Media lessons at Wharton, to be or not to be TV Asia

These are the folks who are going to be running businesses…


By Sujeet Rajan

"Sujeet"NEW YORK: On the home page of the promotional website for the Wharton India Economic Forum 2013 – at least as of today, who knows it might be pulled down tomorrow like the fiasco seen at the meet, invite taken back, numerous speakers backing out; panels dissolved – there is a paragraph that gloats about past achievements, brands it as a top-tier event: ‘The forum receives extensive media coverage in India and in the wider business community. Recent forums have been covered by networks such as CNBC, NDTV and Bloomberg, broadcast over TV and the Internet, and covered by over 30 journalists and all major publications.’

So what’s wrong with that, one may well ask?

The annual India-centric conference organized by the students of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, since its launch in 1996, has attracted several luminaries from the corporate, political and entertainment world, including Anil Ambani, an alumni, and the finance minister of India, P Chidambaram, among others.

Except, this year, in the brouhaha of the pulling back of the keynote speaker invite to the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, it was followed by an unprecedented exodus of speakers, sponsors and panelists, which made it probably confusing to the harried organizers themselves as to what exactly they were hosting, and if the name of the annual meet should be changed to Wharton Not-from-India Economic Forum 2013.

And the organizers of the meet finally did the one egregious mistake that has really tarnished the image of the Forum, of the Wharton School and indeed of the University of Pennsylvania, even more so than its disgraceful turnaround of the taking back of the invite to Modi: they decided in a zombie-like stupor, perhaps from the battering they had received from the constant barrage of people backing out from making an appearance at the meet, and having to run after new speakers, any speaker for that matter, that they would not invite any media to the event, except for one US-based outlet – TV Asia.

A mostly entertainment based channel with programming in Hindi, Gujarati and English, with no single slot on any given day for a business news section in its program roster, TV Asia was started in the US by actor Amitabh Bachchan in 1993. It was bought four years later by wealthy New Jersey-based entrepreneur H R Shah, who is currently the CEO/Chairman of the channel. Incidentally, days before the Wharton meet was to start, Modi spoke to supporters gathered in Chicago and Edison, New Jersey, via teleconference from Ahmedabad. The event in Edison was held at the headquarters of TV Asia.

Let’s hark back to the paragraph from the Wharton website in the opening paragraph of this column. Quick! Read it again before it’s taken down! Do you see the conspicuous absence of TV Asia from the names of media outlets which have covered the Forum in past years? And even if they did cover the event in past years, what makes them so special as to be given exclusive access, and not other media outlets?

Who took this decision? Only the Chairs of the Wharton meet know, and they have not responded to an email sent asking them this question, among others.

By shutting out all major news outlets, Wharton decided to cloak itself in secrecy and hide from possible further embarrassing criticism of what actually transpired at the meet on March 23rd. By inviting only one media outlet — for the first time in 17 years since its inception — they compounded their mistake, displayed their poor lack of judgment, which has been a hallmark of this year’s Forum.

The Chairs of the WIEF did release a grand statement to explain their weird decision: “Yes, that is right, no other press (print or electronic) is allowed,” they declared, adding: “The Wharton India Economic Forum has had a long standing relationship with TV Asia and they have been loyal supporters. This year, we have made a decision to enter an exclusive media partnership with TV ASIA whereby they get exclusive access to our panel content as well as speakers and take the relationship forward making it even stronger.”

This statement was reported by the Press Trust of India. Another media organization, Global India Newswire, which was a sponsor in a previous year — and an affiliate of The American Bazaar — didn’t receive any statement, and request for a media pass was ignored.

Such statements of exclusivity are usually reserved for major deals in sporting, entertainment arenas. But at the Wharton India Economic Meet? One doesn’t know whether to laugh or to just cringe at the kind of business leaders that Wharton, founded in 1881 as the first collegiate business school in the US, is training.

The organizing members of the WIEF are going to be the managers of tomorrow, the anticipators of crises, future honchos who would take companies forward in tough times, entrepreneurs. These are the folks who are going to be running businesses, but couldn’t anticipate the trouble that would come with inviting Modi, then taking the invite back, then not having the skills to do damage control and stop the spate of speakers and sponsors who quit, and finally, to bar mainstream media from the event itself, not have the courage to show what kind of organizational skills they brought to the table in hosting the day-long event.

Arvind Kejriwal, the founder of the Aam Aadmi Party in India, who eventually replaced Modi as the keynote speaker, was blunt in his criticism, when he spoke via teleconference, chastising the organizers: “to issue an invitation and then cancel it under pressure is not right. It is very wrong. It is unbecoming of an institution carrying the respected Wharton name”.

India-focused business conferences are common at Ivy League schools, including at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia. For the most part, they are, like previous Wharton meets, organized with panache. A conference which has high profile speakers, attended by several hundred people, with multiple panels and networking events, is a key moment in the life of the organizing student body, a test of their mettle for times to come in the real corporate world, a feat to be added on a resume.

Most Ivy League schools’ India-focused meets have a great deal of transparency. The students who are in charge of a particular department are identified by their name, graduation class, and email and phone number on the promotional website, and press releases. It’s a time of responsibility for the organizing committee, proud of the fact that their names are out there for the world to see. Not so for the present lot of the WIEF: there are no names, no phone numbers, only a single email address, which seems to be a like a black hole in space – mails go in, they never come back.

A prominent speaker at the meet — one who did show up on March 23rd, mercifully for the organizers – when asked how the meet was this year, said on the condition of anonymity “it was bad.”

This reporter called up a spokesperson at Wharton, Phyllis Stevenson, who when asked for a comment on why only TV Asia was granted media access, said, “I’m not the spokesperson for the Forum,” but added that a statement was put out earlier. When asked if she could provide the names of the students who were the Chairs of the WIEF, she said she would “forward” the request.

Another spokesperson at the University of Pennsylvania, Ron Ozio, when contacted, said he would get back, but didn’t respond thereafter.

The WIEF had some nice India touches on the day of the meet: Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter had declared March 23 as “India Day” in its honor, and outside on the streets of the venue, there were some protestors of Indian-origin, under the name of ‘Americans for Free speech,’ who raised slogans and placards which said “We Want Modi”.

It seemed like the kind of political juggernaut being played out in the streets of a town in India: desi protestors outside, police bandobast, prominent Indians inside a posh auditorium in smart attire, media excluded like a pariah to gape from outside.

Writer, journalist and scholar Sadanand Dhume, who was invited to a panel, but backed out after the invitation to Modi was canceled, wrote in a Wall Street Journal blog on why he decided to skip it: “To many Indians and Indian-Americans, the University of Pennsylvania ends up looking less like a place of learning that appreciates diverse viewpoints, and more like a repository of a shrill brand of political correctness fundamentally out of touch with the economic debate in India. I for one won’t be sorry to give the badly truncated conference a miss.”

Dhume had the foresight to gauge the mismanaged show at Wharton and the temerity to do the right thing.

One can only hope that the next edition of the Wharton India Economic Forum will be different, and like in the past, organized professionally. Hopefully, the present lot of WIEF won’t be hanging around to give any tips to the future bunch on how to organize a Forum. It’s not just a Forum; the good name and reputation of Wharton and the University of Pennsylvania is also at stake.

(Sujeet Rajan is the Editor-in-Chief of The American Bazaar)

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