Myanmar’s coup turned 1.5 years old in August. The people of Myanmar have faced many challenges, adversities, and a nerve-wracking level of difficulties, regression, and deterioration in every aspect of the country. The country’s economy, safety, healthcare, education, food, and production have been greatly affected.
Brands, businesses, and the people, particularly young people in Myanmar, have had to adapt to the situation to survive. The coup forced many companies to leave or reduce operations; some have continued to operate throughout the coup’s first 15 months. Vero, fortunately, is one of them, thanks to the efforts of our Myanmar team members.
While atrocities continue, Vero has prioritized the well-being of its employees and clients. Last week, we sat down with our team members in Myanmar to listen to their personal and professional experiences of living through the coup.
In order to keep our team safe, we have used false initials throughout the course of this interview.
What was it like for our team in Myanmar when the coup started? What did Vero do to help their team members?
SL: The years between 2019 and 2021 were Myanmar’s most prosperous years of the decade. Business was booming, digitalization was accelerating, and everything was going well. We even survived a global pandemic like COVID-19 and kept the country’s economy afloat. Following the coup, the first and most crucial challenge was taking care of our stakeholders, clients and employees.
The coup pressured companies and brands to improvise and change their planned communication strategies. Our team members’ wellbeing also began to deteriorate. Our talented and passionate team ofbegan to experience a range of distressing emotions, such as depression, anger, grief and distraction. This led to some team members leaving the agency and many understandably unable to concentrate on work.
SS: Our team’s mental health became our top priority. We wanted to ensure we were doing everything possible to help our people through the unrest. Since the coup started, we have encouraged our team members to take time off to care for themselves when they need to, offered long mental health breaks, rolled out a mental wellness campaign, regularly checked in on them and sent care packages.
YT: We had to adjust to a completely different working environment after missing out on every opportunity and abandoning plans in 2021. Everyone on the team had to stay home and try to get their jobs done since the catastrophic COVID-19 outbreak was happening simultaneously. Access to the Internet was limited. When the government finally restored it, Vero members could take advantage of a unique Internet bundle provided by the office to continue their tireless efforts.
TN: The other thing to highlight is the Vero employee care program during the crisis. Vero supported us with medicine, food, USB devices, and WIFI routers, which were especially useful when it was unsafe to go out and when there were often electricity shortages.
JY: When the coup started, we felt very disappointed. All the goals we planned were gone. The team became mentally and physically unwell, and we felt significant uncertainty for our future. It was an awful time for our mental health, even for those who had not experienced extremely traumatic experiences. All our team members were stressed due to the severe economic implications of the coup, such as mass unemployment and financial insecurity, difficulty withdrawing cash, and how unsafe it was to go out to buy groceries casually. Anyone with a Facebook account would easily be exposed to triggering and upsetting content. But at that time, we felt Vero tried hard to encourage the team as much as the company could.
How did brands in Myanmar respond to the event when it started? What did Vero do as a business and how did Vero help its clients, partners, and stakeholders?
SL: The government cut off internet connections when the coup occurred, and people took to the streets. It was an unexpected event; no one could have predicted that such a tragic event would happen in this 21st century. As a result, most brands in Myanmar didn’t have a contingency plan. Brands were at a loss as to how to manage their brand and communication strategies. Our clients and partners approached us for advice to deal with the changes and challenges at that moment.
We first stated that we would not work with brands or businesses that we believed were potentially harmful to the people, and we severed ties with brands associated with the coup. We subsequently formed a group dedicated to keeping tabs on the economic, political, social, digital, and consumer trends in Myanmar. With the help of insights gained from social listening, we began sending out weekly newsletters to our clients, brands, partners, and stakeholders, providing weekly updates on the situation in Myanmar and suggestions on how brands and businesses could manage and adapt to the changes.
As part of our contingency planning service, we kept our clients apprised of the environment, gave them in-depth insights, and mapped out various contingency plans in case something went wrong. These initiatives have helped Vero speak with more brands and solidify the company’s position as an industry leader.
MA: The first few months of the coup were very difficult and sensitive. People were feeling dejected and scared, but they took to the streets to protest. There was a nationwide mobile and internet blackout, including a ban on Myanmar’s key social channel – Facebook. Others soon followed suit.
