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Malaysian ministry's series of 'sexist' social posts a wake up call on purposeful PSA

Malaysian ministry's series of 'sexist' social posts a wake up call on purposeful PSA

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Malaysia's Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (KPWKM) has apologised for its public service announcements (PSA) that missed the mark in promoting harmony and happiness at home during the quarantine period.

KPWKM was on the receiving end of public uproar yesterday when its series of PSAs went viral and was criticised for being "degrading" and "sexist" towards women. While KPWKM had good intentions, they certainly were not evident in the Facebook posts. Its first PSA was released on Facebook on 27 March, and touched on creating a temporary work station at home, as well as the appearance of work from home mothers. It advised them to avoid wearing home clothes and dress up as usual, dress neatly and put on make up. The PSA also had an image of a female wearing heels while using her laptop.

Another recent PSA by the ministry on Facebook, which has since been deleted, gave tips on how couples can live happily and avoid insinuating arguments at home during the Movement Control Order (MCO) period. Advice to women included controlling one's emotions and not being quick to argue. Netizens, however, took issue with the one of the tips on educating one's spouses on household chores. To prevent arguments, wives were advised to speak in a "Doraemon-like" tone and giggle coyly (tiru nada Doraemon dan diikuti dengan gelak manja!).


Nonetheless, later that evening, the ministry apologised for some of the tips shared being inappropriate and vowed to be more careful in the future. "We are taking feedback from several parties regarding the tips for women during the MCO period published on social media. The approached was taken to share methods and practices to maintain positive relationships in the family while working from home," it said in an apology posted on social media. The tips and positive messages are done as part of the #wanitacegahcovid19 campaign, it added.

Comments on Facebook and Instagram seen by A+M were mostly negative, with many netizens lambasting the post for being "sexist" and "misogynistic". Some netizens said the posts embraced "toxic masculinity", reached new levels of victim blaming and are far from empowering. Others were in disbelief that the content was not called out prior to publishing, and called for more wholesome content to be promoted instead of such "sexist" images. Amidst the furore, Doraemon memes have also sprouted up on the internet and some female netizens also took parody videos of themselves speaking in a Doraemon-like tone.

According to social intelligence firm Wisesight, 86.98% of the sentiments online were negative and the trending keywords included "Doraemon", "voice", "minister", "home", "husband" and "women". Overall, there were 47,866 engagements and 5,730 mentions throughout 31 March regarding this topic. The number of engagements, in particular, peaked at 11,583 at 1pm. Wisesight added that 12% of the mentions by netizens said rather than producing "useless tips" such as these, the ministry should instead focus on addressing the issue of home abuse and the welfare of single parents during the MCO.

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Meanwhile, statistics from Meltwater showed that 54% of the online mentions were negative, while 21% were positive. Similarly, trending themes include "doraemon voice", "women" and "home". 

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While PSAs are generally messages produced by the government or public sectors to create awareness of an important problem or issue, and is meant to empower people with information and advice to promote social change, Janitha Sukumaran, founder of Rantau Golin, told A+M that the latest PSAs by KPWKM were "a complete disgrace" as it failed to impart any worthy message.

"It was insulting and misogynistic, and has caused more social anger and discord than good," she said.  According to Sukumaran, it does not matter whether the minister Rina Harun is aware of these PSAs. As minister, she is the face of the ministry and "the lack of sensitivity and intelligence in the PSAs in question is a direct reflection of her as a leader".

The general takeaway is that her ‘house’ is not in order; she lacks leadership quality; her team is shockingly unprofessional.

Sukumaran said this should be a teaching to all organisations - government, non-government and private - that you cannot allow an inexperienced person to manage your communications, more so at times of risk management, when every communication is gold. "There must be an experienced and qualified gatekeeper who understands the organisation’s values, messaging and direction, and how a piece of communication will fit into the current or foreseeable future before approving it for sharing with the public," she explained. Sukumaran added:

Each post on social media is like a ticking time bomb and all you need is for one person to share your post to start the timer.

If the ministry's aim was to grab attention, she said. But at what cost? In this instance, both the ministry and its minister have lost credibility and trust, and instead became a point of mockery. Sukumaran also found the ministry's apology to be "unacceptable" as it claims that some of the tips shared may have been unsuitable and may have been sensitive to “specific groups”.

"The ministry has obviously failed to see the reasons behind public outbursts. It is insulting, degrading and therefore sensitive to all women. These PSAs were total failures. It has, however, given massive unsolicited exposure to Doraemon. I can't get the theme song out of my head," she added.

On the other hand, Mawarni Adam, Berjaya Sompo Insurance's head of brand, marketing communications and customer experience, who is speaking in a personal capacity, said it was a well-intentioned piece of content but failed in its delivery and execution. Nonetheless, KPWKM apologised, which is commendable, she added.

"What could have triggered the gap in judgement can happen to anyone, any brands and government agencies are not immune to it. We actually hold the latter to a much higher standard as it involves the rakyat and we do expect a more stringent levels of filtering or approvals before it gets published," she explained.

When her team gets  excited about coming up with ideas, think it is funny or that it will be potentially loved by everyone, Adam said she often reminds them that there is a danger that they may have gotten their own personal biases, experiences and preferences into the idea and may have gotten ahead of themselves. To do its checks and balances and avoid the syok sendiri execution, Adam often advises her team to do the following:

1. Corridor testing: Check with the others who are outside the department to get their point of view;
2. Intercultural sensitivity: Living in a multiracial country, this is a no-brainer. We must always practice this;
3. Gender neutrality: In this day and age, we will be doing a disservice and can certainly expect a backlash if we elevate one gender over the other. Hence, we need to always proceed with caution.

"If something really needs to be said, there is more than one way to do so and brands should strive to choose the best possible option," Adam said. This is because what is funny to one person can be derogatory and insulting to the next.

Also weighing in on the issue was Shakthi DC, founder and regional director, Asia Pacific of Wisesight, who said that content with relevance, functionality, sensitivity and good common sense will go a long way in gaining audience affinity and adding value during this MCO period.

"It is clear that as a collective, netizens do have a strong voice towards content posted by organisations. It is important especially now during the MCO, considering social media uptake has increased as a primary source to stay updated, that organisations put extra thought into what is being communicated to online communities," she added.

Separately managing partner at Orion Digital, Tan Wen Dee advised public figures, brands and organisations to be the leader that plays the role that people have entrusted them with. 

"At this current junction, the situation that we are experiencing collectively as a world citizen, is unprecedented and it is heartbreaking. In view of that, there are many public figures, brands and organisations swarming social media to show their support to people. However, some have turned out slightly unpleasant - such as the post by KPWKM. The intention of the posting has became insignificant as the interpretation by the majority of people is that it lacks empathy towards the current situation and reality," Tan said. 


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