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Singaporean comedians caught in PR storm for criticising food at HK airport

Local comedian Mark Lee has come under fire by netizens from the region for a personal video posted on their dining experience at Hong Kong Airport. This is alongside other local talents Dennis Chew and Marcus Chin.

The video recording the interaction was done in Cantonese. It saw the trio along with a lady poking fun at Chew’s poor command of Cantonese and at the same time describing and mocking a meal they were having at a Hong Kong airport.

The artistes quickly came under fire for being “disrespectful” and sounding conceited, with news outlets in Hong Kong and Malaysia picking up the video – subjecting the comedians to even more scrutiny.

The video can be found here:

When contacted by The New Paper (TNP), Lee clarified that the main purpose of the video was not to criticise the food but rather make fun of Chew’s poor command of the Cantonese language. The news outlet also claimed that Lee was “unrepentant and refused to apologise.”

He was quoted by the paper saying he does not regret what he had said as an international airport’s food should not be “so bad”. Chin also shared the same sentiment, sharing with TNP his surprise on the video going viral and that the group was just stating facts as they felt the food standards at HK’s airport would be better. He also drew comparisons to Changi Airport which he said was much better.

In the world of marketing, we are often used to seeing brand succumb to PR pressure, quickly taking to the nearest media outlet to apologise. The stance taken by the trio, despite the PR pressure, was hence a deviation from the norm.

We asked several PR players if apologising quickly is the fastest way out or should brands learn from the celebrities and stand their ground. Marcus Loh, vice president, marketing and corporate communication at PSB Academy, felt that in this instance, the comedians weren’t wrong in stating their opinion.

“The comedians genuinely looked quite miserable and dissatisfied with the meal! But here’s something to think about: Lee and Chin didn’t apologise because they felt that they were entitled to air their personal views,” Loh said.

He explained that by deliberately speaking Cantonese, the comedians were also deliberate at whom they were directing their criticism to – the officials running the Hong Kong International Airport and by proxy, Hong Kong residents. Hence, the negative response should be an expected one.

“Public figures, even celebrity-like CEOs such as Donald Trump, carry with them a great deal of influence – sometimes more than they realise (or at least I like to think so). Marketers who appreciate this, tap on these figures to influence the behaviours of their target audience,” Loh added.

When asked if marketers too should be less quick to apologise, Loh explained that it depends on what their intentions are and who that person is.

“If you are a comedian, out there to stir controversy, a simple apology to take the pressure off the situation wouldn’t help your cause,” he said. He added that this situation gives marketers at Changi Airport (which was mentioned in the video), a chance to try and play ‘peacemaker’.

And in turn, this could help the Singapore airport gain some love as well.

“Since airports, much like airlines, carry with them a certain badge value of the peoples they represent, one could’ve mistaken this video for a hatchet job by Changi Airport,” he added.

Sharing the view was Edwin Yeo, GM of SPRG, who added that in a similar situation, marketers and influencers should not be too quick to apologise, especially if it is an opinion of their own. This is especially in a time where more brands are going into the content marketing space. Yeo added that there will be a fine line to thread when between giving a real opinion and respecting sensitivities.

For example, as a brand, it generally would not be ideal to mock another brand or product. However, if the brand is producing a food show, disallowing hosts and critics to not give their genuine opinions will ultimately lead to less engagement as content is less authentic.

“Ultimately, brands have to adopt some degree of editorial integrity and be open to criticism of their own,” Yeo explained.

Agreeing with him is Jacob Joseph Puthenparambil, partner at Redhill, who said that marketers and influencers should not be seen as the same due to different levels of exposure and appetite for controversy. However, brands too can learn from this incident from a PR standpoint.

“I wouldn’t advice any of my clients to apologise for something they truly believed in. If they feel they did make a mistake, or bad judgement call, it is fine to apologise. A lot of the time, it is observed that people make bad jokes or commentary due to ignorance,” Puthenparambil added.

Lee should not be faulted for his honesty

PSB’s Loh, SPRG’s Yeo and Redhill’s Puthenparambil were of the view that Lee and his group should not be faulted for giving his honest opinion.

“If they didn’t like the noodles, they should be allowed to say so. And maybe the noodle was really bad. Where do we draw the line if they have to apologise for criticising the quality of food? Does a film critic disrespect the film director if he gives the movie a bad review?” Yeo said.

In addition, Puthenparambil added that sticking to his opinion can actually boost Lee’s image in front of the public eye.

“I don’t see any fault with Lee and I don’t see it has bad publicity for him. The fact that he is sticking to his comments shows that he is a man of principle,” Puthenparambil said.

According to PSB’s Loh, even though bad publicity is something which generates brand awareness, it is at the expense of one’s brand equity.

“Many celebrities have built up their brand names by being controversial. I have known Mark for a long time, and I don’t think he’s the type that courts controversy though,” SPRG’s Yeo added.


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