The necessity of the moral corporate voice

From a Public Relations perspective, I can’t think of an easier way for a company to show its humanity than by condemning genocide and endorsing recommendations for a peaceful resolution in Myanmar.

The United Nations, the official body representing international consensus has already characterised the situation in Rakhine state as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing“.  The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, which issued a detailed report about the repression and violence against the Rohingya and offered solutions, was a project of the Kofi Annan Foundation, headed by the former UN Secretary General who initiated the Global Compact with big business in the year 2000.  There is no controversy in the international community about the nature of what is happening in Myanmar, and companies risk nothing by taking a stand consistent with the position of the UN.  On the contrary, reluctance to do so sends a very negative message making people wonder if companies invested in Myanmar even care that crimes against humanity are being committed; or worse, if they might actually approve of the genocide.

Western multinationals may feel that their foothold in Myanmar is delicate, and that they are at a disadvantage compared to China.  They may believe that if they take a stand on the Rohingya issue, Myanmar will simply rush into the arms of Chinese companies and investors, and they will lose their position in the country.  But the truth is, if they do not take a stand, they run the risk of alienating the broader market of 600 million consumers in Southeast Asia, not to mention people worldwide who are concerned about this issue.

Myanmar is extremely interested in diversifying the sources of its Foreign Direct Investment, and by definition, investment by Western companies brings more value than investment by Chinese companies.  The value of investment is not always derived from the amount of capital, but by the importance of the source of the capital.  And Myanmar is struggling to move away from dependence on Chinese financial support.  Furthermore, the core cause of the violence in Rakhine state is based on the economic ambitions of the government, with a view to improving its position for collaboration with foreign investors and corporations.  A public statement against the violence, and calling for implementation of UN recommendations would be far more likely to result in a cessation of ethnic cleansing than a rejection of Western companies.

Companies like Unilever, Nestle, Shell Oil, Chevron, and so forth, are the targets of almost continuous negative campaigns by human rights and environmental activists who portray them as ruthless, inhuman and corrupt entities that care more about profits than people.  Obviously, this is unfair and simplistic and overlooks the many positive initiatives these companies undertake for the populations where they operate.  But keeping silent about something as horrific as genocide will make it very difficult for any average person to view a company as socially responsible no matter what else it does to prove that it cares about humanity. And, of course, this negative perception will have detrimental market implications.

If taking a stand against crimes against humanity is not the lowest standard of corporate social responsibility, I don’t know what is.  It is becoming more urgent by the day for the international business community to align itself with the consensus of the broader international community and let their customers know where they stand before their silence is interpreted as either indifference or complicity.

We sincerely urge all major corporate investors in Myanmar, and even those who have not entered Myanmar, to join with their consumer constituents, with the United Nations, and with companies like Unilever and Telenor, to publicly declare “We Are All Rohingya Now”.

Corporate giants affirming support for Rohingya

An ongoing military operation in Rakhine state which the government claims targets militants, but which has caused at least 30% of the Rohingya civilian population to flee the country, and left possibly thousands dead; is raising ethical questions about foreign investment in a country accused of committing genocide.

The #WeAreAllRohingyaNow Campaign, an initiative by independent activists around the world, has been highlighting the role of the international business community in contributing to a solution to the crisis. “If you compare the world news coverage of Myanmar and the reporting in the business press, you would think they are talking about two different countries,” says Jamila Hanan, the campaign’s director.  “On the one hand, the United Nations is saying that Myanmar presents a textbook case of ethnic cleansing, and the Security Council is condemning the scorched-earth policy of the army; and on the other hand, Myanmar is being touted as a great destination for foreign investment, with no reluctance being expressed about mass killings, gang-rapes, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Investors are increasingly going to have to take a stand on this issue unless they want their brands to be associated with crimes against humanity.”

#WeAreAllRohingyaNow has been reaching out to multinational corporations invested in Myanmar and urging them to publicly commit to the protection of the Rohingya, often referred to as “the world’s most persecuted minority”, and to endorse United Nations recommendations for resolving the crisis.

