Kindness and empathy will be skills of the future in India’s media and publishing industry

Chain of survival.
Chain of survival.
Image: REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee
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In the wake of the global pandemic, together with medical workers and law enforcers, media personnel also constitute a part of what we’ve come to recognise as “Covid-19 warriors.”

Working in the very regions where the outbreak is spreading, there are reports of journalists having contracted the virus, in the line of duty. In spite of this, the reportage from the frontlines continues unabated. Since January, an astonishing average of 1,400 articles is being produced each day about the pandemic alone, according to O-Dwyer’s.

However, the economic backlash from the global pandemic outbreak has not spared the jobs of these warriors, with layoffs rampant in print and electronic media houses across the world. In India too, its effects have been telling.

As far back as mid-April, when the nation was still under lockdown, there were reports of large media houses sending their staff on furlough, and announcing wage as well as job cuts. This, during a period of sustained advisory from the central and state governments to the contrary. Eight weeks on, with reduced advertising spends, low subscription, and sales, there are still no clear signs of remission.

Corona crisis

Mainstream publishing is undergoing its worst crisis in living memory.

During the extended lockdown period in India, sales came to a complete standstill as all retail outlets were shut, and e-commerce portals were only allowed to deliver essential items, such as hand sanitisers, groceries, and medicines.

In the English books and journals segment alone, the lockdown has eroded hundreds of crores worth revenue for trade publishing. Most publishing houses have shrunk their titles for this financial year to a third of their original annual target.

While the leading, cash-rich publishing firms are trying to protect jobs by effecting operational economies, the smaller firms are not so fortunate. As the economy tries to find its foothold in the new “unlock” mode, the fate of large retail bookstores also hangs in the balance.

With purchases likely to be concentrated largely on essential items, the concern is that up to a quarter of these book-centric retail stores may close down over the coming months. Publicity and event management companies have likewise been severely impacted.

Tips to survive

As businesses in this sector painfully try to keep afloat, the psychological wellbeing of professionals employed here assumes paramount importance.

In this context, as part of an ongoing positive psychology-based study being conducted by psychometrics-based advisory firm Nuvah and behavioural research firm BiasInc, a survey and several interviews were done with executives in media (including digital news outlets), publishing houses, and event management companies. Their responses all point in one unambiguous direction: a new set of behavioural skills is needed for making the journey from survival to sustainability in a post-Covid-19 Indian ecosystem. Here’s what some said:

Employer-employee expectations

In this component of the study, stakeholders were invited to state what they felt were the top expectations of employees from their bosses and vice versa in a post-Covid-19 paradigm.

Ananth Padmanabhan, CEO of HarperCollins Publishers India, has a simple three-point to-do for leaders:

“First, you need to listen to your employees. Second, help them whenever needed. And provide clear direction.”

All of this resonates with his colleague, Rahul Dixit, sales director at the company, whose own formulation is as follows:

  1. Show everyone in the team that we’re together in this crisis.
  2. Help teams stay focused on core jobs.
  3. Take feedback from teams for restructuring and calibration, in the future.

This ethos is strongly mirrored by Iqbal Ahmad, senior producer at BBC World Service:

“Empathy and emotional intelligence are vital, especially at a time like this. More than anything else, people in the team need to feel assured that the leadership is with them every step of the way. This is being effected on the ground in multiple ways, including transportation and logistical arrangements for team members coming into office, and continued flexibility in the mode of working. Above all, by maintaining close personal communication with each person.

Malavika Banerjee is a director at Gameplan Sports and director of Tata Steel Kolkata Steel Literary Meet. She feels that patience, adaptability, and teamwork are crucial in cementing employer-employee relations:

“My business, which involves events around literature and culture, has been severely disrupted. But we have adapted to the new technological means and platforms, for running events. At a time when giant corporates are laying off personnel in the thousands, small companies, such as ours, are standing firm with their employees. The personal connection with each one in the team instils a sense of responsibility and loyalty, which is mutual.”

Teamwork and empathy are also critical for Anitesh Chakraborty, director at the web channel

“Events that are beyond our entire sphere of experience have become the norm, and insecurity is all-pervasive. Everyone is having to adapt to new and dynamically changing situations. In such circumstances, we have to be more empathetic. We can’t judge people purely on the basis of the behavioral patterns and anecdotal evidence from the past.

Skills for the future

The stakeholders were asked to choose from and rank what they felt were the top skills needed in their respective organisations, in a post-Covid-19 world, from a superset of 24 signature strengths.

The results show that emotional intelligence, courage, teamwork, kindness, originality, and practicality have featured consistently in the shortlist, across respondents.

Priyanka Dutt, country director at BBC Media Action, said originality is the foremost skill that employees should develop.

“People have a natural tendency towards following instructions, to execute tasks, as opposed to thinking creatively, out of the box. Some of this limitation is self-imposed. But also, organisations sometimes don’t create a space that allows innovative thinking to take place. Consequently, one of the big challenges for a leader is to get the team to think through a problem creatively by themselves, and resolve it. Which is where originality comes in. Regardless of what one’s job entails, originality always helps an individual to grow and develop.

For Padmanabhan of HarperCollins, the entire gamut of attributes traditionally relegated as “soft skills” are essential for our times, with emotional intelligence, empathy, and kindness sharply in the spotlight. “I don’t ever remember a time when uncertainty was the predominant emotion,” he said. “And now more than ever it is important to be empathetic, to imagine what others’ realities are and support them in any way possible.”

Dixit of HarperCollins ranks critical thinking and open-mindedness on top.

“In a pre-pandemic scenario, many things have been taken for granted, starting with the basic in-person mode of working. And so processes have formed over time, with various chains and linkages. Now, as they’re being revisited constantly, one needs to think things afresh and take decisions that are unusual. Some of the old linkages will have to be broken, simplified, expedited. And this requires a great deal of openness to new ways of approaching work.”

Mindset matters

In this part of the survey, stakeholders were asked to deliberate on what they felt would be the key mindset attributes for the workforce of the future.

They were asked to score the importance of three specific constituents: self-esteem, resilience, and grit, on a scale of 1 to 10.

For women leaders and influencers, the scores across all three elements came out as consistently high. Grit received an average score of 8.25, while self-esteem and resilience ranked higher, with mean scores of 8.67 and 9.0, respectively.

“Self-esteem is important,” says Dixit of HarperCollins. “But it can’t help you survive exigencies. In such scenarios, resilience is fundamental.”

Dutt of BBC Media Action agrees. “Certainly, all three are important mindset traits, but if one had to prioritise, then for me resilience comes in first.”

Chakraborty of, who has also scored resilience higher than self-esteem, said, “we are living in a paradigm of chaos, cynicism, trauma. In such times, it’s all the more critical to be able to absorb the most unpleasant of situations and develop tenacity, the ability to bounce back. Particularly in the younger generation, the high self-esteem that we apparently see is often a projection of over-confidence, although they may inwardly be lacking in it.”

For Banerjee of Gameplan Sports, though, self-esteem is just as important as the other traits, if not more, a view echoed by Iqbal Ahmad. “All three attributes are interrelated. Of course, one has to be resilient in the present situation. Yet, this cannot be achieved without a person first having self-respect and conviction in oneself.”

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