Opinion

The 100 apologies that immortalised Blu Inc

Nathaniel Tan

Nathaniel Tan believes this world is full of people, he was born to love them all. He blogs at www.jelas.info and tweets @NatAsasi

JUNE 3 — Malaysia makes the big news: “Social activist forced to tweet apology to corporation 100 times.”

I think that’s up there with the other international coverage we get — churches burned down, detaining parliamentarians without trial and banning yoga.

What actually happened

So this all began with a tweet by Fahmi Fadzil dated January 25: “My friend’s wife, who works at Female magazine, has tendered her resignation because they’re giving her so much shit because she’s pregnant.”

Female magazine is owned by Blu Inc Media and Magazines, who apparently got their knickers all in a twist upon learning of this tweet.

It sounds like some pressure was applied to all the parties involved, resulting in a follow-up tweet from Fahmi that very same day: “I would like to formally & unequivocally apologise to Blu Inc and Female mag for my tweets earlier today. All inconveniences are regretted.”

That’s quite a retraction — the likes of which you’d never see someone in, say, government making.

Was it convincing? Do we think that Blu Inc really mistreats its pregnant employees? Did Fahmi make a mistake, or was there overwhelming pressure on the various people involved to silence the controversy?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know. I’m not in a position to comment about whether or not Blu Inc is a bad employer. I won’t pretend, however, not to be a bit suspicious, given the circumstances.

I can say that as dorky coincidence would have it, I have known Fahmi longer than most. He was a year my junior in high school, and as the incoming head prefect, I remember ceremoniously handing over my tie to him the day I took my last SPM paper (I was an emo 17-year -old). I have known him to be a man of integrity and, more importantly, a man of good intentions.

So, that’s how things stood at the end of January 25. So how did it end up with Fahmi having to tweet an apology 100 times?

Apparently Blu Inc threatened to take Fahmi to court and bring against him a defamation suit. The 100 tweets were apparently a compromise settlement.

Textbook PR disaster

As I and others have tweeted, this is clearly turning out to be a PR nightmare for Blu Inc — I would imagine the worst it has ever faced.

They have gone from a company most of us have probably never heard of, to the company credited with replacing “Mind Your Language’s” Indian “1,000 apologies sir” with a uniquely Malaysian “#100 apologies!”

Do they deserve all this bad press? I don’t know for sure, but being something of a practitioner in this industry as well, I can tell you — it doesn’t matter.

I don’t mean this in moral terms, but in practical ones — as in, justly or unjustly, they have pretty much been crucified in public opinion, and there may not be a whole lot they can do about it.

Remember that “cross” on Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s head-dress? You’d be amazed what people will believe.

The Internet, for better or for worse (probably the latter), has this tendency to sometimes exaggerate the worst excess of mob mentality. I say this while admitting fully to being guilty of having fanned some flames myself.

The case of the 100-storey megatower is the other classic example — once the great ball of hate and resentment starts rolling, things like facts and figures start to wield only the smallest influence, if that.

Indignation spreads like fire, and is amplified in ways and at speeds almost impossible prior to the invention of platforms such as Twitter.

The sad truth is, once it reaches a certain point, a negative image is anywhere from difficult to impossible to undo. After all, you don’t see any government officials trying to sell us on what a good idea the 100-storey megatower is, do you?

This very visible buzz soon finds its way to the press — print, broadcast, international — and it is soon on everyone’s lips.

Once again, I’m not really making any normative value judgments here — only making an observation about the way public perception works online.

This affair may not bring down Blu Inc (imagine, what must advertisers be thinking right now?), but I can’t say I would be 100 per cent surprised if the company is affected. Hard to sell magazines and advertising space with this kind of reputation.

Perhaps they’ll be best remembered as a cautionary tale in PR textbooks: “Chapter 3: How not to engage with social media.”

Conspiracy theorists even suggest that Fahmi and/or his avid tweeter lawyer Syahredzan Johan may have concocted this settlement with this end game in mind (I am reminded of Admiral Ackbar’s infamous “It’s a trap!”) but I for one certainly have no proof of that.

Take-home lessons

So what’s the takeaway lesson here? Twitter user though I may be, I shall shy away from excessive grandstanding and chest thumping along the lines of “Don’t mess with us, mofos!”

I think politicians, corporations and other entities that rely on good public relations should however take heed, and take some time to think through the consequences of their actions.

If social media is not something one understands, it’s perhaps best to consult with people a little more familiar with the landscape (mercenaries like me are always happy to help for a fee).

In Blu Inc’s case, in forcing Fahmi down this path, they’ve succeeded in portraying themselves as the Mercedes that ran over the kapchai motorbike. No matter whose fault the accident was, let’s just say it’s not looking so hot for the Mercedes.

What they can do now is come up with a full accounting of the case involving the pregnant employee, so that we can at least hear their version (it would be nice to hear from said employee and her husband as well, but that’s their choice I guess), and — unless they truly are gluttons for punishment — cease this bizarre insistence on the mimicry of Bart Simpson’s famous opening credits blackboard scribbling.

The court of public opinion is a truly fickle, dangerous thing — if you want to survive it, plan ahead and navigate it with great care.

As for Fahmi? At time of writing, it’s 18/100 and counting.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

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