Chinese whispers…and the ‘Theranja Aal syndrome’

An Instagram post that read “Amazing #orientalcuisine thanks to @chef….” with a picture of some awesome looking food, from a place called ‘Hello Panda’ got my mouth watering. A few days later, I was asked if I wanted to order anything special. Up popped that delicious image and out came the answer, “yes I want food from Hello Panda”.

I am normally the kind of guy who is happy to go with the flow, open to trying out different cuisines and not too fussed about where the order is from. However, since lockdown, we have been very careful. Everything in our home passes through the ‘Need Vs. Want’ test. Do we really need to do it? Or is it simply us giving into our wants…

This time ‘Want’ won. I really needed to have some good authentic Chinese food as a special treat. It was the first time in the last 5 months that I have gone in search of a purchase that was an indulgence and not a necessity. As I reflect on this, I find it interesting that as much as things have changed, some home truths about communications have not.

Word of mouth still rules supreme. Visual communication is powerful. Top of mind recall and visibility matters. All the good old fashioned 5 P’s are still in play. Product, Price, Promotion, Place and People. When my want became a need, I followed the P’s to a T and found myself with a table full of wonderful Panda food.

The key to this purchase was I believe the 6th P – Public Relations. My neighbour whose Instagram post got me salivating over the idea of some awesome #orientalcuisine, let’s call him Mr. Joy, is a connoisseur of all things good in life. I know him. I trust his taste and that he will only give a thumbs up to something spectacular. Plus he is my neighbour, so I know that the place will deliver in my area and he has already tried it out last week.

I reached out to Mr. Joy and asked him if the chef who he had referred, was open for business for lesser mortals like me, and within minutes I had the menu in my inbox. I think the key here is all the regular P’s have to be in place, but the “person I know and trust” who gives me the cue and the information I need, when I wanted it, was the tipping point for purchase.

When my wife heard all that my son and I were planning to order, she wanted to know if it was for one meal or one week! Son and I then revisited the list of things and could not find even one that we wanted to remove. All that is now left over are happy memories and a few kilos that crept in unnoticed. A few days later, someone asked for a good Chinese place to order from on our building WhatsApp group. I immediately shared the Hello Panda menu and contact details. After that, I was telling this story to another friend who immediately asked me to share the Panda details (and I know subsequently ordered a meal from them). I am sure their phone is still ringing and there are more and more happy Pandas out there.

In the similar vein that Mr Joy brought the Panda to me, I have played a role in recommending ‘Inomi Learning’, the career and college guidance team that helped my son get set for his next big adventure. The common thread here is personal first-hand experience that I have had and the fact that I am offering this information to someone who knows and trusts me.

My phone rang twice last week, with people asking me to put together an ‘Online Media Training’ for them. Once again, it was good old fashioned word of mouth that had helped overcome the “let’s wait for things to go back to normal” mode and triggered action to experiment with something new. ‘I trust people I know’ seems to be playing a big role in moving forward. So the new influencers, need to be credible, but for now at least, s/he also needs to be somebody I know. So ‘In the know’ of what’s happening and ‘known to me’ both matter, to help people trust and try out something new.

The only place that “I trust people I know” seems to be heading into dangerous territory is when we let our guards down and take our masks off in the presence of “know people”. I call this the “Theranja Aal syndrome”. In Tamil, ‘Theranja Aal’ is ‘known person’. The down side of trusting people I know is that all the precaution we take with strangers is sometimes thrown to the wind, when it’s a known person. I have heard enough stories from my calls to friends and family back home, about how in retrospect, it turned out to be the ‘known person’ who unknowingly brought the virus with them.

So this is the balancing act I find myself navigating, as I head into the next week. Is it a need? Is it a want? Who can I trust? Somewhere in the middle of all of this, the game of demand and supply is going to find its way through. Sometimes there will be the accidental Chinese whisper, where there is a slip between cup and lip. Other times amazing #orientialcuisine will be enjoyed.

Who is whispering in your ear this week? Urging you to try something new, “be brave, experiment…” What is calling you? Saying, “I need this, I want this”. Word of mouth is what will feed mouths. The additional P of ‘PR’ will play a pivotal role in helping good products and services find their way back into the lives of consumers. The onus is on us PR practitioners to own this power and responsibility. To ensure we uphold the highest standards of ethics in our tradecraft. To help spread positive and useful information that people need, when they want it. In the end, it comes down to that… can I trust this information and can I trust the source.


By: Nikhil Dey
Vice Chair, Weber Shandwick