Japan Quake, Tsunami and PR Disasters

The massive quake that shook Japan, along with the tsunami it generated, and the potential nuclear meltdown, has both devastated a significant portion of Land of the Rising Sun and worried neighbors who sit in the Pacific Ring of Fire. While the whole situation clearly reveals the mortality of the whole human race, not everyone seems to describe it this way. There are cases when companies, well-known or obscure embrace the spotlight for wrong reasons.

Singapore’s MediaCorp made a sales push for advertisers during its extended coverage of the Japan earthquake, barely two hours after the initial tremor was recorded.

“Book your spots in the Weekday Evening News Bundle as the channel brings viewers comprehensive coverage reports on the disaster with extended versions of news bulletins tonight.”

Booking 30-second ads was to cost S$5,000. Such opportunistic approach ignores the general sentiment of people across different countries, races, religions and beliefs: extending sympathies, offering help and making monetary donations to a grieving nation. MediaCorp, or at least one of its staff, thinks that money can be made even during tragic times.

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It is not known if someone took the bait and advertised in front of both worried and curious TV audience.

After a barrage of criticisms, MediaCorp issued an apology. But is this enough? Maybe to some, it’s not enough, considering that besides money, it’s hard to pinpoint any reason for sending such email invitation. Whether the brand name is tarnished is out of the question. One thing that the company can do to revive its reputation is to be more serious about the blunder. It’s unknown to me if any staff was fired due to this lapse in judgment or reprimanded for spelling mistakes. Apologies can be issued for any mistake, but it doesn’t mean everyone who reads it understands the sincerity of the offending party. Perhaps, if the CEO can come out in the open and personally make the sincere effort of apologizing to everyone.

Another rather controversial coverage of the Japan earthquake tragedy is displayed in an editorial cartoon of a Malaysian newspaper Berita Harian which portrays popular Japanese character Ultraman racing ahead of a tsunami onslaught. zoyUltraman may live within our childhood fantasies but depicting him to represent the scared Japanese locals fleeing the huge waves is simply distasteful and lack sensitivity to those who endured the same experience. Many of them perished, injured, traumatized and unaccounted for. Imagine if the editors or cartoonist was in the shoe of Hiromitsu Shinkawa, a 60 year old man rescued while drifting 15 kilometers from the shore.

The authors may have different interpretation of what the cartoon means, but for most of us, the interpretation is unacceptable.

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Last but not the least, even the perceived veterans in PR struggles can’t get it done right. If the intention is to help, extend help without ulterior motives. That’s what Bing may have in mind when a supposed social media drive backfired. In its initial tweet, Bing mentioned about donating up to US$100,000 but with a condition:

How you can #SupportJapan – http://binged.it/fEh7iT. For every retweet, @bing will give $1 to Japan quake victims, up to $100K.

The number of retweets (RTs) will determine how much the search engine giant (and its billions of revenue dollars) will donate to quake and tsunami victims. Just when you thought a big company has hired the most competent public relations and marketing people, nobody’s perfect. The intention is clear, donate to people of Japan. But asking people to spread the Twitter message — and their brand profile on Twitter — is somewhat like a conditional love for people who are in immediate need of help.

The problem is that a similar type of mishap has happened not too long ago when Kenneth Cole, a popular name in the fashion industry promoted his new line of spring collection using the sentiment of the Egyptian people.

“Millions are in uproar in #Cairo,” Cole’s Twitter message read. “Rumor is they heard that our new spring collection is now available online at http://bit.ly/KCairo.”

Based on Bing and Kenneth Cole fiasco, promoting your brand in the middle of a tragedy do not yield good results.

Worse for Microsoft is that when virtual lashing started, the response was slow, proving a point that its so-called PR and social media experts may be sleeping in the job. Make a mistake is understandable. Refusing or ignoring the backlash is inexcusable. Someone has to be accountable, but more importantly, lessons must be learned so next campaigns don’t become the next water cooler topic.