Brands look for ways to navigate social tensions in Thailand

Businesses and influencers have had to manoeuvre polarising messaging around ongoing pro-democracy protests.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Months-long protests in Thailand continue to rage on as thousands of people take to the streets to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his cabinet as well as call for constitutional changes to reform the power of the monarchy.

Amid this challenging period, PR agencies in Thailand have been reflecting on plenty of big questions such as "Is it possible for brands and businesses to totally separate their missions from polarising social issues?" and "Can media and business leaders truly take a 'no politics' stance?"

Digital and PR agency Vero speaks to PRWeek Asia about observations and insights around brand and corporate communications in Thailand during this particularly rickety period.

"This situation is unique for every single business, and they all need to look at their own data, and make decisions based on what they think is best for their business and for society," says Brian Griffin, CEO at Vero. "And those things are clearly linked—you can't have a good business but a society that's not also functioning well."

For the most part, brands in Thailand haven't been seen to take sides in the matter, contrary to the situation in Hong Kong last year where persistent pro-democracy protests saw brands—especially small- and medium-sized enterprises—being more clear about where they stand on the issue.

Theerada Moonsiri, content supervisor at Vero, says that young people leading the protests in Thailand are calling out brands to take a stand, and some brands have had to deal with boycotts as a consequence.

There have been instances where very small family businesses might be speedier when it comes to making unilateral decisions about where they stand. Moonsiri brings up an example of a clothing store at Bangkok's Platinum Fashion Mall that put up a handwritten note discouraging pro-democracy protestors to shop at the store.

However, if there was one area of messaging that brands have agreed on, it's the one on non-violence. "Back in October, after the tense situation when police shot water cannon to the protesters for the first time, we saw influencers, celebrities, and some media post statements on their social media about not supporting the use of violence via water cannon," says Moonsiri.

"However, they didn't say that they are or aren't with pro-democracy protestors. So we think that this anti-violence stance and messaging may be a topic that most stakeholders can fully agree upon."

One group that brands had started navigating around was influencers. "There were a number of situations where influencers were taking one side or the other," says Griffin. "And then there were discussions from brands about how to manage that. And we were advising our clients in those situations."

He adds that there are influencers on both sides in Thailand, and family dynamics may play a part in where they stand. Despite repercussions that influencers may face when making political statements, Griffin says that authenticity is an important part of how they build their business.

"Ultimately, I do think that it's a business. We've done some studies on the levels of trust that influencers generate, and it's among the highest levels in any form of media. And I think that it comes from appearing authentic through their channels," he says.

Brands should also leverage data during this time to help them make decisions, Griffin says. For example, protestors are primarily made up of millennials and Gen Z and brands that cater to these audiences should place thought about where their content is occurring and where adspend is taking place because protestors are increasingly observing if brands are supporting media that are lined up against their interests.

When it comes to the media, Griffin draws parallels to the US where some outlets might take differing stances on politics. "For decades, there's been certain political alignment or certain perceptions among media outlets. And that's not new at all. But I think that the intensity of how people perceive it is perhaps new," he says.

Internal comms has also been a slippery slope for organisations, but Griffin says that not all companies have to weigh in on the issue. "Every company has a unique set of decisions to make. And this depends on the demographic, the make-up, and where they're located," he says.

Moonsiri brings up one example of a factory in Thailand that told employees if they wished to participate in political activities, they weren't allowed to wear protest T-shirts into work.

Griffin says: "For companies that have large factions of people from both sides, they have to be very careful about what they're communicating."


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