This feature brings us relevant comment and advice from our communications conference in 'Com', the North European electronic mail system.
The first letter was received only two days before the tragic 'end' of the Waco siege. The other letters came after the fateful 19 April.
Receiver: ICE (ISKCON Communications Europe)
San Diego, California, USA
13 April 1993
Waco is not 'over'. Some naively thought it would end at Easter. I've been following most ICE comments on it since they began. In my judgement there's some important lessons to learn from this continuing incident.
The greatest eye-opener for me was how vulnerable we still are in our present state of having such a debilitated reputation. Although events of the magnitude of Jonestown and Waco may only happen once in a decade, they will occur again and again. Religious fanatics will commit atrocities and we'll be lumped in with them, because our most active enemies will exploit the situation.
I think that for the most part we have been handling the present Waco situation well. Also, it has been obvious throughout this drama that ISKCON's reputation is far better in some sectors than in others. The greatest lesson for me was that had we developed our reputation properly according to tested methods of communication, especially media relations, we simply would not have been identified with this tragedy which had nothing whatever to do with us.
(As to how effective proactive communications and a good reputation
Dateline: Detroit (USA)
A local TV reporter phones the temple. She talks with Bhusaya prabhu, saying she wants to 'do a story' on ISKCON, and would be relating it to the Waco story. Bhusaya politely informs her that our movement was doing a lot of charitable work in the community, had a large congregation (including many ethnic Hindus), had done a lot of community work, and was an ancient and major faith. He also politely says that he didn't think ISKCON had any part to play in a story about Waco. He suggests that she discuss her idea with her colleagues and get back to him.
About four hours later she phones him and starts the conversation by saying, 'Mr Dickmeyer, I am very sorry. I owe you an apology.' She then goes on to say that she didn't know ISKCON was actually a real religion with a big following and all the good work it was doing in Detroit. Her colleagues, she says, fully supported what Bhusaya couldn't fully convince her of in their earlier conversation. She ends by saying that she had decided not to include ISKCON in her story on Waco.
In Detroit where ISKCON does have an unusually good reputation, it has become traditional wisdom not to include the Hare Krsnas in the Waco story. This is the kind of appreciation for Srila Prabhupada's movement we would like to see ISKCON obtain all over the world. When the public sees ISKCON as improving the quality of life, their attitudes and behaviour towards us will change.
I'd like to take this opportunity to remind you about the 'universal mission statement' crafted by IC and some communications professionals, which I'm convinced can be subtly woven into all our preaching:
The Hare Krsna Movement benefits the individual and society by offering practical solutions to today's material and spiritual problems. These problems include (choose as appropriate):
Obviously we have to be accepted, but we need to go beyond acceptance and be known as a movement that has spiritual perspectives on all the issues of the day and can even help solve some of the major problems of the world. In short, ISKCON benefits society, and its volunteers work tirelessly toward that end. The activities Saunaka Rsi prabhu is helping plan and organise are essential to this process.
I thought that the comments on television posture by Dyanakunda, Premarnava, et al, were interesting and, for the most part, on the mark. One disputed point was sitting posture. Pundits in the field, if we can rightly call them that, have reached a consensus that most interviewees should sit erect so as to look alert and gesture with their hands, and even exaggerate facial expressions so as to engage viewers. For already known persons, however, such as celebrities or dignitaries, the laid-back, open-jacket, leaning-back posture is sometimes more appropriate because these people will already have the audience's attention by their reputation and most of them are seasoned veterans at public speaking -actors or actresses. They know how to attract attention and get their messages across in many subtle ways that average people cannot command.
Many media relations and communications techniques are systematic and have been tested for years. You can learn them. So why try to reinvent the wheel?
In this connection I'd like to invite any of you who are interested to attend this year's Kartika IC course 'communications workshops', in which we will include 'on camera' training with Narasimhananda of ITV. The course will also include practical photography with photography expert Kurma Rupa, a writing course with Drutakarma, 'Food for Life' with Priyavrata, and more .
Saunaka Rsi and Visnu Murti will also provide you with tapes of the IC presentation on the media made by Anuttama Dasa together with other IC materials, as well as other presentations made at the various seminars in Radhadesh.
Getting back to Waco, most of us at ICE realised that the reactions were not all bad, as evidenced by some decent coverage in Sweden and England. Newsweek mentioned 'Krsna consciousness' in the lead paragraph on its breaking story on Waco on 15 March, lumping us in with witches, crazies, etc. - very bad. However, in its 5 April edition, the same magazine printed what amounted to an apology on the letters page. In a prominent box at the top of page 12 under the headline, 'Mail Call: What's a Cult?', the editors wrote, 'A defender of Krsna consciousness, meanwhile, faulted us for associating a tradition that espouses vegetarianism, chastity and charity, with the likes of witches' covens.' Of course it would have been far better had ISKCON had not been mentioned at all in the breaking story. But this back-peddling is an indication that the media as whole - and this appears to be a general phenomenon worldwide - have not drawn battle lines against us. In general, one might say, they're abysmally ignorant about us, even, sad to say, in India.
I noticed - I think in a comment by Sukrita prabhu - mention of the possibility that the FBI might have become a bit 'trigger happy', having been inflamed by the anti-cult movement which left no stone unturned to exploit the situation to their advantage. This may well be true, but also it may not be. We'll probably never know. We can only speculate. So I agree with the comment that it would be dangerous to blame the anti-cult movement for this incident without any clear-cut, factual knowledge. Even then, it might be wholly inadvisable to take such a tact.
