Analysis: Update on Xiaxue's online furore and recovery tips for influencers

A week after the furore surrounding Singaporean blogger and influencer Wendy Cheng, also popularly known as Xiaxue, boiled over online, life seems to have gone back to normal.

Speaking to Marketing, Cheng said that there has been no new developments over the past few days. Nonetheless, she said that brands have informed netizens that they stand by their company's guidelines to be inclusive and that they will review the situation. On the other hand, there were also brands that have been apologetic as a result of the mob reaching out to them.

"There have been many of these sagas before but nothing of this magnitude. Generally, it is the global brands that are a little bit more afraid of these [occurances] because the trend in the US is that consumers really go after brands if they are not full out in support of everything they say," Cheng explained.

Since then, Cheng and her team have also actively taken upon themselves to advise brands to restrict certain keywords on Instagram, such as "Xiaxue" and "xenophobia". These keywords are from a template message that was included in the Google document created by netizens and previously seen by Marketing, featuring a list of brands that have worked with Cheng since January 2019. It is more effective to restrict these keywords as the individual who commented might think their comment was posted when in actual fact, no one is able to see it. 

"If the message is not negative, the brand can choose to publish the comment. That is a better way of handling the situation rather than outright blocking and deleting comments, which may seem to some to be slightly less reasonable," Cheng explained.

Last week in the lead up to Polling Day in Singapore, Cheng came under fire for her tweets posted in 2010 about migrant workers, as well as comments about the transgender community published in 2019. The comments recently resurfaced after Cheng posted on Instagram Stories that Workers’ Party candidate Khan should "stop trying to divide the nation with [her] race politics" and that political parties should "stop fielding radical feminists/leftists as candidates".

Following that, netizens reached out to brands that have worked with Cheng to "hold her accountable" and have them "reconsider" future partnerships with her. Reebonz, Brother Singapore, Ritz-Carlton's Mandapa, Chir Chir, Caltex Singapore, Bio-essence Singapore and digital mobile service provider Giga told Marketing previously that they are currently not collaborating with Cheng and that her posts do not represent the brand in anyway. On the other hand, Panos Fournarakis, MD of Sunrise Experience based in Zurich, Switzerland, said the company chose to work with Cheng because she has an opinion. 

Following the uproar online, Singaporean contemporary streetwear brand Flesh Imp also produced a limited-edition series shirt with the phrase #punishxiaxue on it, ironically, in support of Cheng. The shirt's description on its website said: "If you think speaking out for something that you believe in is wrong, if you think maintaining your stand on your beliefs is a crime, if you think [of] boycotting us because we stand with what we believe, then don't #punishxiaxue." According to Flesh Imp, full proceeds after the deduction of product and labour costs will be donated to a charity of Cheng's choice. Marketing has reached out to Flesh Imp for comment.

Statistics from Meltwater showed that Xiaxue had a total of 15.5k online mentions from 8 to 16 July, and about 1.94k mentions daily. Majority of online sentiments (82%) were negative while 10% were positive. The list of trending keywords included "Xiaxue", "Watch Hirzi and Xiaxue", "seditious content", and "racist remarks". The top two hashtags were #punishxiaxue and #istandwithraeesah. Meanwhile, statistics from Truescope during the same period showed that 55% of the online mentions in Singapore were from females and trending keywords included "police report", "terrorist makeup tutorial" and "racist Chinese". While the mentions peaked on 7 and 9 July in Singapore, it dipped from 10 July onwards. In Malaysia, 60% of the mentions were by females and the trending keywords were "Islamphobic", "racist", "transphobia", "YouTuber" and "exposing racism". Unlike Singapore, mentions about Cheng peaked on 6 and 9 July before dipping from 10 July onwards.

Earlier, Cheng also told Marketing that not all brands know how to react when such a situation occurs and a lot of times, they feel it is safer for them to dissociate with the influencer as there will be no harm. "Brands cannot leverage influencer marketing without being at risk of cancel culture. They need to understand how to deal with it when it comes," she added. 

