New 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.”
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).
“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:
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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:
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.”