A worthy cause but a PR disaster

Some people are “Meena’s friends”. Some aren’t.

A campaign on Change.org, a petition website where people rally for signatures to push socially responsible causes, provoked much interest and ire last week. The campaign was launched by “Meena Chotekham” two weeks ago, which was later altered to “Meena’s friends”, and the cause for which it’s asking for support for is: “We want the National Knowledge Centre in the city for everyone.”

The response has so far been encouraging. As of yesterday, over 160,000 people have signed up, just 30,000 short of the target of 200,000. Once the target is met, the petition will be submitted to “the authority with the power to make a decision”. The campaign does not specify which authority.

On paper, this is a fine idea all of us should throw support behind. But doubt and complaint emerged when a viral video accompanying the campaign went around in the past days. It features the supposed campaign originator, one Meena Chotekham, a motorcycle-taxi driver from the Northeast. In the video, a group of snobbish advertising types question Meena about his idea while expressing disbelief — and then respect — that a poorly educated motorcycle-taxi driver speaking a thick Isan dialect is rallying for a knowledge centre to be built.

Campaign for National Knowledge Centre. Photos courtesy of Change.org

It’s pretty clear that the whole thing is a set-up. “Meena Chotekham” isn’t a real person but a character conceived by the Office of Knowledge Management and Development (Public Organisation) to push the campaign. The video, too, is promotional material that uses actors to speak lines, not a real interview with a motorcycle-taxi driver.

But a number of viewers couldn’t spot the theatricality of it all and thought the conversation was an excerpt from a documentary film. Some signees got upset and complained that they were “lied to”, and confusion ensued whether the whole idea — the call for a National Knowledge Centre — is also part of the ruse (it isn’t; the call is real). What complicates the matter is that even those who know the video is an advertisement question the use of a country bumpkin (though he is elevated to a wise man at the end) as phony and condescending. Moreover, observers comment that while Bangkok may need a knowledge centre, the province certainly needs it more — so why not a campaign for that instead of one that puts Bangkok and its hip types at the centre?

So confusing was the whole deal that the creative mind behind the video had to come out to offer clarification. “Meena Chotekham” isn’t real, and the video has no intention to look down on anyone.

A PR cock-up, it seems, and a lesson in communication failure. And yet as mentioned, the campaign on Change.org has already amassed 80% of the target, though what will actually happen even if the intended 200,000 signatures have been achieved is another big question that merits further discussion.

— Kong Rithdee

Visit www.change.org to see the campaign.

Campaign for National Knowledge Centre. Photos courtesy of Change.org