Adding a role at The Palm Scribe

Recently I added another role to my LinkedIn account and have since been getting lots of well wishes but also a number of concerned questions on whether I had stopped working at Maverick to become advisor at The Palm Scribe.

So here’s a note of explanation to the concerned and the curious.

Palm Scribe Logo

The first thing to point out is that the new title does not change anything at Maverick.

I continue to work there but because I’ve been fortunate to have found a very capable team who are able to take over much of what I do, I have decided to take Fridays off to reflect and have some me time; as well as to take on more of a mentor and advisory rather than operational role.

At the end of the day, however, this is a people and relationship business and if the clients need me I’m always there for them.

In the meantime, however, I’ve taken on the role as advisor in a platform run under the auspices of Maverick, The Palm Scribe.

What is The Palm Scribe?

In short The Palm Scribe is a platform that supports the development of the Indonesian palm oil industry through constructive journalism.

Like all elevator pitches, that description is meant to pique rather than provide a comprehensive explanation.

So if you’re piqued here’s the reasoning behind The Palm Scribe.

To start with, consider the palm oil industry.

It is complex and controversial because it is the frontline of many opposing issues: Sustainability vs environmental destruction, conversation vs deforestation, development vs conservation, East versus West, developed vs developing countries, palm oil vs soy, people vs big business, NGOs vs planters…

Strong opinions are expressed on all sides but the playing field is a bit uneven as its tilted in favor of the Western/Green advocates. There are several reasons why this is so.

  1. The Western players are more sophisticated in lobbying and communication techniques. They take their communications seriously and are more able to put their side of the story across. Their Asian/African counterparts do not take communications seriously and are usually outflanked.
  2. NGOs are social media savvy. They are hungrier because they have to earn their funding and as a result they are more innovative and creative in using paid, earned, shared and owned media to make themselves known. Many of them also realize that to persuade is to appeal to the emotions first and foremost an they succeed admirably.
  3. The mainstream media is devastated by falling readership and revenue. As a result they have few journalists and resources left to raise the right questions and issues and to ask the right questions of and hold accountable the policymakers, players and NGOs. Reactive journalism, click baiting stories and cut and paste reporting happens more often than we would want them to be.
  4. Most journalists think that palm oil players are slimeballs because they often do not act like they are open, accessible or accountable. Combined with #3, they are disposed to carry any attacks on the palm oil players prominently and tag on their responses (if they get around to issuing one at all in a timely manner) later in the story. By then the damage is done.
  5. The palm oil players themselves are bad communicators. Many of them are owned and run by business people more accustomed to deal making in backrooms than realizing that public opinion can affect their businesses. Others are run by families where bloodlines rather than competencies determine who is the decision maker. The result is that there are almost no oil palm player that can communicate in a persuasive, authentic and credible manner.
  6. Ineffective committees and trade associations. Apart from Malaysia that has quite an active lobbying and communications effort, their Indonesian counterparts are more mired in bureaucracy and pleasing all stakeholders rather than projecting a favorable image for the industry.
  7. Most importantly, however, because of all the elements mentioned above the public discourse on palm oil has gone askew. There is a world shortage of food and in edible oil that will be more acute with time. Of all the oil crops, palm oil is the most efficient oil to help address this shortage. As such you would think that the discourse on palm oil should be on how to make the industry strong, viable and sustainable. Unfortunately, however, most of the conversation and discourse on palm oil is about violations to conservation and sustainability standards (some arbitrarily advanced by this body or that) and the wrongdoings of the players. Something needs to be done about this if palm oil is indeed the crop for the future.

Having helped some palm oil companies manage attacks agains them as well as helping to tell their side of the story when it coms to sustainability issues, one of the things I realized is that many of the palm players are so traumatized by what they perceive is an antagonistic media/NGO environment that they do not know what to do. So many of them opt to keep their heads below the parapet instead. This does not serve them well because every negative story or article gets accumulated in Google and when investors and others want to find out about you, guess where they go to first?

Out of all this the idea of The Palm Scribe was born. Instead of fault-finding journalism we would adopt the principles of Constructive Journalism (a concept I personally poo pooed until I started to research more about it).

We would cover the palm oil industry, raise the issues that ned to be raised, ask the right questions. We would focus on the solutions the companies adopt or put in place in response to allegations of wrong doing. And we would also provide them a “non-editorial” space on our website to showcase their CSR, sustainability and community engagement efforts as well as space of their announcements and press releases.

In going into this we were aware that the success of such a platform rests on its credibility, judged by the quality of it content. As such, we scouted around and was fortunate to be able to enlist the talents of Bhimanto Suwasteyo, a veteran Indonesian journalist who has worked for AFP for years and one of the founding editors of The Jakarta Globe to generate our content. He works with Wicaksono, better known as Ndoro Kakung, who is a very respected name in social media circles, as well as a team that supports the content generation in the platform.

On the question of credibility, some might question whether a platform run by a PR consultancy can be trusted not to spin things. To them I can only say that if they understand what PR truly does they would understand that it is about getting companies and clients to communicate authentically and credibly. You cannot do that if your words are not matched with your actions.

Will The Palm Scribe work? Who knows. We live in an age of disruption where old ways of doing things no longer work and nobody can say with great certainty what does and what does not. We at Maverick think that this is worth a try because if we succeed we could potentially change how companies in controversial industries can communicate.

If you are still interested in The Palm Scribe, write to me at ong[at]maverick.co.id or check out its website.

Nestle getting away with it in Asia?

Nestle harvested a storm of protests in the West when it mishandled the Sinar Mas issue on social media. Yet it got away relatively scott free in Asia, or so the industry voices including Unspun’s alter ego think in this article in Media:

Apathy reigns in Asia over Nestle’s saga and social media mess

28-Apr-10, 12:44

Thanks to Facebook and other social media channels, Nestlé has in recent weeks had to deal with an enormous public relations mess, the source of which lay deep in the Indonesian rainforest. But as international condemnation grows, why has the region stayed silent?

The trigger for the controversy is by now well known – an online video posted by Greenpeace featuring an office worker accidentally biting into an orangutan finger instead of a Kit Kat. The video was designed to draw attention to the NGO’s battle with Nestlé over its relationship with Indonesian company Sinar Mas Group, which has been accused of illegal deforestation of rainforests – the habitat of orangutans.

The food giant flexed its muscles and managed to get the Greenpeace video removed from YouTube, a step that angered thousands of consumers, prompting them to take on the company through Twitter and on its Facebook fan page. The inept handling of social media channels by a Nestlé representative attracted a barrage of negative comments. Nestlé has since admitted it has learnt a big lesson from its social media ineptness and accepted that that it is still “learning about how best to use social media”.

But while the incident has inflamed online passions in the West, it does not seem to have affected the average Asian consumer too much. The two largest producers of palm oil globally – Indonesia and Malaysia – have been relatively unaffected by the controversy, with no serious protests covered in the local media or in the social media space. And although Nestlé has been forced to bow to international online pressure, the incident has so far had little impact on palm oil production or indeed government legislation in these two countries.

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