WhatsApp’s bigger PR crisis, from fake news to leaks

In the past 2 days, I got alerts about 5 of my phone contacts joining Telegram. That’s a very tiny anecdotal signal (pun unintended) that there is some interest in looking at alternatives to WhatsApp even in India, a WhatsApp-stronghold.

A front-page story in today’s Economic Times validates my rudimentary anecdote with slightly better data.

Why this interest in looking at WhatsApp-alternatives? It is obvious – with so many news reports about the Narcotics Control Bureau and television news media “accessing” historical WhatsApp chats every single day, this is perhaps the worst PR crisis for WhatsApp in India.

Now, WhatsApp had faced a crisis of perception previously too, but those were about the impact faced by people ‘we did not know, but only read in news’ – regarding the impact of fake news. To that effect, WhatsApp dealt with that issue through advertising, in print and TV.

In July 2018, WhatsApp flooded the Indian print media with full-page ads about easy tips to help people decide if a piece of news they come across on WhatsApp was fake.

In December 2018, WhatsApp repeated the campaign with an even sharper narrative – this leaned more towards brand building (with that ‘Share joy, not rumors’ line at the end of the ad) than the earlier ad campaign in July that seemed more informational.

The video leg of the December campaign went a step further in asserting the brand’s narrative by offering helpful suggestions – “Share birthdays, share laughter, share joy, not rumors”, “Share recipes, share compliments, share joy, not rumors” and “Share notes, share farewells, share joy, not rumors”. The ‘rumor’ element, that was the crux of the July campaign, was layered as one of the things you are not supposed to share on WhatsApp while the focus remained on the positive aspects of WhatsApp sharing.

The irony of it all played out in March 2020, when on March 24th (Tuesday), The Times of India’s editorial warned of social media menace of fake news by naming WhatsApp (along with Twitter and Facebook) and on March 25th (Wednesday), The Economic Times’ Brand Equity India’s Most Trusted Brands 2020 named WhatsApp as the second most trusted brand in India, while Facebook was at number 4!

But unlike the earlier crisis that, in the perception of users, affected ‘others’, and not ‘me’ (“I’m only forwarding things”), the current crisis is vastly different. Regardless of you having said something potentially incriminating on WhatsApp chats, the current crisis is about your own privacy.

It is ironic that the same media group that released WhatsApp’s ads (among every other media house, of course) and anointed WhatsApp (and Facebook) as most trusted, is now indirectly causing WhatsApp’s crisis (through Times NOW) by referring to its exposes every night. Times NOW’s Navika Kumar has made it into so many memes where she is projected as a champion WhatsApp snooper.

Even Amul is referring to WhatsApp as a leaky app!

There are a lot of articles this time about how the celebrity WhatsApp chats are being ‘leaked’ and how to protect oneself from becoming a victim too.

Update: October 1, 2020:

Update: October 2, 2020:

All this does not augur well for WhatsApp’s long-pending payments play. The WhatsApp Pay extension has been on hold due to various reasons (including regulatory) after a trial that was launched in 2018. With fake news to dent its perception, there was no material damage to WhatsApp from a usage point of view because the damage was not deemed personal. But with the current ‘leaks’, the damage to WhatsApp’s perception is directly ‘personal’. A ‘leaky mobile app’ does not play well with ‘money’ in the minds of users, no matter how WhatsApp and Facebook try to spin it.

This is excellent fodder for the current payment apps to harp on if and when WhatsApp Pay launches in India. This PR crisis is a much bigger problem for WhatsApp, one that would require a lot more than full-page print ads and TVCs to undo the damage. Ironically, the one most-used trick in marketing to tide over the crisis, the use of celebrities to validate a perception (remember Aamir Khan helping Coca-Cola after the pesticide crisis and Amitabh Bachchan helping Cadbury Dairy Milk after the worms crisis?), may just backfire if WhatsApp attempts it, given it is celebrities who are facing the burnt of WhatsApp leaks!

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