Communication Principles for ISKCON in the Nineties

Anuttama Dasa

n this article I would like to talk about communication principles for preaching in the nineties.� First, I will give an overview of utilising communication techniques in our missionary work and how it will influence each of our preaching functions.� Second, I will reveal some techniques for specifically dealing with the media.�����

Before discussing communications principles, I want to briefly touch upon the doubts some may have regarding the relevance of this topic. The ISKCON Communications Department have hired professional consultants, from whom we have learned some useful techniques. Some of you may think, "Why do we need to go to non-devotees and ask them how to spread Krsna consciousness? Prabhupada said if you just distribute books everything will happen. Purity is the force. Preaching is the essence. Why do we need to use "material formulae?"'� Indeed, there was a long-term discussion about this amongst devotees in the America.�����

In response, I always think of the example of when Srila Prabhupada in Mayapur; many of you may be familiar with this story. While the first building was being constructed Prabhupada was staying in a small straw hut, his bhajan kutir. He pointed to this hut one day and said, 'Actually where we are now, this is the mode of goodness, this is transcendental.'� Then he pointed to the building that was taking so much time and money to construct. 'This building,' he stated, 'is raja guna, it is the mode of passion. But if we sit in the mode of goodness in this hut, who will come and hear us?� No one. Therefore, we are constructing this big beautiful building so that many people will come.' Prabhupada was expert in following in the footsteps of Bhaktivinode Thakura and Bhaktisiddhanta, both of whom were famous for using everything material in Krsna's service.� In my view, communication techniques and how they can help in our preaching, also fall into that category. Just as I'm using this microphone to communicate to you, in the same way we're using subtle principles to ask, 'How do media people think?� How do non-devotees perceive us?' We are working towards understanding and applying these principles, with the ultimate purpose of helping people to appreciate and benefit from what the Hare Krsna movement has to offer.������������

Everything we do is communications

This is a simple idea, but a very critical one. Everything we do in our temples, all our interactions, involve communicating with people. This is how we develop relationships with the public.� How we answer the telephone, our personal appearance and the way we are perceived by the public on harinama, are all significant.� Do you recall how, years ago, devotees would wear mismatched socks and dhotis? We may not remember, but the public does. The qualities that devotees manifest in their relationships with other people are extremely important.� If we don't understand and apply this principle, it can endanger our mission. To give an example: a few years ago I flew back from India to America with one of ISKCON's most successful book distributors.� He went out every day to distribute Srila Prabhupada's books, interacted with the public and tried to get people to appreciate Krsna consciousness.� He occupied an aisle seat and during the eight hour flight the attendant constantly brought him soft drinks, pillows, etc., for which he didn't say 'please' or 'thank you' once! I could see from her face that the next time a devotee offered her a book at an airport or on the street, it would be refused. Why? Because she had gained a first-hand impression of what the Hare Krsnas are like. This is going to prevent her from being able to appreciate and take the books we're offering.� She won't want to visit the temple because she thinks, 'I already know what Hare Krsna is all about. I met those people on an aeroplane. They're nasty. What do I need to read a book for? You're giving me a book about how to be godly.� Well, that guy wasn't godly.'������� Another important, yet overlooked means of communication, is the telephone. We are trying to encourage people to come to the temple, yet often when we answer the telephone we're in such a hurry and so impolite that people feel unwelcome.

If we are conscious of how all our activities are avenues of communication, it has many positive results. For example, one Christmas I went to distribute books at Denver airport for a few days. We have a very nice Food For Life programme in Denver. It's the second biggest in the States, providing approximately 2 500 meals a week, and is becoming well known and appreciated by the public. At the airport I approached a young couple and offered them both a Bhagavad-gita. The man kept walking but the woman stopped.� The man was trying to pull her away; he wasn't inimical, but was in a hurry and didn't want her to take the book.� She was curious so I explained a little about the Bhagavad-gita.� I asked her for a donation and explained that we used the money to print books and fund a programme to feed thousands of people in the city.� She asked, 'Is that Food For Life?' I replied it was.� She then asked, "Do you have a truck that goes around town?' I said we did. She became very excited, 'I've seen that truck. That's a beautiful truck! She dipped into her purse and pulled out ten dollars; she was blissful and her boyfriend was in shock.� So it is a fact. Everything we do affects our ability to preach, and all the different activities we undertake interrelate with each other.�����

The underlying principle is that whatever we do makes a lasting impression; every exchange we have is important; every person we deal with is important. We need to educate all devotees that everything we do - every time we have an interaction with the public, every time someone visits our temples and notices the cleanliness (or the mess) - impacts our missionary work.

Accounting for others' needs, concerns and interests

The second communication principle is the importance of addressing the needs, concerns and interests of others If we try to explain our Food for Life Project, we may feel within our own hearts that the most significant thing about it is that it tastes wonderful because the saliva of Sri Krsna is mixed in with it. That's a very transcendental vision. However, when you offer such food to a reporter or someone who is visiting the temple for the first time, and they naturally want to know what it is, do you share your realisation with them?� It should be remembered that our vision may have a different effect on them than it does on us.� The way we see the world and the way other people see it is different. As Jesus said, 'Live in the world, but you don't have to be of the world.'� We need to learn that it is possible to understand other people's viewpoints without necessarily having to share them.