Consumer behaviors and values shifted with a rise in consumer activism unlike anything we had ever seen. It was clear that brands could no longer be bystanders and that consumers wanted support from the brands they followed. There was a large-scale and immediate consumer-driven charge to cut all ties with the country’s military-owned brands.
We believe that in times of uncertainty, brands play an important role in providing reassurance and support. Those leveraging rising channels to stay connected with consumers will come out stronger. As such, we advised brands to do fewer promotional campaigns and focus more on intangible values, aligned with the cultural changes of the time.
Aside from that, we also adapted to the situation by working with socially impactful non-profit organizations and brands like Action Aid and WWF to balance out the type of projects the account team had to work with to lessen the burden on their shoulders.
What were the biggest challenges for Vero at that time and how did we overcome them?
SL: 2021 in Myanmar was a challenge not only for Vero but all agencies in Myanmar, especially regarding employee engagement. From the start of the crisis, Vero took a safety-first approach to work to ensure that no team members were in the crosshairs of violence. Exfiltration to Thailand was made possible for team members who considered it necessary. However, to remain sustainable as a business, Vero had to make the very difficult decision to reduce team size by 50%. To protect our lowest-income staff, we enacted salary reductions through a pay cut model which made our higher-level people take a more significant cut. To those team members we had to let go, Vero provided severance that exceeded legal requirements, free and ongoing wellness counseling, free Wi-Fi, and allowed team members to keep their PCs.
That was the most difficult and agonizing choice we had to make. Our entire team was gifted, passionate, and caring. We did it with heavy hearts. However, we ensured that those team members we let go were fully compensated, by providing severance pay that exceeded legal requirements, free and ongoing wellness counseling, free Wi-Fi and allowing team members to keep their PCs. And we successfully motivated the remaining team to maintain their morale and hope for better days.
VQ: As businesses pulled out of the market or shut down because of the crisis, Vero Myanmar focused on retaining our talented team. We continued leveraging our regional network and corresponding opportunities to maintain a workflow in Myanmar while the team redeveloped its pipeline locally. We have been providing cross-border training to further help our team members in their career development, for example, through initiatives such as Vero Day,Vero Meets, and Vero Sessions.
In addition to our effort to better our people’s intellectual wellness, we encouraged team members to take 1-month paid wellness leave to care for their well-being in such a problematic and unprecedented time.
SS: Throughout the ongoing crisis, we retained half of our team. This retention allowed us to make a consistent effort to salvage the office. When we had to let people go, we offered total compensation and promised to welcome them back when we had the chance. We provided severance compensation to the team members we had to let go, and for those who were with us for less than a year, we paid them at least one month’s salary as support, including Interns.
Vero took extra steps to ensure the well-being and safety of our team by providing salaries in cash as and when possible. We paid 2-3 months in advance to minimize any monetary difficulties. When the entire country had trouble withdrawing money and a shortage of medicine and health support, our finance team delivered cash to our team’s homes.
By June 2022, our headcount had grown by 50% YTD, with a low turnover rate during the past 12 months of 28%. While a retention rate of 28% might be considered average in some countries – in Myanmar, where some agencies just closed their doors following the coup, this rate is extraordinary.
YT: The coup was emotionally and physically draining for everyone. Restricted access to information was taking place by outlaw publications and the takeover of the most prominent news outlets. More than a hundred journalists were taken into custody. Since then, some have fled to safer locations after being issued warrants, while others continue to evade capture. Communication with reporters and news outlets was challenging, mainly with the mainstream media. There were, in fact, significant difficulties in the media relations sections, which are still occurring to this day.
There has been a significant shift in the Myanmar media landscape, and we have worked hard to strengthen the ties between the surviving media and journalists. We broadened our focus to include and collaborate with lifestyle and entertainment media, sports media, and tech media, in addition to the mainstream media outlets that have been targeted.
TN: There were a lot of concerns regarding family safety and income after the political crisis happened in the country. Our first and foremost concern has been maintaining regular communication with our clients while Internet connection and electricity availability is unstable. We work closely with our regional Vero team members to communicate with clients and know that our regional team will jump in to help if the connection in the country is gone. Kudos to our Vero regional team!
How did you feel when the coup started? And how have you been coping with the situation after 1.5 years?
JY: Before the coup, digital marketing was blooming, and it was an excellent opportunity for a digital marketing and PR agency like Vero. However, the issues with Internet access from the coup have made it a big challenge for Vero, and any communications agency in Myanmar.