It is not new for brands to be unknowingly dragged into online controversies involving the influencers they work with. As such, industry players Marketing spoke to said it is important for brands to evaluate a partner holistically before engaging them. Vim and Vigour PR's director, Charissa Guan, added that brands need to have a crisis plan for such instances. According to her, brands need to clearly communicate their own values both internally and externally so that there is less room for error.

"If the age of social media and COVID-19 have taught us anything, it is that you can never over prepare. Once the above points are answered, a brand should know what course of action to take when such a situation arises," she said.

That said, there is no one-size-fits-all rule. Guan said some brands choose to align themselves with controversy or controversial figures for a variety of reasons. She believes that influencers are human and should be provided the opportunity to address their mistakes.

The danger of ‘cancel culture’ is that we do not give people this opportunity.

"However, if an influencer does not consider the feedback or worse still, considers it a non-issue, then by all means dissociate yourselves - whether from a brand or personal basis - from them. You can pay your way onto an influencer’s platform, but once you do, you cannot pay your way off it," Guan explained.

Likewise, LEWIS Singapore's MD Pamela Tor Das said in any influencer engagement, most communication consultants assess suitability based on three guidelines - reach, relevance and resonance. All three factors are important in deciding which influencers to consider, though sometimes brands may take reach and resonance over relevance in order to drive short to mid-term business outcomes, Tor Das said.

She explained that relevance refers to the influencers’ connection or affinity with the brand or the industry, while resonance refers to the ability to drive a certain desired behaviour with the target audience groups. For long term brand building, relevance is critical to consider, Tor Das said.

If the influencer’s personality and content tend to be controversial or perhaps bold and opinionated, brands that choose to work with such influencers have to consider if this is also aligned with their own brand personality and voice.

Besides having a plan and preparing for a crisis, it is crucial for brands to take accountability in such situations and admit that they are listening rather than remaining silent or rejecting the claims, a PR industry player told Marketing on the condition of anonymity. If inappropriate statements were really made, the brand cannot continue to associate with the influencer, that is not taking a clear stance, she said. When the issue of race is involved, it is important for brands to take a very clear stance.

"I would advise my client to stay clear [of the influencer] for now. It is almost not relevant when the statement was made. It is what it is and if [past statements] were dredged up today and controversy is swirling, it is best to stay clear," the industry player said. Brands typically do a two-year personality audit before working with an influencer, the industry player said. This means that they track back two years' worth of news to ensure that there is no scandal or negativity associate with influencers.

Consumers seek authentic engagement with influencers

In an earlier phone conversation with Marketing, Cheng said that brands need to understand that influencers are not billboards and that they are humans, and humans have opinions. That is the very reason why consumers follow influencers and trust the things they say, she explained.

To this point, LEWIS' Tor Das said consumers are savvy and seek authentic engagement with influencers. According to her, if brands have chosen to work with these influencers and taken into consideration the content types they have, generally consumer expectations would be that brands stand by the influencers.

"However, if the comments or remarks have surprised the brand, as they were not in line with what the influencer had typically communicated, then dis-associating from them will often be met with understanding by consumers," she explained. Meanwhile from the influencer's perspective, Tor Das said some of them thrive on controversy and if so, they probably will want to stay true to themselves. As such, it is up to brands to assess if these influencers are suitable for their brand and objectives.

On the other hand, the PR industry player who spoke to Marketing on the condition of anonymity said influencers should apologise, take accountability and let brands and followers know that they are learning and listening. Although Cheng tried to explain herself, the industry player said there was no explicit apology.

Authenticity is good but there is no room for negativity or prejudice even if you want to be authentic.

"You can keep it real and there are influencers such as Rosalyn Lee, also popularly known as Rozz, who keep it real but they know where to draw the line. They do not cross over into hatred it’s really negativity," she explained.

Brands and consumers are always curious to see the next steps influencers take after a scandal. In such cases, it is best for the influencers to keep a low profile and try to make up for it by being positive. However, the industry player said this is not Cheng's style and doing so would make her look false and inauthentic to do an about turn. "Cheng thrives on controversy and she has exultant about the fact that she was among the list of trending topics," the industry player said, adding that she would not put it past Cheng to survive and make a come back. 

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