Dairy for life? How Chinese social media users responded to Fonterra’s botch up

As Rod Oram said in a TVNZ report about the recent Fonterra product recall: “We need to be extremely mindful of how reputations are won and lost in the new social media world we live in.” So what was being said about Fonterra and this current crisis on Chinese social media? We took a look at conversations on Sina Weibo and WeChat last weekend

Between August 2 and 4, we found 26,509 mentions of the crisis. Predictably, many of the mentions were negative, but we were surprised to find some voices defending the reputation of Fonterra and/or NZ Inc. 

1. Anger and Worry

It’s not surprising that Chinese netizens are very anxious about this latest crisis. Foreign brands (and particularly New Zealand brands) are seen as trustworthy, in comparison to Chinese-made brands (this despite the Chinese government’s attempts to promote locally-made brands). 

“My daughter is only three months old, and I feed her with Dumex, so I’m worried. Is it the crisis milk powder? Could the related department make an explanation?”

While some worried, others got angry:

“Although I have never fed my baby with the milk powder, I am really angry with it. Is there any safe milk powder we can trust?”

2. Unexpected support for foreign brands

Surprisingly, about 20 percent of the weibo posts we saw were either defending the brands, or calling for a calm analysis of the details. 

“I will still choose foreign milk powder, because if their milk powder has a problem they will quickly recall them. But in China, the producer would never find the quality problem until the baby was sick, and nobody would know how long the quality problem would be. I can’t trust the quality of the local milk powder.”

“When Karicare finds the quality problem, they take action quickly, and publicise the crisis in a timely fashion. Also, they didn’t add the harmful material purposely. So it’s still better than some local milk powder producers. I will support Karicare.”

3. Let’s calm down and look at the facts

We found that some Chinese netizens, especially those from New Zealand, were asking their friends and family to look carefully at all the facts before panicking. 

“We’re all worried, but the brand had already made a clear explanation. I hope we don’t need to panic; instead we should treat the crisis reasonably.”

And on WeChat, the increasingly popular mobile platform, people are posting links to more accurate information, along with pleas to the media to maintain objectivity: 

“Chinese media, please do not catch the keywords only, you need to copy the whole article; if not it will cause panic. The normal self-criticism from foreign media always becomes a crisis in Chinese media, with headlines like “New Zealand milk powder is poisonous”. 

4. What this means for New Zealand (and any brand operating in China)

While social media is a powerful and lightning-fast way to spread bad news, it’s also an avenue for a brand to reach out with its own messages. However, a brand without an active social media presence is going to struggle to gain credibility in a crisis. 

That’s a really good reason for marketing and communications to work together so that when a crisis does hit (and it will), there is a trusted, publicly available communications channel that people can turn to. This is true, regardless of whether you’re dealing with English- or Chinese-language social media. It is also true that the language aspect can be a barrier for some businesses to engage with social media. But this should be a wake-up call to Kiwi businesses: one company’s mistake is costing an entire industry, and if you’re in that industry, what are your communication channels to market? 

  • Simon Young is chief executive of SyEngage. He is holding a crisis communications workshop in September in Auckland and Wellington.
  • ​This post originally appeared on the SyEngage blog. 

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