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Storyboard18 | Wild-West style PR tactics of Bhavish Aggarwal: What's the big idea?

Like politicians, corporate CXOs have discovered the power of polarization as a way to attract attention and audiences.

January 30, 2022 / 03:35 PM IST
OLA Electric founder Bhavish Aggarwal.

OLA Electric founder Bhavish Aggarwal.

On January 25, 2022, Ola's founder and CEO Bhavish Aggarwal, shared the famous 'Burnol meme' along with a hashtag #petrolmedia on Twitter.

It was directed at veteran automobile industry journalist Hormazd Sorabjee because he had commented on Bhavish's earlier, mysterious tweet that had the digital rendition of what seems like an Ola-branded electric car along with the caption, 'Can you guys keep a secret?' (though it's obvious that Bhavish Aggarwal does not want you to keep that a secret).

Hormazd's tweet on top of Bhavish's tease was this: "Don't jump before you can barely crawl! Such ‘secrets’ may be good for valuation but not for @OlaElectric’s credibility. Scooter needs to be sorted out first, before even thinking cars which is a completely different ball game that can’t be won with cash alone."

"Can you guys keep a secret?" Bhavish  Aggarwal tweeted.

To understand why Hormazd tweeted that, it may be useful to observe the news headlines about Ola Electric since Bhavish announced the launch of the electric scooter on August 15, 2021. Here are the relevant headlines from Moneycontrol.

Petrol & Diesel Rates Yesterday

Friday, 24th March, 2023

Petrol Rate in Mumbai Yesterday

  • Current Petrol Price Per Litre

Friday, 24th March, 2023

Diesel Rate in Mumbai Yesterday

  • Current Petrol Price Per Litre

August 15, 2021: Ola launches electric scooter. Founder Bhavish Aggarwal calls it the best ever made

September 7, 2021: Ola Electric opens purchase of S1 scooters on eve of World EV Day, EMI starts at Rs 2,999

September 8, 2021: Technical glitch hits Ola Electric’s online sale of electric scooters

September 17, 2021: Ola says it sold Rs 1,100 crore of electric scooters in two-day sale

October 20, 2021: On track to make timely deliveries of Ola S1 and S1 Pro: Varun Dubey, CMO, Ola Electric

October 31, 2021: Ola Electric postpones purchase window for new scooter orders to December 16

November 21, 2021: Ola Electric again delays delivery of scooters on chipset supply snag

December 14, 2021: After a two-month delay, Ola to begin delivery of electric scooters today

December 24, 2021: After delayed deliveries, Ola Electric customers run into fresh issues

December 30, 2021: Ola Electric says it is upgrading S1 customers to the S1 Pro. What’s the catch?

January 15, 2022: Ola Electric to open final payment window for scooter buyers on January 21

January 18, 2022: Is Ola Electric halting production of the S1 scooter?

As you can see, the sentiment expressed by Hormazd is not out of place or even uncommon - it is fairly obvious and eventual given the trajectory of Ola’s electric scooter roll-out.

There are tons of complaints and rants about Ola’s promised deliveries being disrupted multiple times with no reasons forthcoming all over the internet. And this is just the people who volunteered to share their annoyance vocally online.

Hormazd’s larger point was very simple - get your existing business right (electric scooters) before the next leap (electric cars). It’s not as if he had a personal grudge against EV makers that Bhavish had to lob the ‘petrol media’ ad hominem attack at him.

Hormazd himself has gleefully tweeted about both Ola’s electric scooter business, and also the proposed electric car venture!

This is just a small indicator that no one wishes that Ola or Bhavish fail. Ola’s EV ambitions are an incredibly proud moment for India and we all want the brand to succeed.

But consider how many ways Bhavish could have reacted to Hormazd's tweet.

Option 1: Humility

"I'm sorry you feel this way, Hormazd. We're on track with our delivery schedules after the initial glitches. You'll see them very soon!"

Option 2: Confidence

"Our plans are intact, and I'm confident we will smoothen our scooter delivery soon too. As for the 'secret', we'll soon have a conversation about it! :)"

Option 3: Philosophical

"Glitches are part of life. In ambitious, game-changing technologies, even more so! I wouldn't let that interfere with our ambition :)"

Option 4: Name-calling + abrasive meme

How Bhavish eventually responded.

To be sure, what Bhavish did is not illegal; just improper. It simply reflects in a particular way about his leadership style and communication skills. One that seems to be in demand—and in vogue—these days, courtesy Elon Musk.

In a world where we think of leaving online reviews of products we buy or restaurants we go to only when it fits either of the two extremes - mind-blowing or horrendous - opinions too garner attention when they pander to either end of the spectrum.

Most politicians have understood the power of polarization already, and it's no wonder corporate CXOs, too, have discovered its power as a way to attract an audience.

Corporate communications in an earlier, calmer time meant that spokespersons actively steered people to think positively about the organization.

Now, it has come to 'Love us, or hate us, but do not be indifferent to what we communicate'!

To avoid 'indifference' as a reaction, it now seems acceptable to sacrifice quaint virtues like civility and decency, and 'perform' to evoke a strong reaction.

What this trend misses is something obvious: negativity breeds negativity. When you behave brashly, your audience would find it gleefully appropriate to behave the same way with you when your chips are down. This basic human behaviour may have larger ramifications when spearheaded by a CXO since the company is not just the CXO but a lot of people who come together.

Humility and level-headedness are conscious choices, particularly when communicating in front of the public. They may not garner as much attention as a polarizing, ad hominem retort, but they may get a lot more silent people on your side with a reaction that they may not articulate in public: "Oh! He seems well-meaning... deserves a chance!"

The vocal reactions, comments, and shares we see online are only the tip of the iceberg.

It's the silent, opinion-forming larger public—below the sea, to extend the iceberg example—that usually matters more from a corporate reputation perspective.

Karthik Srinivasan is a communications strategy consultant and author of 'Be Social: Building Brand YOU Online'. Views expressed are personal.