Chinese netizens furious over Fonterra crisis, but surprising signs of support for foreign brands

angry-face-emoticon-5New Zealand is reeling over an error that could have profound and long-lasting effects on the New Zealand – and even Australian – economies. 

As Rod Oram says in this TVNZ report,

“We need to be extremely mindful of how reputations are won and lost in the new social media world we live in.” 

So what is being said about Fonterra and this current crisis on Chinese social media? Jenny took a look at conversations on Sina Weibo and WeChat over the weekend. 

Between August 2nd and 4th, we found 26,509 mentions of the crisis. Predictably, many of the mentions were negative, but we were surprised to find some voices defending the reputation of Fonterra and/or NZ Inc. 

1. Anger and Worry

It’s not surprising that Chinese netizens are very anxious about this latest crisis. Foreign brands (and particularly New Zealand brands) are seen as trustworthy, in comparison to Chinese-made brands (this despite the Chinese government’s attempts to promote locally-made brands). 

Dumex Worry

“My daughter is only three months old, and I feed her with Dumex, so I’m worried. Is it the crisis milk powder? Could the related department make an explanation ?”

While some worried, others got angry:

Milk Powder angry

“Although I have never fed my baby with the milk powder, I am really angry with it. Is there any safe milk powder we can trust?”

2. Unexpected support for foreign brands

Surprisingly, about 20% of the weibo posts we saw were either defending the brands, or calling for a calm analysis of the details. 

Still use foreign milk powder

“I will still choose foreign milk powder, because if their milk powder has a problem they will quickly recall them. But in China, the producer would never find the quality problem until the baby was sick, and nobody would know how long the quality problem would be. I can’t trust the quality of the local milk powder.”

Support karicare

“When Karicare finds the quality problem, they take action quickly, and publicise the crisis in a timely fashion. Also, they didn’t add the harmful material purposely. So it’s still better than some local milk powder producers. I will support Karicare.”

3. Let’s calm down and look at the facts

We found that some Chinese netizens, especially those from New Zealand, were asking their friends and family to look carefully at all the facts before panicking. 

Be reasonable

“We’re all worried, but the brand had already made a clear explanation. I hope we don’t need to panic; instead we should treat the crisis reasonably.”

And on WeChat, the increasingly popular mobile platform, people are posting links to more accurate information, along with pleas to the media to maintain objectivity: 

Wechat comment 

国外觉得很正常的一次检讨又变成国内媒体笔下的:新西兰奶粉有毒! 请中国媒体不要捕风捉影,只写关键词,造成恐慌一大片!(引自微信)

Chinese media, please do not catch the keywords only, you need to copy the whole article; if not it will cause panic. The normal self-criticism from foreign media always becomes a crisis in Chinese media, with headlines like “New Zealand milk powder is poisonous”. 

4. What this means for New Zealand (and any brand operating in China)

While social media is a powerful and lightning-fast way to spread bad news, it’s also an avenue for a brand to reach out with its own messages. 

However, a brand without an active social media presence is going to struggle to gain credibility in a crisis. 

That’s a really good reason for marketing and communications to work together so that when a crisis does hit (and it will), there is a trusted, publicly available communications channel that people can turn to. 

This is true, regardless of whether you’re dealing with English- or Chinese-language social media. (In fact, I’ll be covering some of these issues in my Crisis Management and Social Media workshop in September). 

It is also true that the language aspect can be a barrier for some businesses to engage with social media. But this should be a wake-up call to kiwi businesses – one company’s mistake is costing an entire industry, and if you’re in that industry, what are your communication channels to market? 

5. What to do now

a) Sign up for the crisis communications workshop in September, in Auckland and Wellington.

b) Contact us about your Chinese social media needs (oh, and we also do western social media). It starts with listening. 

 

UPDATE: This clarification from the Ministry of Primary Industries website confirms that “Chinese authorities have suspended imports of Fonterra-produced Whey Powder and Dairy Base powder, and increased inspection and supervision at the border for New Zealand dairy products. China has not closed the market to all New Zealand dairy products; and it has also been quite specific about the range of Fonterra products which it has temporarily suspended. Chinese authorities still have a number of questions which we will be working to provide answers for today.”

 

Update: We did a press release together with Victoria University Professor Hongzhi Gao, and NZ Post’s Vallen Han. 

12 thoughts on “Chinese netizens furious over Fonterra crisis, but surprising signs of support for foreign brands

  • Sally Nash

    Interesting to see that there is perhaps a less negative response to the issue in China than there is in NZ. Does Fonterra not have an active social media presence in China?

    Reply
    • Simon

      Thanks Sally. Bear in mind that the positive comments are only around 20% of the total response, so the general feeling is negative, however it’s great to see support coming from Chinese individuals.

      Fonterra has a corporate weibo account which is issuing standard responses at the moment. Compared to how active the average internet user is, it’s not an active account. But, being there is better than not being there.

