Emily Tan
Mar 15, 2013

Jollibee Singapore: When your brand is falsely accused

SINGAPORE - When Filipino fast food chain Jollibee announced that it would be opening in Singapore, it was initially greeted with enthusiasm—until a rumour that the chain would only hire Filipinos went viral and incensed Singaporeans.

Despite the boycott, Jollibee attracted a strong turnout upon opening
Despite the boycott, Jollibee attracted a strong turnout upon opening

The rumour started on contributor-driven site TR Emeritus when a reader sent in an article calling for a boycott of 'Pinoy-first business: Jollibee Singapore' which stated, “Jollibee Singapore intends to hire their fellow pinoys to fill up jobs in their latest Singapore venture.”

The article drew vitriolic and xenophobic comments agreeing to the boycott. Examples statements included “only fools in Pinoy food” and “Anyway, most Singaporeans would not patronise the place because they would worry about the food and hygiene”.

A Facebook page was also set up to drive the movement. It has so far attracted more than 2,600 likes for posts such as, “Dear Singaporeans, you have been sh*t upon by a Pinoy Foreign Talent. What do you think?”

Despite all this, the store in Lucky Plaza was packed on its opening day on 12 March, with both Filipinos and Singaporeans patronising the restuarant.

The frightening truth for brands is that Jollibee had done nothing to deserve the backlash and is guilty of nothing more than being a foreign-owned brand launching in Singapore. According to a spokesperson for the company, it has hired 62 people in Singapore, 79 per cent of whom are Singapore nationals and permanent residents. The brand was essentially hijacked.

“This incident was apparently sparked by an old Facebook post in our official Jollibee Singapore page calling on ‘Jollibee Fans’ to apply for careers at the outlet, which was apparently interpreted as favouring Filipinos,” said the spokesperson.

Since then the chain has carefully phrased its hiring posters to clearly state that it is interested in hiring Singapore nationals and Singapore permanent residents. “The number of Singaporeans we have on board in our store team is enough proof that we welcome Singaporeans to our store team and, like in all countries where we operate, we always adhere to fair employment practices," the spokesperson said.

Yet the brand may not be able to take full contol of the message. “Jollibee has done well in responding to Campaign’s queries and in getting the recruitment posters out, but there’s much more they can do to quench the rumours,” said David Lian, Asia-Pacific digital lead for Text100.

So far, Jollibee Singapore’s Facebook fanpage is not addressing the issue, and the comment feed appears clear of negative comments, although there are fan comments that refer to negative sentiments that may have been erased by the company, noted Lian.

“If the comments were racist, Jollibee has every right to remove them," he said. "But without a clearly stated comment policy and a post addressing the issue, they run the risk of backlash.”

Furthermore, a Google search of the issue doesn’t turn up an official company statement, which is a missed opportunity. “They should be making sure that every time someone searches for Jollibee Singapore, they hear the brand’s side of the story, not just about the boycott,” commented Lian.

Although the online ‘crisis’ hasn’t affected Jollibee’s revenue, it would serve the brand well to gently win over Singaporeans. Bob Pickard, former Asia-Pacific leader of Burson-Marsteller commented that the issue of ‘foreign workers’ is a hot-button one in Singapore. “Therefore, corporate communicators need to ‘walk on eggshells’ and apply social intelligence in the calibration of their content to ensure ‘societal alignment’ that resonates with the sensibilities of the community,” he said.

“Every international company needs a ‘license to operate’ where they do business and regardless of niche segmentation, acting in accordance with the sensibilities of the Singapore market makes sense for companies doing business here,” commented Pickard. In the long-run, he added, this incident may even play in Jollibee’s favour if it’s handled right, gaining it name recognition and a chance to clear the air on the issue.

The truth is that no brand is able to prevent a social-media crisis from happening, but brands can manage risk by having preventative systems in place, observed Antoine Calendrier, general manager of Waggener Edstrom China.

“Rumour is basically difficult to handle," he said. "The word of the company often goes unheard because it’s one voice versus many. The key point is to have a third party looped into the conversation—someone who can bring a factual version of the story.”

But it’s key to get the ball rolling on a response within the ‘golden hour’—the hour the rumour first starts growing, said Calendrier. The only way to do this is to have a good social-listening system in place, to report it to a board that takes these issues seriously and to have a network of strong relationships with the media who can help bring the facts to light with a credible voice.

“There is a huge difference between what happens in the boardroom and what happens outside," Calendrier continued. "The boardroom is rational and they tend not to take these topics seriously. There’s a massive perception difference. When the irrational steps in it’s hard for them to harness what’s going on until it’s too late, and online, it gets late very quickly.”

Ignoring the issue hoping it will go away because it’s “silly” will not work, he concluded. “If you miss a swift response, you lose control and your narrative will be in someone else’s hands.”

MORE EXPERT OPINIONS

Graham Hitchmough, regional director, ASEAN, The Brand Union:

In situations where brands might feel that they have been wrongly accused or misrepresented, the first decision they must take is whether to respond or to weather the storm.  Responses can take a variety of forms, from more offensively-minded tactics such as strong rebuttals and counter-claims, to more conciliatory measures such as a dispassionate sharing of the facts beneath the misinformation. But sometimes the bravest and most effective strategy is to do nothing at all.

Even when beyond reproach and faced with ill-informed and potentially damaging criticism, brands must consider every angle and the motivations of each party before deciding whether and how to respond. An ill-judged, knee-jerk response can result in a time consuming and costly slanging match in which all parties stand to lose credibility.

Furthermore, a justifiable desire on behalf of the brand to put the record straight can end up simply providing the aggressor with the desired oxygen of publicity. This is the risk with the Jollibee situation. Clearly there are some highly-charged and sensitive issues underlying this unedifying story, and several of those involved seem to be pursuing a particular agenda.

It is certainly not in Jollibee’s interests to get into a politicised debate and the fast food chain’s management appear to have go their tactics right by focusing on the facts and reiterating the un-impeachability of their hiring policies and recruitment materials.  It would probably serve Jollibee well now to remove themselves gracefully from the debate and redouble their efforts to keep their customers—Singaporean, Filipino and other nationalities—all satisfied with what they do best, and not worry about those with a differently motivated axe to grind.

 

Suzy Goulding, director, public relations, Ate Integrated Communications:

Once something has gone viral it’s very difficult to put the jack back in the box. The best way to deal with this situation is to react quickly and honestly, which Jollibee appears to have done. Also a good idea is to enlist supportive bloggers and journalists to help communicate the true situation as third party recommendation and backing is key to ensuring the brand’s true position is communicated as widely and as credibly as possible.

I think key is sticking to your guns—decide your position and stick to it. Keep repeating it to customers, media, over social media platforms.  Avoid becoming too emotional about the situation.  

As with all things (including social media) the furore will die down eventually.  Given the popularity of Jollibee, not just here but across the region, I don’t believe this will have that much of a negative impact on footfall. They just need to stand their ground and keep repeating the true statement across all their platforms.  People love to complain and so it’s not long before they seek out the next big thing to complain about. It’s important however that Jollibee continue to monitor the situation carefully.        

Singaporeans love food and love to try anything new so I don’t think Jollibee will have anything to worry about here in terms of profitability. The location of course will attract many Filipinos who will be very familiar with the brand but as with the vast majority of F&B outlets in Singapore, I imagine Jollibee will see a cross-section of all nationalities coming through their doors.

 

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