The ParknShop PR Campaign

Here is the PR disaster as shown on the front page of the January 25, 2007 edition of Apple Daily:

Headline: "ParknShop's reputation wipes the floor"

Here is the PR effort as reported in The Standard (by Winnie Chong):

ParknShop moved late Wednesday to defend itself in the wake of concerns over codfish.

"We never had any intention to mislead our customers, and we did not in fact mislead them," said Peter Johnston, general manager for quality, food safety and regulatory affairs for the company's Hong Kong retail branch.  "What ParknShop does is over and above the legal requirements of Hong Kong," Johnston said, pointing out that the government does not require frozen fish to have certificates.

Johnston told an evening press conference that all of its codfish was imported from Indonesia, and came with certificates from the country's health authorities that he calls "reliable."  He said that labels in the store contained lots of information for the consumers, including the fish's scientific name, ruvettus pretiosus.  Johnston added that confusion over the exact name of the fish - blue codfish, codfish and oil fish - was likely to have been caused by translation errors, though he admitted he is in no position to comment on translation issues.

Hong Kong laboratories are conducting DNA testing on fatty acid in the fish to determine their precise species. Johnston said the company has yet to receive results from the analysis.  He pointed out that when the Centre for Food Safety advised ParknShop to take all the fish off the shelves Friday, the stores did so immediately.  Johnston urged customers to contact the supermarket chain, saying the complaints would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

ParknShop has also apologized to customers and offered refunds for those who can prove they bought the fish from its outlets.  The company further assured consumers it is reviewing internal procedures to ensure customers have sufficient information on what they are buying in future.

But here is the analysis by Apple Daily columnist Song Hon Seng:

Once the matter was exposed, the supermarket took it very seriously and immediately called a press conference.  This is live material for crisis management of public relations and a required course of study.

Trick #1 -- the selection of the speakers.  This was the unbeatable combination of a foreign man (note: Peter Johnston, general manager for quality, food safety and regulatory affairs) and a local female.  On one hand, using a foreign male can raise the western colonial prestige still living in the sub-conscious and turn down the volume of any objections.  On the other hand, the blame can be shifted to language barrier.  You can say 'codfish' or 'oilfish', but I can't speak your language.  Therefore I cannot comment.  Anyway, I use Latin terms (such as Ruvettus pretiosus) and I am therefore at a different level.  Meanwhile, the local female plays the role of lubricant.  Softness accompanied by hardness.

Trick #2 -- the positioning.  For any controversy, the most important thing is to frame the debate.  Once the issue is framed, defined and constructed, you can take the lead and direct the discussion into a position that is favorable to you.  The foreign male observed the rules very carefully.  No matter what the question was, he just repeatedly and repeatedly waved the piece of paper allegedly issued by the Indonesian authorities.  Again and again, he told everybody that the supermarket was just following the name on the local birth certicate.  Here is the evidence, here is the proof and there is no deception involved.

(photo: The Standard)

While people have their attention on the name of the fish, along came irrelevancies such as "the discussion about the reliability of the Indonesian government on  matter of food safety" or "the comparative superiority of the Chinese, English and Latin languages in the scientific world" or "the Brazilian pork chops being sold may or may not be the beef shanks that the Chinese people are talking about" and so on.  The more the discussion goes astray, the supermarket is extracted further from the case.  Once the citizens reconize the the supermarket is also a victim, then it is mission accomplished.

Trick #3: Sit tight and do nothing, until the incident is spread out to the suppliers and other sales outlets.

In theory, the supermarket really did its work.  It had used brackets to indicate the alternative title and it also published a warning notice at the bottom.

Cod Fish (Oil Fish Ruvettus Pretiosus)

The problem is that the supermarket is being too clear.  With so many sneaky little moves, does it not show that it fully recognized that there may be a problem, and it is trying to cover its tracks in order to avoid legal liability?  Yes, this is written for the consumer to read.  Yes, it is the local name of the fish.  But the problem is not with the name of the fish, so there is no point in getting entangled over it.

The real problem is very simple.  You go to the supermarket and buy the fish.  You bring it home and feed it to your family of four plus the little doggie.  After eating a normal amount, all of you (plus the little doggie) had multiple bouts of diarrhea.  Even in your sleep, you were emitting "oily farts."  Do you think that your company was keeping a good watch on things?  Is this the way that you usually treat your customers?  If we suffered this way, shouldn't you apologize?  As for your employees who selected the fish to stock, are they of such poor quality that they could not tell between the two types of fish, or were they deliberately misleading people?  Does your company hope that the citizens' trust in your products is reduced to a point that they have to read every single word on your package to see if there are sentences such as "this fish will cause stomach aches among half the pepole, so we wish you the best of luck" or "this vegetable contains strong poison, so you better hope for the best"?

The supermarket was being very clever and smart.  Through dodging and evading, it won a battle.  But it lost the war.

(The Standard)  ParknShop says certificate wrongly named fish.  By Caroline Kim.  January 30, 2007.

Leading supermarket chain ParknShop, which has been the target of criticisms over the sale of wrongly-labeled oilfish, has again denied allegations that it deliberately sold the harmful fish as codfish, saying the chain had labeled the product based on the description on its health certificate.  Following Indonesian consul Nugroho Yuwono Aribhimo's statement Sunday that a translation error could have been made in the package labels of imported oilfish, ParknShop said the health certificate issued by the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries for the fish had been confirmed as "genuine."

"Although no consensus over the name of the fish has been made, we're certain that as the certificate shows, the labels had been marked according to the product description which reads `frozen codfish,"' a ParknShop spokeswoman said.  She also said although Hong Kong does not legally require health certificates for frozen seafood, the chain had taken the initiative to use such records.  However, the chain has begun collaborating with relevant government departments, experts and academics to explore the area of product labeling.  "We're looking into options for supplementary descriptions," the spokeswoman added.

Lawmaker Fred Li Wah-ming, deputy chairman of the Legislative Council's food safety and environmental hygiene panel, hopes the government will not wait for another food scare before taking legislative action.  "Fish was not defined as food until fears about malachite green surfaced," Li said, urging the government to take a more proactive approach with its plans to draft a comprehensive bill on imports of both seawater and freshwater aquatic products.

The incident has stirred growing suspicions over possibilities that suppliers had deliberately mixed-up the names of fish.  "The Indonesian consulate has already clarified that there's something wrong there," Li said.

The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department is seeking legal advice from the Department of Justice and could not comment on the DNA tests which have been launched, a FEHD spokeswoman said.  According to the spokeswoman, the department has so far received 620 complaints since the oilfish scare erupted last week.

ParknShop, which imports most of its codfish from Indonesia, has continued to sell a different type of the fish and said recent incidents have not had a major impact on its business.  However, a Consumer Council spokeswoman said ParknShop should have been more informed about the products before ordering them.  "If you're a professional buyer, you should know right away, based on the price and appearance of the fish, that something's wrong despite the erroneous translation," she said.