Out of the blue, the bread manufacterer Sari Roti came under attack by unverified news postings on social media in the past week.
The attacks came in the form of postings claiming that Sari Roti was supporting the 212 demonstrations by giving out free bread to the demonstrators. Photos were posted of Sari Roti tricycles with a handwritten sign “Free for the mujahids”.
Similar posting kept cropping up and the usual supporters and critics weighed in. By Saturday, the noise had grown so much that Sari Roti’s management felt compelled to make their stand clear.
The issued a press release on their website, ostensibly saying some PR-ese about appreciating how the Super Peaceful 212 rally went on peacefully, how they were committed to uphold the values of democracy, diversity and national integrity of the country and how the incident involving the signs on the tricycles were not officially approved by Sari Roti because they were politically neutral.
It also said that the signs appeared because an unidentified customer bought the bread from the tricycle hawkers, asked them to go to the Monas entrance and put the signs on to feed the demonstrators – all without the knowledge or approval from the Sari Roti management.
The press release was meant to quell speculation that it was siding with the hardliners and to demonstrate that they were political neutral. So it must have taken Sari Roti by surprise when the press release, instead of calming things down with is clarification, instead sparked a bigger storm in the social media teacup. Many accounts, many of them seeming fake, began criticizing Sari Roti for their apparent anti-212 and therefore anti-Islam stance. There were also calls to #boikotSariRoti.
What can other corporations learn from this incident? What is the takeout from something like this when an innocuous press release can trigger such impassioned reactions on Social Media?
The way we look at it Indonesia is getting into a phase where the worst are full of righteous piety. It is as if overnight the Muslim hardliners have developed super think skin and would balk and rage at anything that does not praise or pay lip service to what they want. There is an empowered mob mentality on the loose.
What could Sari Roti, or other corporations caught in similar situations, do in the face of this hypersensitivity? How can they clear up the misunderstandings and quieten the critics in the first place?
Well, they would have done well if they had adhered to some basics of crisis communications in the first place. They should have weighed whether it was worth responding to the social media claims that they were offering free bread for the mujahid in the first place. Sure, it is irritating but would silence have affected their sales or their stock prices? One doubts it.
But even if they had decided for good reasons to issue a press release they should have stuck to the rule of thumb that Less is More in such situations. The objective of the press release should be to address the misperception that they were distributing free bread to the demonstrators.
They should have stuck to this objective with two sentences that said that social media accounts that they were distributing free bread are untrue. What actually happened was that a customer bought the bread and asked the hawkers to post the sign as well and to bring their tricycles to Monas. And leave it at that. There was no reason to wade into politics by declaring that they were appreciative of the Aksi Super Damai, Bhineka Tunggal Ika and democracy. That’s just digging a hole deeper for themselves.
Corporations should also realize that because of the hyper-sensitivity of various groups and the ease with which they take umbrage at slights real or imagined, often a wiser course would be to just hunker down and let whatever social media story blow itself out. Not ideal for normal times. But then again we are not living in normal times these days.