      Reply
  • Mike

    I am very disappointed that pple choose to label ALL milk Powder in New Zealand as the same as a few brands by Fonterra.
    In fact their are other NZ Suppliers/manufacturers who have nothing to do with Fonterra or their problem, hence I ask and recommend pple take a step back and realise mistake has happen and will be corrected buy 90% of NZ Milk Powder brands are 100% safe.
    I in fact am trying to export from my NZ Company and my Head Office company in Singapore New Zealand Milk Powder under the brand name NZ NutraBub which is under Suttons group, 100% safe and always being Quality tested.

    New Zealand has a good Clean and Green image so don’t get carried away thinking one small issue effects all others, this is not the case.

    Free to contact me at mike.globalfocus@gmail.com.

    Thanks and stay cool pple. Mike

    Reply
    • Simon

      Thanks Mike. Yes, your company is one of the many who are innocent, but affected by this crisis. And it’s great to see that, across Chinese social media, people are doing exactly what you’re doing – asking people to stop and look at the facts.

      Reply
  • Jade

    Nice wrap here Simon, even for those of us that read Chinese, the response online has been overwhelming to sort through. This will pass, and Chinese consumers will continue to but huge volumes of our milk formula as it will remain the most readily available trusted option on the market, but not before a serious stain has been inflicted on NZ’s “Pure” image.

    To pick up on your weibo response point, as a restaurant business owner in China i have had a couple of food scare situations over the last 10yrs. In this Digital/Social Media age it is IMPERATIVE to not only have an active online presence, but one managed by senior members of your organisation, especially whilst in the midst of crisis, such as the one Fonterra are in at present. It is imperative that the company has wise heads guiding the online response to not only assure customers that senior management are 100% committed to transparent communications and are hands on with the crisis, but also so they can act swiftly to any negative momentum that can take a matter of hours to build and extremely laborious and costly to curtail should it be left too late by a back-room intern.

    I take my hat off to Theo Spierings for getting up to, and staying on the ground in China, well played and will go along way in their damage control. China is about FACE and he has provided both the government and the citizens with that by doing so. However Fonterra’s lack of an engaging online response shows how even these well funded multi-nationals do not fully appreciate the the power of the humble Tweet.

    Reply
    • Simon

      Thanks Jade, fantastic response! And it’s so true – online response should be treated as importantly as press conferences and journalist interviews. For our larger organisations that requires some internal reorganisation – but just because it’s challenging doesn’t mean it’s too hard to do. Great to hear from you Jade.

      Reply
  • Kat

    The comments seem fairly reasonable – and one wonders if it is more the NZ media who are to the detriment of NZ’s pure image than the companies selling the products.

    Reply
  • Bob

    China is about keeping FACE and respect. Fonterra & the Govt. have shown a severe lack of appreciation as to these factors. Being on the ground in China and conduct business with its elite, I can assure many that all Chinese are very nationalistic. They like to see fast responses and respect for their market (no matter what other scams or problems they themselves have to deal with.) If the PRC makes a statement or takes a view, then the people will follow that theme. Therefore Fonterra should be countering already with constant media advertising in China. The Chinese expect this and if Fonterra is silent in the media to counter the allegations, then the people start to think its suspect. Waiting for a 6 month investigation is now a general joke in China. Waiting for the PM to go to China is another. Media should already be humming with Fonterra driven news, the PM should have already been up there, and the investigation should have already started with Chinese-PRC appointed scientists. Fatal flaws continue to show how lacking in appreciation of the PRC market NZ is.

    Reply
    • Simon

      Thanks Bob, appreciate your perspective.

      Reply
    • Mike

      I only agree in part.
      You cannot expect a PM of a country to fly to another Country to “Show” face in respect to Pvt Business….
      However Fonterra MD yes should show face (and he did go to China within days) and few investigation under way-that said this takes time and no cover up is under way, but more can be done.

      What is wrong is China taking sides and branding ALL NZ Milk Dairy manufactures as “Suspect” or “Tainted” where it is only a very very few batches and non sold in the open market, but NZ was open and informed all that they “May” have stocks of “Suspected” batches in their warehouse… a very different story was told when the Cap was on the other side in China where so many babies died and still a cover up was underway until the story was too big to hide….
      I am trying to ship to China a different dairy brand from NZ but china side just stops all communication which is very unfair… pple need to have the full story to fully understand…

      Reply
  • Mike

    I only agree in part.
    You cannot expect a PM of a country to fly to another Country to “Show” face in respect to Pvt Business….
    However Fonterra MD yes should show face (and he did go to China within days) and few investigation under way-that said this takes time and no cover up is under way, but more can be done.

    What is wrong is China taking sides and branding ALL NZ Milk Dairy manufactures as “Suspect” or “Tainted” where it is only a very very few batches and non sold in the open market, but NZ was open and informed all that they “May” have stocks of “Suspected” batches in their warehouse… a very different story was told when the Cap was on the other side in China where so many babies died and still a cover up was underway until the story was too big to hide….
    I am trying to ship to China a different dairy brand from NZ but china side just stops all communication which is very unfair… pple need to have the full story to fully understand…

    Reply

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *