One of Asia Pulp and Paper's Australian companies has been caught in an embarrassing PR incident, in which clumsy personal attacks on Greenpeace campaigners and others have been traced back to its staff.
While our global focus has been on toy companies like Mattel and Hasbro, our Australian colleagues have also concentrated on a more localised APP connection. One of the major supermarkets - IGA - was one of APP's biggest customers down under, and used APP products to make some of its own-brand toilet paper.
The team have spent some time trying to convince IGA to ditch APP and its Australian affiliate Solaris. Then came the video of a tiger dying within a plantation operated by one of APP's suppliers and just miles from where forest is being cleared to feed APP’s mills. The video and the flurry of supporter emails to the supermarket executives clearly had an impact, and five days later IGA stated that it would no longer be using Solaris for its toilet paper and would find an alternative supplier. IGA still needs to commit to excluding APP from its supply chain entirely, but it's a good step forward.
Solaris clearly wasn't happy at losing such a significant customer, and responded with expensive full-page adverts in newspapers all across Australia aiming to "[set] the record straight on Greenpeace". It's the same list of excuses, misleading statements and, let's be honest, lies about what parent company APP gets up to in Indonesia.
It's worth noting this line in particular – its significance will be apparent when you read what happened next:
We invite Greenpeace to join us at the table and play a constructive role in protecting endangered species.
Now it gets really weird. Mumbrella, an Australian media and marketing website, became suUspicious about the nature of some comments posted on its story about the Solaris advert. Many were overtly hostile towards Greenpeace – that's ok, we can take it – but as time went on they became increasingly personal. One went so far as to call one Australian campaigner "scum", while another launched quasi-racist attacks on IGA's management.
Checking into the IP addresses which the comments were posted from, Mumbrella staff discovered something interesting: some hostile comments posted under different names came from computers running on Solaris's network, while many more (also using different names) were from another, unidentified IP address.
According to Mumbrella, the comments were made by a senior member of staff who owned up. How's that for playing a constructive role? And despite issuing a statement condemning the comments made from its computers, Solaris still made a point of bemoaning the "unfair and ungrounded accusations" made by Greenpeace.
So apart from some fairly basic lessons in online etiquette and accountability, what else does this incident reveal? If nothing else, it's indicative of APP's global approach to criticisms levelled against it. Rather than addressing the catastrophic problems it's causing in Indonesia – deforestation on a grand scale, pushing species closer to extinction, creating conflicts with local communities – it prefers to throw up a smokescreen to convince its customers that it is behaving responsibly.
But smokescreens are easily blown away. More and more customers like IGA are judging APP by its deeds, not its words, and walking away.