Fish sauce is not only Vietnam’s most ubiquitous meal-time condiment. It is also the focus of a recent battle between so-called White PR versus Black PR practices.
The background to the story began last year, when a Vietnamese trade association published a controversial report claiming almost 85 percent of current fish sauce brands contain toxic ‘arsenic’ substances. This is obviously big news in a country that consumes an estimated 200 million liters of fish sauce per year.
The impact of the report about toxicity was massive. Hundreds of news articles quickly followed, most following a narrative about toxicity, but also a few highlighting the safety and quality of at least one leading fish sauce brand. This episode shook the public and left a question mark as to what was true and what was not. The following story will reveal the ugly truth.
When White PR, Black PR, Consumer, and Media met at a new year gathering, the four had a heated debate on some recent issues:
Media: “Last year I witnessed complete turmoil when a food and consumer goods corporation in Vietnam suffered from what seemed to be their worst ever communications crisis. The company was suspected to spread the rumors about toxic fish sauce. The rumors hit the fish sauce-loving public hard. But one company that heavily promoted its safety record quickly earned a huge increase in sales and profits. However, truth came out that the whole thing was fabricated by the company itself.”
At this point, Consumer couldn’t help but get angry: “Black PR, is this one of your tricks? Go ahead and admit it.”
Black PR responded without hesitation: “That’s right. I helped the customer’s sales to rocket sky-high. This isn’t even the first time I did it. It has helped my business grow.”
Media finally lost it: “It Turns out you were fooling me the whole time, making me report false accusations on traditional fish sauce, and even put many small and medium-sized businesses through complete misery!”
White PR: “Black PR, how could you do such awful things, deceiving everyone for own benefits?”
Black PR: “Look at yourself, White PR. You are just jealous that I am doing better than you and that soon all businesses will totally forget about you!”
White PR: “I don’t need to be jealous, our duty is to bring about benefits for enterprises and customers by giving useful information to both sides. Only then can quality products be delivered to consumers. Don’t let short-term thinking damage Vietnam’s reputation.”
Black PR: “Ha ha! The reality is that we are earning huge profits for the company while you are falling into oblivion, my dear White PR.”
White PR: “Here, let’s think about this logically. Within 24 hours of the scandal breaking, billions of VND in your clients market cap vanished into thin air. Boycotts of your clients products followed. Following a brief, short-term gain – your client suffered, Black PR.”
Consumer: “You two need to stop. Consumers like me are not experts in the world of commerce but we do know when we are being deceived. Black PR, you might successfully trick the public once, but that doesn’t mean you’ll succeed again. And to all the businesses out there, trying to play dirty to knock out the competitors and trick the public for their own benefits, we for sure will never use their service again. I don’t think any firm should risk losing it all for the short-term gain provided by a Black PR campaign.”
Media: “The consumer has spoken the truth. Whether it’s right or wrong, the truth should always be honored and we must compete in a healthy and fair environment. I will not sit still seeing the truth twisted.”
While alternative facts and fake news are posing huge problems around the world, Vietnam’s business community needs to recognize that there is no place for deceit in communicating with the public. Not only is false communications harmful to the public, but it’s also clearly bad for business. Vietnamese industry is making great strides. But there must be no future for Black PR, and the companies that practice it. The reputational damages caused are far too great.
By Nhi Luu, content executive and Hong Phan, PR executive at Vero IMC Vietnam (now EloQ Communications).