In the past couple of weeks, that old adage about bad publicity has taken a bit of a battering. And – if I don’t say it, someone else will – so did a customer of Kentucky Fried Chicken, now so consumed by branding that it trades under its acronym.
While we’re on the subject of consumption, I don’t know what is most depressing about this fast-food fracas. KFC is quite the cash cow (or chicken, certainly) and there’s a neat symmetry to the way the squabbling that characterised KFC at the board level for so many years has finally infected the level that actually generates the money.
Then there’s the fact that commentary across the social media networks has taken on racial overtones, a reference to KFC Holdings (Malaysia) Bhd’s predominantly Malay ownership as well as the difference in ethnicities between customer and server. So now food has gone from being a low-effort, low-impact way to appreciate diversity to just another racial faultline. Tell you what – it brings a whole new dimension to American-style fried chicken.
But it’s worth going back a little further to explore the roots of the poultry punch-up. In between Malaysia Plans of various denominations and Visions of varying accuracy, in the shift from an agriculture to industry, Malaysia has never had an economy based on service.
Consider the implications – there are Malaysians who consider some jobs, particularly in the service industry, beneath them. Spending on training or development in these jobs is minimal. Likewise, employers pay a pittance, meaning workers usually come from a low-income, low-education background. Continued difficulties in finding employees mean that employers occasionally turn to foreign, sometimes illegal, workers, reinforcing ethnic, national and class divides.
The end result of this is that many customers walking into a restaurant (or any retail outlet) expect to be treated like royalty. They may think of eating or shopping there, but they would never dream of working there; they don’t respect the work, they don’t respect the workers, and they then question why those employees don’t take pride in the job they do. Too many pontificate about equality in the upper echelons of society, and refuse to acknowledge its existence on either side of the counter.
I’d also like to speak to the Curtin University public relations team, the people who advised their higher-ups that Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor was a good candidate for an honorary doctorate. Curtin’s official statement actually makes a decent case for the award, but the Prime Minister’s wife is no stranger to controversy, and the reaction is hardly surprising.
Those videos of Curtin alumni burning certificates and the general outpouring of scorn have been featured in publications across Australia, not just because it’s an Australian university but also because of falling student enrolments. Numbers have been down as the Australian dollar grows in strength, but there’s very much an image issue at stake here following a spate of student bashings in 2009.
With these concerns, there’s plenty of ammunition for a civil protest, one conducted with some modicum of dignity. Comments about Rosmah’s gender and fashion sense aren’t helpful; in fact, they’re about as constructive and witty as the posters of Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng and Bersih chairperson Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan. Protests that affect profits might get a reaction; personal attacks just foster a siege mentality.
And finally, the BBC has issued a suitably contrite apology for accepting money from PR clients to feature certain countries in documentaries. Malaysia, of course, features prominently, having paid a reported £17 million to the broadcaster for “global strategic communications” across eight documentaries. Whichever minor or major official came up with this plan should be saluted – better to spend money on a brand like the BBC, a brand with international cachet, than on fighter jets or another billion-dollar phallic vanity project. Well played, sir or ma’am, well played – the only problem was that you got caught, but just for once that isn’t your fault.