In part this is due to the global nature of social media and the increasingly interconnected world, which allow individuals, organizations, and brands to spread messages of support far beyond their countries of origin. Most of these responses have not been sufficiently large to inspire shows of support from local companies, but that could change – just as it did for the LGBT rights movement – as supporters raise awareness of the realities of discrimination in their own countries.
A recent survey by GlobalWebIndex found that, across 18 markets, 4 in 5 people say that brands should take action to support Black Lives Matter. Of the four Asian countries surveyed, China, India, and the Philippines all had higher than average support for brands taking action, with only Japan below average. Those three also had the highest percentages across all 18 markets who said that “tackling racism has become a more important issue to them following the Black Lives Matter movement,” which could indicate that the movement has awakened a new level of racial consciousness in Asia.
Black Lives Matter Ripples Around the World
In our previous blog we talked about how US-based companies, many of which operate globally, have publicly responded to the current situation. Now we’ll broaden the focus to the rest of the world, with a particular spotlight on Southeast Asia.
But first, it’s worth noting that Europeans were first to respond, due to both closer cultural ties and history of anti-Black racism. For just a couple examples: In Belgium, statues of King Leopold II, who brutally ruled the Congo as his territory, were covered in red paint and burned before officials took them down. Protesters in the UK city of Bristol toppled the bronze statue of slave trader Edward Colston into the harbor.
Protests in direct support of Black Lives Matter have also been staged in Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. In Japan, they were connected to a video of police beating a Turkish man in May, while in Australia and New Zealand they centered around the oppression of Indigenous people that was central to each country’s founding.
Malaysians got online and began discussing police violence against ethnic Indians, the country’s second-largest minority. Many also criticized the country’s 2017 Miss Universe nominee for comments that downplayed the severity of Black people’s situation, including the statement that they “chose to be born as ‘coloured’”. Singaporeans on social media mocked those who claimed to support Black Lives Matter while practicing or being complicit in racism in their own country.
In Vietnam, before local events supporting the movement sprang up, American expat Jwyanza Hobson contributed an opinion article translated from English to Vietnamese to Tuoi Tre, Vietnam’s largest newspaper, explaining the movement from both personal and societal perspectives.
Fans of Korean pop group BTS, dubbed the BTS Army, matched the group’s $1 million donation to pro-BLM foundations. While originating in the often insular world of K-pop, BTS has become a global group and a powerful entertainment brand, which helps their message of inclusion and support of various social justice causes resonate deeper.
In Indonesia’s West Papua region, a “Papuan Lives Matter” movement has caught on in response to violence and imprisonment against Papuan independence advocates. Social media activists have adapted the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter into #PapuanLivesMatter, and many Indonesians outside the region are using social media to speak up against longstanding racial discrimination and violence against Papuans.
Similar tensions exist elsewhere in the region.
In Myanmar, hate speech and fake news posted on Facebook have led to sectarian violence, riots, and murder, forcing the company to change its policies to better respond to “material that could incite violence”.
Vietnam has plastic pollution that gets more severe every year while businesses take baby steps, inciting a social media movement to name, shame, and campaign against companies that continue to use disposable plastics. Domestic violence reports rise year-on-year despite supposedly improved gender equality. Illegal sand mining in the Mekong Delta is causing loss of land and income, resulting in violence. And the role of emissions in the poor urban air quality – which kills thousands every year – was made clear during a dramatic improvement under social distancing. Companies operating in Vietnam may eventually be forced to take a stance on issues such as these as people push for change. Or better yet, they can proactively examine their practices and align their values with those of their customers.
These efforts do not necessarily mean adjusting messaging and products to progressive causes. For international companies operating in Southeast Asian markets, they can mean understanding local religious and cultural attitudes in order to effectively communicate and avoid accidental offense. Either way, one of the worst things a brand can do these days is appear egregiously tone-deaf, which is an invitation to online mockery.
Lessons for Brands Worldwide
A recent piece for ABC News featured some choice quotes from experts that sum up the current mood. Andre Perry, a fellow at the Brookings Institution whose work focuses on economic inclusion, describes brands venturing into social activist messaging as both “a sign of defensiveness” and “a sign that they understand that consumer mindsets have changed, that all it takes is a few tweets to significantly put a dent in a company’s sales.” While Perry is cynical about the practice, Cait Lamberton, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, offers some advice to companies trying to navigate the issues: “Consumers don’t react to things that are seen as inauthentic. I think that brands have to take a position but they have to take a position that is backed up by some sort of action. Signals that are most believable are cost signals.”
So as a brand or organization, what can you do? First, understand that you will be held accountable for what you say – and what you don’t say – for years to come. People now follow brands like they follow people, so they expect to be able to identify with the brand in terms of both products and ideals. Those brands, in turn, have a responsibility to carefully consider both their messaging and practices to ensure they align with the values they claim to hold. In the words of Tribe Dynamics co-creator Conor Begley, strive for “an authentic expression of values.”
These days people are giving away a lot to brands. More than just money, they give their time, attention, personal data, and aspects of their online personas. They’re going to expect something in return, and they have legitimate basis for criticism, so take it to heart. Ask yourself how your organization has responded to recent crises (Covid-19 is an obvious example). Do you feel more prepared for a future crisis of that kind? Are you doing what you can to uncover problems in your organization – whether those involve discrimination (ethnic, gender, sexual preference), dishonesty, or externalities like environmental harm?
In practical terms, effective PR in the social media age demands that brands focus their attention on three avenues of communication:
1. Consumer and employee sentiment monitoring. There is a good chance that the opinions and worldview of your employees and customers diverge in some respects, and intuition isn’t enough to handle both. A more effective method involves adapting digital research and HR tools to understand both internal and external perceptions of brand messaging. AI-based sentiment analysis, for instance, can show how different groups are talking about current social issues on a larger scale than was possible in the past, so you can identify communication opportunities and potential pitfalls well in advance.
2. Ongoing assessment of the brand’s positioning and messaging on current social issues. Audience and employee values and expectations are dynamic; brand positioning should behave likewise. Insights gathered via monitoring should inform and guide communication teams as they re-assess the brand’s voice. It’s better to be proactive about this than reactive: build a reputation and have established positions before you think you need to, lest you arrive late to the party and face accusations of crass opportunism.
3. A combination of corporate, consumer, and internal communication strategies. More than ever, the three communication verticals should match the language they use and the ideas they put forth. Consumers now follow and respond to internal communication messaging, employees react to the tone of consumer campaigns, and all of society is alarmed by insensitive leadership and corporate direction. For all of these reasons, communication strategies should stem from a common effort for a consistent and mutually understood purpose. A brand taking a stand on its consumer channels also needs an adapted strategy at the employee level and a plan for communicating both at the corporate level.