Until we have achieved at least a modicum of respect and sraddha from the general public, the remainder of the Waco saga and other cult incidents that might arise in future, could again drag us into murky media waters. Nonetheless those of us who are trained, expert, or inspired enough, can practise the art of turning such prominence into an opportunity to preach and spread Krsna consciousness. But state-of-the-art communication is to build a reputation and sraddha to a point where the media won't even think about us when these things happen. Then we can utilise the time to get on with the proactive work of getting our messages across.
We still have a lot to do and a long way to go.
San Diego, California, USA
19 April 1993
The following message was faxed to most North American temples at approximately 22:00 hours California time, 19 April, 1993. They also received a copy of my last Com message on Free Forum. Please feel free to use this information in the way you see fit. About eighty people have died in the Waco debacle, so the anti-cult movement will have a heyday. It will go on for at least several more days with high intensity media coverage. So stay closely tuned, as we may well be lumped in.
The tragic mass suicide/deaths in Waco, Texas Monday, 19 April, 1993 will again draw local, national and international media attention on the issue of cults, religious violence, the legitimacy and/or dangerousness of non-mainstream religions, etc.
Up-to-date information at the time of this being put on Com is that seventy-eight members of David Koresh's spin-off group of the Davidians (itself a spin-off of the Seventh Day Adventist Christian group) are dead in what seems to be a mass suicide in Waco, Texas, USA.
An official statement from ISKCON was distributed by professional wire services to hundreds of media outlets from our national offices in Denver and San Diego. A copy of that statement was put on Com earlier.
Please note: you may be contacted by the media for a statement about Waco. You should be familiar with the situation and our response.
It is advised that you monitor your local and national media, especially TV and newspapers, for a few days in case we need to respond to their lumping us in.
We hope that the whole unfortunate incident will blow over and no-one will try to link the Hare Krsnas with this crazy and violent Christian group. But that is unlikely. Therefore, we must be prepared in case problems develop.
Our professional communication consultants, Mukunda Maharaja and myself, have established the following four points as critical elements in any response you make to the media. Please remember spontaneity does not work in media work. A good communicator knows what he/she want to say before they meet the press.
1. This very sad incident is not the result of a religious problem. This is a social problem. Everywhere there is violence.
It's in the schools, on the streets, in the police departments (the continuing Rodney King incident in the US, for instance), in the family, everywhere. Just because the Waco people say they were religious doesn't mean this is a religious problem.
2. The Hare Krsna religion is a five thousand year old monotheistic faith within the broader Hindu tradition. What was done by this obscure deviant Christian group has no bearing whatsoever on our ancient religion. On the contrary, the Hare Krsna religion is making significant contributions towards improving the quality of life or millions of people.
For example, our Food for Life programme has fed twenty million meals to needy and homeless people all over the world including Moscow, and Sarajevo. The families of our large congregation, fifty million of which are Asian Indian worldwide, are spiritually benefited by our temples. We teach people to give up alcohol and drugs, major sources of social violence and strife, and to live simple, God-centred lives.
No-one should falsely inflame bigotry and prejudice against legitimate and innocent ethnic and religious minorities that have no connection whatsoever with the Waco group as a result of this sad situation.
You can draw additional ideas from our media statement as well.
Remember, we do not want to approach the media about this. Best if the whole sordid affair just goes away. But if they call us we must respond. Remember, if they do call, 'no comment' is perceived as 'guilty as charged'.
If there is some local negative coverage, it is best to contact your national or regional Communications Director for advice on how to proceed.
These things are delicate to deal with. In many situations once a negative story is run, it's best not to respond at all because it often just reaffirms the negative image. Sometimes, however, depending on the local situation, different means may be taken.
Finally, Mukunda Maharaja and myself are monitoring the situation and are available to assist you at any time. For urgent events call me at my office at (303) 333-6840, home at (303) 321-0862, or fax at (303) 321-9052. Please note that the fax is at home and I may not notice a fax coming in during the daytime.
Mukunda Maharaja can be reached at (619) 272-8334 or fax at (619) 483-6068.
Please keep a close eye on these events as they unfold and keep us notified of events.
North American Communications Director
As the sad and harrowing final chapter of the Waco, Texas ordeal unfolds, we urgently request you, in the rush to provide coverage, please avoid stirring up ethnic and religious bigotry and hatred against legitimate religious traditions in the United States.
The Hare Krsna religion and its congregation - fifty per cent of whom are Asian Indian immigrants who have practised our way of worship for generations in India - do not deserve to be mentioned in the same story or shown in the same video file with a deviant Christian sect which has caused violent harm to so many.
Ours is a five thousand year old monotheistic religion within the Hindu tradition. We are endeavouring to improve the quality of life for millions of people worldwide through programmes like 'Hare Krsna Food for Life' which has fed over twenty million meals to the needy and homeless in cities like Philadelphia. Moscow and Sarajevo.
Richard C. Dujardin, First Vice President of the Religion Newswriter's Association, stated at last weekend's convention of the Religious Public Relations Council in New York City that the Waco debacle was a vivid example of the media's failure to accurately report religious stories and instead simply 'dust off old files' and throw out unfounded and inaccurate 'cult stories'. The Hare Krsna movement is not a cult, but an ancient, time-tested religious tradition.
Children of many different religious and ethnic minorities will go to school tomorrow and face schoolmates whose view of them and their religious heritage will be shaped by the manner in which your organisation covers this news item over the next few days.
Please stick the facts of the story. Please don't inflame fear and prejudice against innocent people. The pain of Waco is sufficient sorrow.
North American Communications Director
International Society for Krsna Consciousness