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A mild-mannered PR person working for the Tatas hanged himself recently. How high are the stakes for companies?
A rather chilling blog post, reproducing a letter from nine journalists (including the Forbes India ex-editor and president of the Press Club of Mumbai) to Ratan Tata and Cyrus Mistry, chairman of the Tata group, has sent shock waves among journalists. After all, it involves India’s most blue-chip group and the suicide of Charudatta Deshpande, a former journalist colleague, who successfully switched to PR over a decade ago.
The mild-mannered Charu (as he was known) joined Tata Steel a year ago after a long stint with ICICI Bank and Mahindra & Mahindra. He had resigned from TISCO a month before his suicide on 28th June. The letter says that Charu was accused of ‘leaking’ confidential documents to journalists for a Cover Story titled “Remoulding Tata Steel”; that he was confined under virtual ‘house arrest’ for two weeks in Jamshedpur and repeatedly threatened. The journalists allege that there was a concerted attempt by “Tata Steel officials and the PR agency to pass off his death as a heart attack, and not a suicide.”
Interestingly, there seems nothing in the Forbes Cover Story to warrant such an extreme reaction from the Tatas. Chairman Cyrus Mistry has responded to the journalists’ request to ‘institute a proper inquiry’ and assured that he has put in place an ‘appropriate mechanism’ to look into their allegations and take necessary action. But this is clearly a test for the new chairman.
Ratan Tata was always hypersensitive to media criticism, a fact that even the Tata group’s high-profile lobbyist Niira Radia is heard acknowledging in a leaked phone conversation. Cyrus Mistry is very low profile and little is known about him as a person.
The Tatas have not exactly covered themselves in glory in the 2G scam and will be subject to close media scrutiny in the future too. Cyrus Mistry’s actions in connection with Charu’s suicide will indicate whether the Tatas are now even more paranoid about the media. Or will they make amends after what happened with Charu—if it was a tragic aberration—by turning more open and practical about negative publicity or criticism, when warranted.