Last week, Charudatta Deshpande, head of corporate communications at Tata Steel, committed suicide. The incident, which by and large went under reported in newspapers, has now come into focus after a few of his friends took up issue with the Tata management.
According to media reports, ICICI executive director Ram Kumar, a former colleague of Charudatta, wrote to the Tata management asking them to investigate the death.
According to this article, he has “written to the Tatas on the 'disgraceful' manner in which Deshpande’s services had been terminated, and the 'untold pressure and threat at Jamshedpur' in the weeks preceding his death”.
“From whatever evidence we have gathered until now on the back of conversations with Charudatta in the weeks leading to his demise, and with those who knew him closely, Charu was placed under enormous stress and subjected to harassment by officials at Tata Steel,” the letter has said.
As per media reports, the ordeal of Charudatta started after Forbes India published a report titled Remoulding Tata Steel, which dealt with the challenges the group faced.
After the report was published, Charudatta had told Forbes India journalists that some of the Tata Steel officials were harassing him for “leaking” sensitive information about the company to the media.
The letters from Ram Kumar and the editors have prompted the Tata management to set up a panel to look into the circumstances that led Charudatta to take the drastic step. The police is also investigating the matter.
The tragic incident has, however, kicked off a debate on the mounting stress on public relations personnel.
“When negative media reports happen, corporate brass, used to constant brown-nosing, usually respond with rage, and the first targets of their rage are the PR guys,” this obit in the Mint on Charudatta quotes from a posting on his Facebook page.
“This time around, the stakes were greater, the rage extreme, and the victim a warm, generous and decent human being,” it said.
Another report in the Business Standard said the PR sector deals with irrational expectations.
According to Jitendra Bhrgava, who was Air India’s corporate communications, in the public sector tactics like holding back promotions etc are used against PR. In the private sector, meanwhile, PR executive may be pressured to “use any kind of ethical or unethical resource to win over a journalist”.
But the question is how fair is this, given there is no way a PR person can stop a negative story from getting published.
“If the news is correct and its negative, to say a PR professional can control a story is wrong,” a PR professional has been quoted as saying in the story. And the correct information has to be disseminated to the public.
In other words, the pressure on a PR, who is a company’s interface with the media, actually points to the stress on the company itself.
Coming back to Tata Steel, it is widely known that the company is under tremendous stress ever since its expensive acquisition of Corus. It is this stress that indirectly resulted in the tragic death of Charudatta.
But, it also speaks volumes about the stress on other executives and lower rung staff of the company.
A report in the Times of India today rightly points out companies need to empathise with the staff, who are under stress, especially in these times when the economy is not doing well and the stress is only expected to mount.
It is the responsibility of the Tata management to ensure a transparent and independent probe into Charudatta’s suicide. Let us hope justice will be delivered.