At the beginning of the coup, I was, unfortunately, one of the employees Vero had to let go. At first, I was very disappointed and felt lost, with almost no motivation or confidence. However, after a while, I managed to talk to a therapist and started to pull myself back up.
I’m happy that Vero kept their promise to take back the ones they had to let go of at the most critical time. Now that I am back on the team again, I come to work with a new positive mindset. I have learned many life lessons in the past year and have become more mature.
TN: At first, it was hard to concentrate on work with the COVID-19 pandemic and the coup. Vero management’s strategic guidelines and support were great support and made such a difficult situation more manageable. When the COVID third wave was over, we were relieved for a bit and were able to start some business activities.
YT: People were already emotionally drained by COVID-19 when the coup occurred, adding fuel to the fire. One and a half years later, it is still the same. From the day the coup happened until now, I haven’t felt physically or emotionally at ease. The nature of life itself now seems quite uncertain. Employment, economics, health, and social life have all been affected. Regardless, we had to go through it and survive the hardships somehow. The future is bleak, so we can’t anticipate what is coming next year, as in the previous years. So, it’s more like going with the flow for everyone now.
For the general population, nothing has changed since the start of the coup. All previous coups have destroyed the nation. The only party that benefits from this is the tyrants and the army.
SS: As a result of the coup, we have suffered severe psychological trauma. We were mentally and physically exhausted at the time and unable to concentrate on our work. Yet, we continue to hope and believe that we will succeed despite everything. With the support from Vero’s mental health program, we have been receiving a lot of help from the therapists. We feel fortunate that we are still able to keep the business running and take good care of our remaining employees as much as we can when many companies are leaving the market.
What else did Vero do to make an impact as a progressive communications agency?
SS: In the context of the coup, the most efficient way for Vero to contribute in Myanmar was to ensure care to team members, despite unavoidable redundancies. We were struggling with the worst circumstances of COVID, and the coup simultaneously which made us close the physical office and work entirely from home starting in June 2021. Some team members moved to their hometowns and have been working. Yet we did our best to stay connected, send happy thoughts, and keep everyone safe physically and psychologically. We also run a virtual hangout program to create a fun working environment for our team. When the opportunity arises, we plan a hangout with the whole group, such as a staycation and snacking with all our team members so they can get away from their hectic daily lives and enjoy some free time.
MR: Vero also published a weekly newsletter after the coup to quickly act on the situation and provide timely insights to brands and businesses. We had many conversations with clients and our internal team to get more insights into what was going on and then came up with guidelines on navigating and predicting what could happen at such a critical time.
The newsletters were developed over four and a half months, and then gathered into a comprehensive whitepaper called “Myanmar Communications Landscape 2021”. The report outlines the changes in the communication landscape, consumer behaviors, and trends caused by the coup, with valuable insights on how businesses can navigate the crisis.
The newsletter, as well as the whitepaper, received very positive responses from industrial leaders. Some even asked us when we would relaunch this!
Looking back over the last year and a half, we are proud that we were able to stand strong with our team in Myanmar through the crisis and make an impact as a leading communications agency.
While we do not know what will happen next for the country, we can be sure that our team members will get all the support they need going through such a critical time.
SL: Myanmar’s business leaders began developing thought-leadership plans and rolling out contingency planning services to retain existing clients and attract new ones. We were able to maintain clients and keep the business afloat thanks to our thought-leadership efforts and the outstanding client services of our team members.
Vero team in Myanmar made it through sheer determination, perseverance, hard work, and creativity. By the end of 2021, when the situation was more stable, we could make up for all the pay cuts and rehire the employees we had laid off during the worst part of the crisis. We also gave the employees who had stuck it out through the tough times a yearly bonus. The combined effort resulted in a nomination for the Best Places to Work Asia-Pacific 2022 award from PRWeek Asia and Campaign Asia-Pacific. This is a tremendous accomplishment, and we are extremely proud of it.
What consumer trends did you observe during the past 1.5 years? What were the most significant changes you witnessed in terms of doing business?
SL: Political unrest has wreaked havoc on Myanmar’s commercial environment, resulting in several new trends, adjustments, and consumer habits during the last 1.5 years. The most critical impact, we believe, would be a shift in customer behavior.