The first company to respond to their call was Unilever, the third largest consumer goods company in the world.  “CEO Paul Polman replied to us immediately, and after a brief social media campaign, Unilever did indeed publicly affirm its support for the Rohingya,” Hanan explains.  “After a much longer campaign, we were able to help Norwegian telecom company Telenor, also a major investor in Myanmar, understand the urgency of the issue, and they too pledged their commitment to the human rights of the Rohingya”.

The campaign’s strategy seems to be turning the tide in favour of a business-led effort to end the genocide.  On Saturday, Paul Polman joined the #WeAreAllRohingyaNow hashtag on Twitter, in a tweet emphasizing the importance of reviving empathy in international relations, and presumably, in business as well.  As major corporations are beginning to doubt the wisdom of doing business amidst ongoing ethnic cleansing, even governments are becoming more sensitive about pursuing trade agreements with Myanmar.  On 14 September, the European Parliament Committee on International Trade decided to postpone indefinitely its visit to Myanmar due to the deteriorating human rights situation in the country. The Chair of the Committee, Bernd Lange said in a press statement “It is clear that under these conditions, the ratification of an investment agreement with Myanmar is not possible”.

“Rakhine state holds much of Myanmar’s untapped resources,” says Shahid Bolsen, the Campaign’s chief strategist.  “It is going to be extremely difficult for investors to benefit from the development of those resources without being regarded as complicit in the crimes of the army; particularly since there are development plans in precisely those areas where massacres are taking place.  Furthermore, even companies that have no direct interests in Rakhine state are, nevertheless, starting to be viewed as enablers of the army’s crackdown because the regime is facing no economic backlash from investors, which seems to embolden the government to defy international criticism”.

The government in Yangon still believes that its iron-fisted policy in Rakhine state will not alienate investors.  U Aung Naing Oo, director-general of Directorate of Investment and Company Administration said on Friday, “Ongoing conflicts do not have an impact on foreign investment, so we have nothing to worry about”.  However, his further contention that businessmen “care more about their business opportunities” than about human rights violations and political repression, seems to run counter to what was expressed by Paul Polman when he tweeted, “We have forgotten how to rescue each other. Human empathy is key to our survival”

The #WeAreAllRohingyaNow Campaign has highlighted the role of the private sector in resolving the crisis in Myanmar, and more and more companies are likely to follow the moral leadership of giants like Unilever and Telenor to use their considerable influence to stop what many observers are calling the 21st Century’s worst full-blown genocide.

#DumpDigi to stand with the Rohingya

The #WeAreAllRohingnyaNow Campaign has begun calling upon Malaysian customers of Digi to switch their service provider to any of the local companies in protest against Digi’s parent company Telenor over their stubborn silence on the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, where Telenor is heavily invested.

The campaign has been reaching out to the Norwegian telecom company for months, encouraging them to follow the example of Unilever (which has also invested millions of dollars in Myanmar), to issue a public statement in support of UN recommendations for resolving the crisis, and calling for the protection of the Muslim minority. Unilever pledged a firm commitment and suffered no negative repercussions to its investments in the country, but Telenor has not only refused to take a public stand, but has rather adopted policies that seem to align with the divisive agenda of the regime; including an educational programme offered exclusively through Buddhist monastic schools.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees have fled to Malaysia and the issue of Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing resonates deeply with the majority Muslim population, who perceive the persecution as being motivated by religious bigotry.

Telenor’s Digi subsidiary in Malaysia has become one of the main telecom providers in the country over the past several years, and many customers are unaware that Digi belongs to Telenor, and do not know about Telenor’s investments in Myanmar; so they have yet to make the connection between Digi and the ongoing strife in Rakhine state, and Telenor’s potential capacity to intervene. And the company surely hopes that Malaysians will never make that connection.

Telenor CEO Sigve Brekke himself acknowledged his company’s power recently when he shared an article on Twitter about the enormous impact of ‘Myanmar’s telecom revolution’, yet Telenor continues to refuse to utter a single word about the internationally recognized human rights abuses committed by the regime against the Rohingya.

