Expect the unexpected in Central Asia

How one PR pro from Singapore is trying to change the culture of reporting in the remote mountain republics

Nisar Keshvani speaking to members of the press at the site of the University of Central Asia in Kyrgystan

As a teenager, I spent a month in Bangladesh. It was one of my first solo journeys and it left a lasting impression. It was an immensely enriching cultural experience, which has resonated in my professional life.

Any seasoned traveler is unfazed by the discomforts and mishaps of a new place – pollution, massive traffic jams, a roundabout taxi journey, pick pocketing, just to name a few. As I immersed myself in my new environment, my local friends introduced me to the term "hota hai" - Hindi for "it happens". Every adventure, mishap, or surprise was laughed over, and tossed out of the window with a hota hai. "Expect the unexpected," they educated me.

In my four years working in Central Asia’s public relations and media industry, leading communications at the University of Central Asia in Tajikistan, Kyrgyz Republic and Kazakhstan, I’ve certainly learnt a thing or two about the unexpected.

Press release versus news stories

Any PR professional will tell you, a good news release must have the 5Ws and 1H (what, who, why, when, where and how). There should be factual information, written from the organisational perspective with key corporate messages. Very quickly, I realised that while the basics are universal, in Central Asia, English online media lean towards a news wire function. They publish press releases (either in full or edited), mostly staying true to the original language. So I put on my journalist hat and started churning out releases, news style. Why not? If it is going to be published, I thought, I might as well switch gears and try to impact the reporting culture. The upside: I now notice that journalists who regularly write about us have evolved in their writing style.

Cultivating relationships

In most post-Soviet states, while each country has its national language, Russian remains the connecting lingua franca. Despite living in the region for several years, I am embarrassed to admit, I can still only string together a few street phrases. Colleagues often console me, saying Russian is one of the hardest languages to learn. With a trusty interpreter, this hasn’t stopped me from participating in countless meetings with press secretaries, government officials, stakeholders, partners, media and community members. Listening, observing and asking questions, I can understand a conversation or two. When all is said and done, there’s a basic human impetus at work – striking a chord and cultivating relationships. Within the first five minutes, I try to connect with my counterpart, understand them, and do what I can to move our common agenda forward. Sometimes it takes longer, but we always get there.

Lost and found in translation

What continuously baffled me in face-to-face meetings was how it would take me perhaps a minute or two to make a pertinent point, but it would take the translator less than half that time. It turns out that while English has evolved over time, incorporating components of other languages, Russian has not. The English vocabulary has about one million words, but Russian only 150,000. Despite this, the point is often understood. It’s quite a different story (literally!) when it comes to the written word. More often than not, the English to Russian word count increases by 30-50 percent. The reason is also logical; the Russian language necessitates describing a context to clarify information. Hence, we frequently battle for space. What would fit in an English two page spread, takes a fraction more. When absolutely constrained, this forces us to write judiciously. That is not always a bad thing.

Pay per use

When I first arrived, I was surprised to find the local media expecting remuneration for coverage. Being international, we were perceived as corporate. However, as a non-profit higher education institution, this went against our philosophy. Media in Central Asia is poorly compensated and over time, I understood the motivation. They are only trying to keep the media outlet sustainable.

The remedy was two-fold; first to educate the media on our ambitions (The University of Central Asia aims to improve the quality of life of the people of Central Asia through high quality education) and second, to engage them in that process. These reporters have few opportunities for international exposure or professional development. Travel opportunities even their own home country and the region are few and far between.  So whenever possible, I tried to offer the reporters such educational opportunities; interviews with visiting professors, visits to witness the impact of our remote projects, access to our libraries and constantly sharing our best practices, latest educational materials and research. It took some persuasion and understanding, but slowly but surely we began to turn the reporting culture around.

The University of Central Asia now averages 250 media mentions in Central Asian press, annually (without any remuneration, of course!).A recent high profile event resulted in almost 100 media mentions over just three days (again, without remuneration).

Cultural idiosyncracies aside, these lessons from Central Asia can be applied globally. I never forget the concept of Hota hai. It has become the mantra of my life. Expect the unexpected. It happens . But there is always an answer to any curveball that life tosses you.

Go ahead, try it, you never know what you’ll discover.

Nisar Keshvani founded and runs the Communications Department at the University of Central Asia. The opinion expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the University of Central Asia 


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