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.

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