If we want Telenor to change its stance on this issue, we have to change our stance on Telenor. Malaysian customers of Digi need to deliver a clear message to Telenor that they will choose a telecom company that reflects their values and that cares about the issues that matter to them. Local providers such as Maxis and Celcom do not have investments in Myanmar, and customers can opt for either of them, or indeed, for any of the other Digi competitors in Malaysia that do not seek profit through indifference to the suffering of their fellow Muslims.

Stand with the Rohingya and #DumpDigi today!

The Only Winning Business Strategy for Telenor Digi

Telenor’s company in Malaysia, Digi, has just released their report for the second financial quarter of 2017. Despite the expected spin the company attempts with the results, the numbers are grim. Revenues are down, net profit is down, share price is down, and shareholder dividends are the lowest they have ever been. Digi, and Telenor, are struggling to adapt to the Southeast Asian market, and they are floundering. We can debate the factors that have led to the decline of the business, but at the end of the day, there is only one conclusion: poor strategic management.

The #WeAreAllRohingyaNow Campaign has been reaching out to Telenor for months now, advising them that their stubborn silence on the issue of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar is alienating customers in Malaysia and throughout the region. We submit that any company must consider the mood of consumers, and respect their values and concerns. They must consider the impact their political stances (or lack thereof) have on their appeal in the market. Telenor seems to be determined to ignore this. Conventional financial advisors also tend to overlook public sentiment as a factor in evaluating the attractiveness of a company for investors. This is a serious mistake. Public opinion cannot be disregarded.

It can be argued, of course, that Telenor’s decline in Malaysia has nothing to do with the Rohingya issue; but that is missing the point. Telenor’s business in Malaysia IS in decline, and there is no sign of improvement. The first quarter of 2017 was worse than the first quarter of 2016; and the second quarter is even worse than the first quarter. Telenor is obligated to increase market share, revenues, profitability, share value, and dividends. They are failing to meet these obligations with what is becoming reliable consistency.

They need to do something to turn this around.

Their best option in this regard would be for them to tap into the broad public sentiment for the Rohingya issue. Whatever the cause of their decline; making a positive public statement in support of the Rohingya and for the implementation of UN recommendations could win them droves of new customers in Malaysia who would appreciate the company taking a moral stance that reflects their own concerns and values. The #WeAreAllRohingyaNow Campaign would gladly encourage the public to embrace Digi if Telenor issued such a statement.

No matter how you look at it, the only winning strategy for any company is to align itself with the issues their consumer constituency cares about. We sincerely advise and encourage Telenor to finally come out against the genocide in Myanmar, and endear themselves to consumers in the regional market so they can begin to find their way out of the downward spiral of dwindling profits that, otherwise, appears irreversible.

Market Morality: Telenor’s Silence Alienating Consumers

For Norwegian translation see below.

Telenor, I am sure Digi is a good service, consumers in Malaysia could probably benefit from it; but you have to appeal to this market through the issues that matter to the consumers, and you have to adopt the values they share; otherwise it doesn’t matter how great your service is, customers will abandon you; as they have been doing for months now.

The #WeAreAllRohingyaNow Campaign is not your enemy. We don’t want to see Telenor fail, as it is failing. But your silence on the Rohingya genocide is starting to look less and less like mere apathy, and more and more like collusion with the bigots and extremists among the government, military, and radical nationalists.

Your recent educational initiative based in monastic schools, excluding the Rohingya, is not the positive PR you hoped it would be; on the contrary, it makes your company appear to be fully aligned with the prejudice and discrimination that is tearing Arakan apart, making day to day life dangerous and miserable for religious minorities like the Rohingya, and undermining even the possibility of reconciliation and peace.

You have to understand that this has a massive impact on the attractiveness of your brand to regional consumers. And it will only get worse the longer you stay silent. Customers have choices, and they are increasingly making their choices on the basis of how companies behave, not just on the quality and cost of the goods and services they provide.