When you distribute books, or engage in other preaching activities, you have to relate to other people. You need to what their individuals needs, concerns and interests are. This is especially true with the media. A reporter has a job to do and people to answer to, most notably his editor and his viewing or reading public. We therefore need to present our news releases and conferences in a manner that is both useful and interesting to the media.� Grammatical correctness, although important, is not the only factor we should consider. In order to attract interest, we must communicate in terms of the concerns of the media and their audience.� For example, when speaking on the radio, not only do you have to address the interviewer but you also have to keep in mind the type of person who may be listening.� Is it a Wednesday morning programme, when older people and housewives are at home, or is it an evening show with a more diverse audience?� We always have to think in those terms, otherwise we may think we presented wonderful philosophy, but if we didn't express ourselves in a way others can understand then we didn't really succeed in getting our message across. We recently undertook a survey in America, where we phoned a dozen newspapers and asked them three or four questions in order to ascertain their attitude towards the Hare Krsnas. On the basis of that information, we were able to decide how to approach these people.� Another example of researching your audience is that when advertising events, we often send out two different press releases; one to the Western media, and another to the Asian papers (we have a large Indian population in America). It's the same event, but we use different terminology for the New York Times than we do for the India Times, because their perceptions of it will differ. Again, the example of Srila Prabhupada comes to mind: A female reporter wearing a short dress asked Prabhupada: 'Why do you shave your heads?' Prabhupada replied: 'Better a cool head and warm legs.' Everybody laughed, and the point was made.� She was probably a little embarrassed but it was expertly done; Prabhupada spoke in a way she could understand.

Communication clutter

We now move on to a third principle called communications clutter. A statistical analysis has been carried out in America, which concluded that the average person receives eighteen thousand different messages per day.� That's one reason why when people go to bed at night they can't sleep or suffer from headaches; they are bombarded with so much information.� Sometimes we may call up a reporter and say, 'Come by for Janmastami.'or send a press release that says we're holding a big event with hundreds of people attending.� If they don't turn up, immediately we think, 'These guys are demons. They didn't come to our event.� Why don't they understand how important it is?' We have to remember that their lives are cluttered. The average newspaper in America receives two thousand news releases a day. That's a lot of paper competing for attention.��

Sometimes my mail piles up so much I just want to take the whole lot and throw it away.� I keep a pile of things I would like to read but when it gets too overwhelming, I throw it away and start again. In the same way, reporters get more news releases than they can handle. If they don't like the look of the envelope they'll bin it; if they open it up and it's not written neatly, they'll bin it; if they can't relate to what's being said, they'll bin it. Why? Because they're completely overwhelmed with information. So when we deal with the media, we have to keep it very simple.�������

We had a situation recently where a devotee had some problem with the ISKCON farm on which he was living, moved away and became very offensive. He subsequently went to the media in an attempt to embarrass the farm community and on the basis of his efforts, one newspaper wrote a news article alleging animal abuse.� It was completely blown out of proportion, but one of the papers picked it up. A devotee from the farm called me for advice, and told me, 'We've already written a letter to the editor.'� I asked him what it said and he replied, 'It's five pages long, let me read it to you.'� I told him, "Well, to tell you the truth, you can do the same thing for me that the editor is going to do: throw it in the trash. They're not going to read it - it's too long.' When writing a letter, an introduction followed directly by three main points or arguments is sufficient. All that needed to be said in this case was, "You're wrong on these three points and we'd like make your readers aware of this."� If a letter contains; too much information, it won't get printed.

The same rules applies to interviews: you should have three specific points you want to get across. I've had many experiences where a reporter asks dozens of questions during a thirty minute interview, which are eventually condensed into about three paragraphs or a few minutes on the radio or television. Sometimes all that is reported is that we put mud on our foreheads, the men wear dresses and the ladies seem shy.� Yet I told the reporter so many things: that Krsna plays a flute; that ISKCON is saving the world.� Why didn't those things end up in the article or news report?� Because 1) everything we do is communication, 2) they're too cluttered, and 3) I didn't stress the three most important points I wanted to make. In other words, while I was talking about how Krsna is blue and plays a flute, the reporter was noticing the holes in my socks!������� There is a book titled How to Meet the Press by Jack Hilton who's an expert at TV interviews, especially for tough shows like Sixty Minutes where they try to shake you up.� His advice is: tell it, tell it again and tell it. Decide what your three main points are ahead of time. Then tell your three points and make the point again.� When a reporter asks you a question, answer it in a way that brings out the points you want to make. Depending on who the audience is and what you're trying to accomplish, keep going back to these three main points.� That doesn't mean you don't answer their questions. It doesn't mean that if they ask, 'What's that stuff on your forehead?' you respond with, 'ISKCON is a bona-fide religion.' If you do that they'll think you're crazy.� However, you can respond like this: 'In our religion, which goes back thousands of years in India, we understand the body is a temple of God.� These markings on my body denote that the body is a temple.' In this way, you've answered the question and simultaneously made some of your points.

This cannot be stressed enough. When you go into an interview, you should always have your three points in mind. A reporter may come to do a story about how wonderful Radhadesh is or an expos� on the Hare Krsnas because he/she doesn't like us. They may even think, 'I don't know anything but I want an interesting story.' Whatever the motive, they will have a specific purpose in meeting with us so we shouldn't think, 'Oh well, whatever happens will happen.'� We must also go into the interview with a purpose: we're aware of their audience and we want to get our message across in a way they'll understand.�����

We must never forget that the media is very powerful.� When you give a lecture, perhaps one or two hundred people are listening, but an article in a major newspaper may be read by a million people and a television interview seen by ten million!� Certainly, we're talking about interacting with very large numbers of people, so our relations with the media must be developed very carefully and expertly.

Delivered as a lecture at the Fourth European Communications Seminar, January 1993, RadhadeshBelgium.