I asked Harmander Singh recently, “What is your take Sikh’s present lack of positive media coverage and successful public relations in the West? ”
Harmander Singh responded:
As some one who also trains others in the art of engaging with the media (having been trained myself) I feel there are several factors under two headings, but all focus on the core issue, i.e.
The elders’ die-hard attitude and desire in seeking answers from their peers in the Punjab to problems they face in the West,
The first heading is the lack of outward looking activities by the Sikh ‘leaders’.
The factors here include:
1. Factionalism based on ‘Jathebandis’ , the anti-Sikh practices such as ‘caste’ based groupings, gender discrimination and taking advantage of the deference to age by those who are younger than them. All of this denies sufficient effort in raising if not promoting awareness of the unique and distinct separate Sikh identity to that which the information hungry media – an opportunity lost in promoting links with the media.
2. The abject failure in accepting that age alone does not qualify one to be a ‘leader’ but it only helps if some wisdom was gained along the way in getting to their age. It is assumed that competency is automatic and only comes with age. The fact that many who hold positions of ‘power’ within the Sikh community somehow are unable to divorce their personal ego nurturing actions from the responsibility that comes with the positions they hold. As a result, when something good has happened, people who were once thought to be dead suddenly come out of nowhere for the photo opportunity but are nowhere to be seen when things are not so good or very bad – in such instances, it is always someone else’s fault and communication skills are suddenly ‘missing’ – an opportunity lost in promoting links with the media.
3. The (Sikh) community, as per it’s non evangelical ethos does little to promote the positive role models and achievements from within – Even Fauja Singh has had very little focused support from most Gurdwaras. This is not saying that he has not been welcomed wherever he has gone, but there has not been the proactive support such an icon would attract if he had been of another faith or nationality. For example, very few Sikhs came out to line the route when he carried the Olympic Torch for the Athens Games even though he was given the most prestigious section of the relay route by the organisers – an opportunity lost in promoting links with the media.
4. Despite numerous opportunities to get media savvy and the need to become accessible when non-Sikhs make enquiries, Gurdwaras and many other Sikh institutions shy away from appointing a media spokesperson for their organisation who is equipped with relevant skills or data or available when required – an opportunity lost in promoting links with the media.
The second heading is the reluctance to learn attitude of some – but influential sections of the media.
Here, the factors include:
1. Lumping anyone who looks different into one generic group regardless of the differences between them – example was the photo of the Sikh man arrested after 9/11 – just because he had a turban and a beard – as did Osama Bin Laden – the media never did apologise to the Sikh community the ‘labelling’ that one picture stuck on it.
2. Good or bad, whenever there is a large gathering, the media focuses on the Sikhs as they stick out – we are very photogenic – if the event is good, the Sikh appearance is trivialised, if the event is bad, the Sikhs get it in the neck so to speak.
3. The media, together with other public agencies, wrongly assumes that the Sikh community is structured in the same lines as the Ecumenical Church or Government Departments – wrong – Every Sikh is equal and wants to be an individual/leader – so why always just go to the ‘usual suspects’ who quite often are either no longer in touch with grassroots feelings or accepted as ‘leaders’ in the traditional Max Weber sense. I am not being negative about the media here but some within it (the media) who almost look for the divisions and if they cannot find any, they are suspected of creating them in order to make the item newsworthy.
Overall, methinks there is much to be done by both sides – the Sikhs and the media to have a clearer understanding of each other.
I think the media is a very powerful institution for it not just reports news, it is capable of creating it – Sikhs need to learn to work with it not shun it or against it.
I trust I have given my ‘take’ on the matter.