PR hits and misses in India 2021, in review

It's been quite a year, year two of the pandemic. And while most brands maintained their sensitivity to the situation, some missed the mark. 

One cannot but help mentioning the epic PR fail that was Better.com's firing of 900 staffers, that's right 900, on a single Zoom call. The firing by its Indian-American CEO, Vishal Garg made global news even prompting Indian corporate Twitter stars Anand Mahindra and Harsh Goenka to call out the move:

Harsh Goenka, RPG Enterprises chairman was blunt about the decision to mass fire:

And yet, not all the public PR fails were around Covid messaging, some were just about an overreaction from right wing groups- a growing reputational challenge for Indian brands.

So here goes, some of the biggest PR misses and one hit in India in 2021.

Women belong in the kitchen! 

Ah. International Women's Day. A great platform for brands to flex their inclusiveness muscle.

However, Burger King UK in a tweet, that attempted to highlight gender disparity in the kitchen where only 20% of professional chefs are women, missed the obvious implications of such a statement.

The flak they got, the story made news in India as well, led them to delete the tweet.

Vocal for Local? 

Another day, another QSR restaurant controversy. In October this year, #RejectKFC started trending in Twitter. The reason, a KFC outlet in Karnataka allegedly refused to play Kannada music. Coming close on the heels of a similar language issue with Zomato's delivery person, the situation was already primed for a reaction.

The firm was quick to issue a response. As covered in India Today, KFC issued a statement saying, "KFC India would like to reiterate that we hold the highest regard for all cultures and languages. Respecting the law of the land, we operate in compliance with local laws and regulations across restaurants in the country."

"The brand has had a long-standing history of 25 years with Bangalore, as we started our journey in India with the first KFC restaurant in Bangalore," the statement added.

The anti-farm laws campaign

The origin, and evolution of the anti farm laws campaign will be quoted for years to come as a recent and exceptional example of push back by an organized and determined citizenry.

A year long farmers' campaign again farm laws that would have done away with the MSP of crops; and thrown the pricing over to the open market ended in a rare and apologetic climbdown from the Government of India.

Says communications strategist Sagar Desai, "The Govt. of India farm laws campaign and I don't mean this politically, is a great case study on how consensus needs to be built with the help of proper communication strategy and not rely on good intentions and personality cult of the PM. It has been a PR disaster and highlights the importance of narratives, role of influencers and media management."

The next two ads certainly caused a backlash against the brands, but it also has to be taken in the context of the very vocal and aggressive groups in India who were able to quickly mount a tirade on Twitter against the brands.

Glow with Pride-Fem Bleach by Dabur

The Glow with Pride-Feb ad tried to do something inclusive by showing an LGBTQAI couple celebrating Karva Chauth festival ( a predominantly North Indian festival where a wife fasts for her husband’s long life).

Notwithstanding the problematic push of patriarchal customs and the equity awarded to fair skin in India, what really attracted the ire of sections of the audience was something else altogether.  

Says Maitri Satra, senior PR executive, "The glow with pride campaign by Dabur for Fem during karwa chauth was a great initiative to make the community feel inclusive. Instead, it faced a backlash on the grounds of religion that Dabur had to take down the ad. This is just one of many campaigns like Surf Excel, Tanishq, etc. that have recently faced hatred."

The Fab India Diwali campaign 

A Diwali campaign by homegrown mega brand Fabindia, which actually celebrates the 'Made in India' brand was attacked for naming it ‘Jashn-e-Riwaaz’-an Urdu language phrase. 

This prompted a wave of hatred led backlash against the brand. #BoycottFabIndia was among the top trending topics on Twitter after the ad came out.

The negative response prompted Fabindia, like Dabur, to pull down the campaign and ad.

Pooja Trehan, corporate communication, observed that FabIndia could have handled matters better pointing towards what she calls, "The terrible media statement sent out after the FabIndia fiasco; even though personally I didn't find anything wrong with the campaign (my views)."

This is what Fabindia said, "We at Fabindia have always stood for celebration of India with its myriad traditions in all hues. In fact ‘Fabindia – Celebrate India’ is our tagline and also a wordmark. Our current capsule of products under the name Jashn-e-Riwaaz is a celebration of Indian traditions. The phrase means that, literally. The capsule is not our Diwali Collection of products. Our Diwali collection is called “Jhilmil si Diwali” is yet to be launched. Please do keep a look out. It is going to be beautiful,” 

Taking advantage of the situation, right wingers also launched the #NoBindiNoBusiness campaign that demanded that models should wear bindis for selling any Diwali related products.

While, one can debate the pros and cons of the media statement, what it does point to is the bigger issue for brands when faced with an objection on religious grounds.

Brand communication expert and writer of the popular beastoftraal.com blog, Karthik Srinivasan says, "Brands like Tanishq, Fabindia, or Dabur, in response to advertising-led reputational crises, chose to withdraw ads and apologize without considering ways to offer their point of view even as they were completely within their right to air those ads."

Srinivasan adds, "The new-age brands that have thrived in a social media-led many-to-many conversational space seem to be better equipped to handle new-age PR crises. The older brands are used to PR crises being diffused in a closed room with a few media journalists present, or a direct call to the editor. Their crisis world-view was limited to engaging with the media and not with the actual people. That world has changed forever, but the old-world brands' approach hasn't."

Srinivasan explains how Zomato handled the language issue that cropped up with a customer in Tamil Nadu. The Hindi speaking Zomato executive refused the consider the language barrier faced by the Tamil and English speaking customer. See the original tweet about the issue here:

But in Srinivasan's opinion the issue was handled very well by the Zomato team, again making the point that new age brands are better at solving reputational crises, "Consider how Zomato handled the PR crisis that emanated out of the Hindi-enforcing customer care executive in Tamil Nadu. The brand took the hit directly on Twitter, responded to, and engaged with relevant people to diffuse the anger, and involved the CEO to add to the perspective to bolster credibility."

‘Not just a Cadbury Ad'

And kudos for bucking the trend. In the middle of the high profile drug case against Shahrukh Khan's son Aryan Khan, Cadbury did not pull out their much appreciated ad aimed at highlighting the pain of small businessmen during the pandemic. The ad also highlighted the tools being offered to small business to build their own ad:

Given the atmosphere of dropping ads, Cadbury carried on with the ad in spite of the negative sentiment against Khan. As we all know there have been several doubts raised about the drug case leading to the removal of the case incharge NCB's Sameer Wankhede.

What did we miss? What PR misses and hits do you think happened in India.

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