Telenor needs to get ahead of the curve and adapt to this new dynamic in consumer decision-making. It is no longer possible for companies to stay aloof from politics; the market rule of supply and demand is starting to include demand for the moral exercise of corporate power. We want more from you than what you manufacture or provide.

Moral i markedet, Telenors stillhet gjør at kundegrupper tar avstand fra dem

Telenor, jeg er sikker på at Digi er en god tjeneste, forbrukere i Malaysia kunne nok ha nytte av den; Men du må appellere til dette markedet gjennom problemene som er viktige for forbrukerne, og du må adoptere verdiene de deler; Ellers spiller det ingen rolle hvor bra din tjeneste er, kundene vil forlate deg; Som de har gjort i flere måneder nå. -kampanjen er ikke din fiende. Vi ønsker ikke å se Telenor mislykkes. Men stillheten deres angående folkemordet i Rohingya begynner å se mindre og mindre ut som bare apati, og mer og mer som samspill med de fordumsfulle og ekstremister i regjeringen, militæret og radikale nasjonalister. Ditt siste pedagogiske initiativ basert på klosterskoler, ekskluderer Rohingyaene, og er ikke det positive PR dere håpet det ville være; Tvert imot ser det ut til at firmaet ser ut til å være helt i samsvar med fordommer og diskriminering som slår Arakan fra hverandre, noe som gjør livet til livsfarlig og elendig for religiøse minoriteter som Rohingya, og undergraver selv muligheten for forsoning og fred. Du må forstå at dette har en stor innvirkning på merkevarenes attraktivitet for regionale forbrukere. Og det blir bare verre jo lengre du blir stille. Kunder har valg, og de gjør i økende grad sine valg på grunnlag av hvordan bedrifter oppfører seg, ikke bare på kvaliteten og kostnaden av de varer og tjenester de tilbyr. Telenor trenger å komme i forkant avutviklingen og tilpasse seg denne nye dynamikken i beslutningsprosesser for forbrukerne. Det er ikke lenger mulig for bedrifter å holde seg utenfor politikken; Markedsregelen for tilbud og etterspørsel begynner å inkludere etterspørsel etter den moralske utøvelsen av bedriftskraft. Vi vil ha mer fra dere enn det dere produserer eller tilbyr.

Telenor’s Failing Strategy of Silence

The #WeAreAllRohingyaNow Campaign has been reaching out to Norwegian telecom company Telenor for several weeks now, encouraging them to stand with companies like Unilever against the ongoing genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, and to support the implementation of United Nations recommendations, including the restoration of Rohingya citizenship.

Telenor has invested over a billion and a half dollars in Myanmar and has more than 80,000 points of sale across the country, with plans for further expansion.  They are a company with considerable influence in Myanmar.

Telenor has publicly supported UN goals on reducing inequality and they promote an image of themselves as a “socially responsible” and culturally sensitive company. However, direct correspondence with Telenor CEO Sigve Brekke has gone unanswered, social media activists have been temporarily blocked from executives’ Twitter accounts, and even though the Telenor hashtag is now dominated by messages encouraging the company to take a moral stand against the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, and these messages experience far greater interaction than anything posted by Telenor themselves, the company remains unresponsive.

It appears that their marketing department believes all they have to do to win customers in the region is to regularly tweet about cricket matches and announce special promotions; but that they do not have to extricate themselves from the growing perception that they are a company complicit in the crimes being committed against the Rohingya by the Myanmar government on a daily basis.

But a company cannot claim to be socially responsible while simultaneously being unresponsive to the concerns of the society.  We have been urging Telenor to understand that consumers in the Southeast Asian region care deeply about the Rohingya issue, and that their market choices are going to reflect this concern.  Silence in the face of genocide is not only immoral; it is an extremely bad business strategy in a region where the public cares about the issue.

Telenor’s most recent quarterly report substantiates this.  Subscribers in Malaysia for Telenor’s Digi service have been switching to other providers by the hundreds of thousands.  The company’s profits in Malaysia have fallen nearly $100 million below projections.  Stock traders have downgraded the value of Telenor’s  appeal and are anticipating turbulence in the company’s share price.  This is partly due to European Commission allegations that Telenor is guilty of anti-competition practices, but of course, it is also due to the dramatic deterioration of their market share in this region and their subsequent failure to meet profit goals.

