If you’ve lived through the 90s, chances are that WRP’s catchy jingle “sure you can do, a healthy diet” still echoes in your memory, a testament to its strong foothold in the Indonesian market since its inception. The recent controversy, that played out mainly on social media, however, has tarnished this long-established brand.
The incident revolves around WRP Indonesia’s handling of an employee’s application for pregnancy leave, unraveling a series of crisis management missteps that served only to worsen the situation for the owners and the brand and plunged it into a crisis of sorts.
Internal issue unrolled
WRP’s troubles began on November 20 when an employee shared in her social media account that she was 7-months pregnant and when she applied for maternity leave, the company demoted her work status from staff to freelancer, making her ineligible for paid maternity leave.
The post apparently stirred strong feelings internally at WRP but the company’s Human Resources Department nonetheless went ahead to terminate the employment of the woman. It provided a severance pay equivalent to two times her monthly salary.
Amidst all this discontent among the netizens, a screenshot apparently of the CEO using offensive language at the affected employee in a WhatsApp group forum was circulated. This served to stir the hornet’s nest even more.
But more insensitivity was to be displayed by WRP’s first public response to the situation on November 24: In a post on the company’s Instagram account, WRP mentioned that its legal team would “handle the noise in the right way.” And if that was not enough for WRP to be perceived negatively, the company sent direct messages to netizens who had criticized them over this issue.
As if things could not get worse, the Deputy Minister of Manpower on November 29, waded into the controversy by reminding everyone that all employees have a legal right to a 3-month maternity leave.
It was only on November 28, 8 days after the situation first developed, that WRP finally seemed to come to its senses. Its CEO, Kwik Wan Tien released a video recording of herself apologizing for “some actions” that caused “misunderstanding and concern.”
As of this writing the outrage against the company has calmed down but calls for boycotts of its products still persist. No information is available whether its sales have been affected or will be affected in the future. What remains certain, however, is that the brand is tarnished and the goodwill towards it has been weakened. This leaves it extremely vulnerable to other crises in the future.
What lessons in Crisis Management can corporations and brands draw from this situation?
Perhaps the first lesson is to be aware that every action a corporation takes is now transparent because of social media. Internal issues can easily become public issues so all corporate actions should be conducted in a manner that will pass public scrutiny.
The second lesson is that you can win in a court of law but lose in the court of public opinion. Threatening legal action against critics is a very bad move because it gives the image of Goliath beating down on David.
Company lawyers and legal teams in this context are perceived more like Stormtroopers than upholders of justice. Many corporations, when they find themselves in a crisis-like situation, automatically think that the law can protect them and get them out of a tight spot. Legal counsel, during a crisis, should be listened to but their advice should be weighed against the advice from its public relations counsel. The lawyers will usually advise saying as little as possible and only something legalistic should the corporation say anything. The public relations counsel, however, is concerned by the public opinion fallout if the company cannot project itself with compassion, empathy and values.
The third lesson is that there is a right and wrong way of apologizing.
In the right way, the corporation, brand or its leader takes ownership of its actions leading to the situation. The mechanism for doing this is what PR professionals call the Three Rs method, where they express Regret: how sorry they are for inconvenience or suffering experiences; Reason: What caused this situation? Why did it happen; and Remedy: the actions the corporation will take to make sure it does not happen again.
The wrong way is filled with pablum (e.g. kami prihatin), vagueness (“some actions”), defensiveness and usually missing one of the Rs in their response that punctures any attempt at credibility and remorse they may be trying to express.
The fourth lesson is that all top executives need to be familiar with the principles if not the practice of crisis management. This is because all corporations and brands now exist in a world that is polarized, dominated by cancel culture and where issues are fuelled by social media.
Sooner or later, corporations and brands will find themselves in crisis-like situations. Just ask McDonald’s, Holy Wings, Kapal Api, EsTeh, or Bakso Afung. Will they then panic, become defensive and make compounding mistakes that plunge them deeper into trouble; or will they be equipped with the skills and knowledge to help them mitigate and contain whatever crisis-like situations they find themselves in?
Agnes heads the Crisis Management practice at Maverick that transforms corporate cultures from crisis prone to crisis-ready. Contact her if you have any questions.