During the first few months, most influencers stopped working with companies to concentrate on the political situation. The people boycotted businesses and influencers believed to be affiliated with the military. They also canceled celebrities, KOLs, and social media influencers who remained silent or neutral on the current political issue. Many unpublished sites for safety concerns and even those who kept their pages active have gone dormant. For those celebrities with military affiliation, public pressure has resulted in severe repercussions, such as losses of projects and a significant impact on their reputation, if not a full stop for their careers. The cancel culture reaction seems to put some influencers in fear.
Consumers’ feelings are still highly sensitive on social media nowadays. It requires brands and enterprises to be more cautious in their marketing efforts. One wrong action or a piece of irrelevant content might cost the brand dearly. Some businesses have revised their crisis communications strategy while observing the market situation. As a strategic communications partner to many brands in Myanmar, we constantly assess risks via intense monitoring and social listening and offer contingency planning for any marketing initiatives they intend.
TN: The most significant change was the consumer shift to other social platforms. After the political crisis, many people started using social media such as Twitter, Telegram, and TikTok. Facebook, the leading social platform in Myanmar, suddenly became the least popular. The public boycott of KOLs and businesses was loudest online during the crisis.
YT: Recently, there has been a significant shift in consumer preferences. Products held by the military, notably those developed in China, mobile applications, video games, and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), have been met with widespread popular opposition. People and businesses stopped buying and selling MEHL goods, including alcohol, cigarettes, and even staple foods. People also took to the streets to boycott the military-owned hotels, hospitals, and other businesses.
So far, the military and the military’s MEHL have been subject to a boycott. Instead, people are buying more products supplied by foreign businesses. The public keeps a close eye on army products, MEHL products held by the military, and the State Administration Council (SAC) products in which the public has a financial interest. The nation’s commercial sector has seen a significant outflow of foreign investment, and several well-known investment companies have also departed the country. The current activities include keeping an eye on the political and economic situation and putting a halt to any further economic growth. Foreign investment, gasoline price instability, and dollar price swings for imported goods and border trade companies were all negatively impacted by the central bank’s loss of control. The domestic economy has been hit hard by the rising cost of commodities due to the kyat depreciation.
How are brands coping with the situation now? What would be your suggestions to brands in Myanmar?
SL: It might take some time before brands can securely engage commercially with influencers and launch campaigns in the same way they did before. Brands and businesses need to remain updated on developments in Myanmar’s communications landscape and build proactive contingency plans for maintaining ties with customers and continuing operations in Myanmar. We’d want to reiterate the value of active social listening to understand the consumers’ voices and behavioral changes and then adapt communication strategies to best reach the multi-generational (MM) consumers. For the time being, we do not recommend businesses launch large-scale and aspirational marketing initiatives.
TN: Communicating with audiences is essential for brands. They should take the time to choose the right social platforms, KOLs, and content strategy, as the public is sensitive and frequently boycotts influencers and businesses in Myanmar. They should be careful when choosing an influencer because a partnered influencer’s social post can cause harm to the business’s reputation and public backlash.
YT: Keeping an eye on the market is essential for brands, and they should prioritize market stability over expansion. In response to the rise in the cost of production, some businesses have increased prices while others have cut production. Well-known brands imported over the border have also seen significant cost increases. When customers respond to rising prices by purchasing fewer goods, brands implement price cuts through cost-cutting budgets. Reduced costs occur even when promoting a brand.
From the standpoint of a PR firm, businesses need to strike a balance between public relations, digital, and traditional marketing. While some companies depend too much on digital marketing, others reduce their PR efforts. Their financial position might be to account for this. Brands should work to improve their relationships with the media, considering the current climate change. Brands should also strengthen their communications efforts, not only when collaborating with the media but also in advance of such collaboration.
MR: Our landscape continues to change every month, but one thing that remains constant is that consumers want to support brands that align with their values. As such, we suggest brands should continue to adapt their brand strategy, message, and channels to stay connected to consumers in a meaningful way. When brands do this correctly, they can come out stronger and launch not only meaningful but successful campaigns because they are transparent and show a nuanced understanding of what consumers are going through. It’s important to ask ourselves what we can say during this time and how we should say it.
Thank you so much for sitting down with us to talk about the challenging year you’ve had. If you’re a business based in Myanmar looking for PR, digital marketing, or influencer support, please don’t hesitate to contact our talented team.
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