Telenor’s silence on the Rohingya genocide is stigmatizing the company in Southeast Asia.  This is the Catch-22 situation for any company that has chosen to use Myanmar as a launching platform for penetrating the regional market.  They invest in Myanmar so they can access customers in the region, but by being in Myanmar, they are alienating those customers, because of the actions of the government.  The only solution to this Catch-22 conundrum, the only way they can make their investments in Myanmar pay off, is if they decide to use the leverage their investments give them to press for a political resolution to the issue.  There is nothing Telenor could possibly do that would win them more customer loyalty and appreciation in the region than this.

The #WeAreAllRohingyaNow Campaign has no animosity towards Telenor or any other multinational corporation invested in Myanmar; and we want to see them succeed.  They can improve the quality of goods and services, create jobs, and enhance the standard of living for the whole population.   But, in order for that to actually happen, it simply cannot be at the expense of the lives of over a million innocent Rohingya.  If Telenor embraces the values held by consumers in this region, consumers in this region will embrace Telenor.  If they ignore our concerns, the market will continue to turn away from them.

It is that simple.

Telenor’s PR Quagmire

The #WeAreAllRohingyaNow Campaign has been reaching out to Norwegian telecom company Telenor for several weeks.  Their Twitter and Facebook hashtags are now dominated by messages from human rights activists calling upon them to take a public stand to support the Rohingya, and no tweets on the #telenor hashtag experience interaction more than these.  At one point, Telenor’s Head of Sustainability, which falls under the section of Social Responsibility, actually blocked social media activists from her account; not exactly the best way to express respect for public concerns.

The company is descending into a PR pit both internationally and domestically.  Aside from the growing negative sentiment over the Telenor’s silence on the Rohingya issue, Telenor is facing an investigation into its corporate policies. The European Commission raided Telenor’s office in Sweden amidst accusations of anti-competitive practices.  Telenor has responded by pointing fingers at Swedish telecoms.  The company appears to have a somewhat dysfunctional PR approach to handling controversy.

Whoever is advising Telenor on its marketing strategy is severely miscalculating the gravity of the Rohingya issue.  We are not talking about a labour dispute; we are not talking about a complaint about where a mobile phone tower is being built.  We are talking about the systematic, brutal ethnic cleansing of an entire population, that has been meticulously documented, reported by the international press, and spurred numerous United Nations investigations, resolutions, and investigations.  Myanmar is ranked the third highest risk country in the world for erupting into a full-blown genocide; and Telenor is burying its head in the sand.  Instead of addressing the serious concerns of the consumers in the Southeast Asian market, they are tweeting about cricket matches.  “Asians love cricket, let’s show we are culturally aware”…can you get any more dismissive and obnoxious than that?  Do Telenor executives really think this is a good PR approach?  Is the marketing department being run by first year interns?

Just within the past couple weeks, reports continue to flood in about the deliberate use of sexual violence, gang rape, mutilation, murder of men, women, children, infants and the elderly, by the Myanmar security forces; Nazi flags were being waved on the traditional new year, arbitrary detentions occur daily, Buddhist extremists set fire to a mosque with protection by the police; Arakan state is deteriorating into a hellish chaos of violence, hatred, terror, and radicalism, all with active state coordination, in a country where Telenor has invested over a billion and a half dollars and wields significant influence.

Every day that they choose to ignore the atrocities and the pleas of activists from across the region to take a stand, they are in fact taking a stand in support of genocide by their approving silence.

Will Ooredoo, the Qatar-based telecom be as complacent about the slaughter of their fellow Muslims, and be as dismissive about the sympathetic sentiments of the region? Telenor needs to consider that they have a limited window of opportunity to take the lead in adopting a moral position on the Rohingya issue before they lose the market, their reputation, and earn the contempt of history for their indifference.