’t have a choice now. The change needs to be driven, and needs to be driven now.
This is a tougher thing to do than anyone can imagine. For how do you protect the culture of openness, friendliness and equality, even as you put in checks and balances?
To this culture of openness, the agencies need to add the values of feistiness and sensitivity. These are two opposites, which are not the easiest to bring together.
There is a legal framework, and companies do adhere to the legal frameworks, but because the work of communication companies involve questioning boundaries, sometimes the statutory requirements tend to get brushed aside.
What the agencies today need is for everyone who works in the organization to come together and make this happen. As the cliché goes, it takes a few rotten apples, and the rotten apples need to be identified and kept aside.
This industry is full of people who have the ability to create communication concepts that change behaviour for better. They make brands look good, they make consumers proud of the choices they make. This is the bunch of people who can drive this change.
I would suggest two things that agencies need to do:
One: question what is happening around us. If there is anything that is believed to be deviant behaviour, it should not be ignored.
Two: The communication companies need to be even more sensitive and proactively nip the problem in the bud. It will depend on the agencies to set up a mechanism; some have, and maybe they should share that system openly with others
The lone voice will only get more amplified. The lone voice will be powered by almost everyone who works in this industry and values overall dignity and knows right from wrong.
This industry celebrates youth and their ability to create stories that drive behaviour, it is time we let them loose to drive a change within.
(Naresh Gupta is co-founder and chief strategy officer of Bang in the Middle, an independent ad agency)