Tetra Lies: How not to do a digital PR campaign

Back in May 2019, I had written about a surreptitious digital campaign against glass, called ‘Glass Hurts’.

I just checked the Twitter handle of that campaign now – it looks like the campaign has been stopped since the last tweet is from February 20, 2021. The Twitter bio has a new addition that was not present earlier – “Disclaimer: This page is owned by Baadlavv Trust”.

Here is another similarly-managed digital campaign, this time against TetraPak – called TetraLies!

Only the Twitter bio adds some semblance of who is behind the effort – ‘Initiative by Baldev Trust’ (yes, that does sound a bit like wordplay on ‘Baadlavv Trust’!).

There is absolutely no mention of the people/organization behind this effort anywhere on the website.

Now, the larger background to this is that Tetra Pak, the Swedish-Swiss multinational food packaging, has been advertising for a very long time, all over the world.

I recall one of their early Indian advertisements, from 2012, where they exhort how the packaging protects the contents (milk, in this case).

Tetra Pak has since been advertising aggressively and also using PR mighty effectively to talk about their efforts in recycling.

The company has also been releasing sustainability reports since 2018, something most global organizations of this size have been doing given the increasing focus on ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) mandates.

All this is above-board and the norm for any large, global company.

So, if someone, or some organization, or a group of people have legitimate arguments and facts to counter what Tetra Pak is communicating, how should they ideally go about it?

Beyond thinking about this from a PR/communications angle, based only on common sense, the route would be to go directly, by using the credibility of the person/persons/organization behind the factual arguments to counter Tetra Pak.

And yet, like Glass Hurts, here is another shadow campaign that only offers a dubious backer (Baldev Trust – I checked what it could be and drew a blank. There are a couple of Baldev Trusts online and they don’t seem to have anything to do with the packaging industry that could help them seem like a credible opponent to Tetra Pak’s claims).

I haven’t gone deep into the counterclaims made by the campaign, but I did do a cursory check and the larger themes seem to be on two planks – that Tetra Pak is lying about its pack’s contents and that Tetra Pak cannot be recycled/is not recycled as much as what the company claims.

As for the first plank, Tetra Pak itself mentions on the website that ‘75% of the Tetra Pak carton is made from paperboard, 20% of polyethylene and 5% of aluminum.

Plus, Tetra Pak’s officials are seen offering this message about recycling.

Globally, Tetra Pak has over 170 recycling operations and the number of carton packages collected for recycling increased from 32 billion in 2010 to 50 billion in 2020.

In India, Tetra Pak’s collection and recycling network has expanded to 26 states and union territories, over 45 cities and 15 Army cantonments, supported by four recyclers.

“We are collecting back four out of ten cartons in the market, which is a decent rate considering that unlike Europe there is still no mandated legislation on segregation of waste,” says Gokhale.
Source: Hindu Businessline

This claim of recycling possibility and recycling centers is being contested by Tetra Lies campaign, but instead of offering fact-based arguments, there is the use of language like ‘Tetra Pak recycling is commercially not possible’ and ‘Do you know that Tetra has only 4 recycling centers in India and all are funded by them?’ I have no way of ascertaining that they are true as much as I have no way of ascertaining what Tetra Pak is saying is true.

But there is a difference – I can check who exactly at Tetra Pak is talking to the public, check their credentials via LinkedIn search and use that to believe that someone with X years of experience and credibility in the industry is making those claims in public putting both his/her credibility and the company’s credibility at stake.

The counterclaim, however, is coming from an anonymous handle on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook with no antecedents and nothing to lose/put at stake. Yet, the handles are promoted heavily on Twitter and other platforms; in fact, almost every single tweet is posted via the Twitter ads interface indicating that this is an organized and paid campaign. A paid campaign is not wrong at all, but considering it is both organized and paid, it would be more credible if the public gets to know who is behind this effort (to save Planet Earth, at that). ‘Baldev Trust’ is not the answer for that, though.

For instance, if there is a clear mention that, say, a glass manufacturer is behind this campaign, then it makes both logical sense and moral sense – the glass manufacturer has a vested interest in presenting glass as a credible, sustainable alternative to Tetra Pak (though they would need to face the wrath of the other anonymous campaign handle, Glass Hurts!).

Or, it could be a legal firm or a PR firm, working on behalf of a coalition of manufacturers who produce a material that is a lot more eco-friendly than Tetra Pak. But that disclosure makes all the difference in the public trusting and rallying behind the effort.

To be sure, the effort of Tetra Lies is directed towards sustainability and that is always welcome. But the route taken is akin to standing outside the Tetra Pak headquarters with the face covered in a hoodie and shouting expletives against the company. That tactic severely undermines and delegitimizes the effort immediately.

Glass Hurts was on the same lines, incidentally.

If at all a PR agency is involved in Tetra Lies’ effort, it is seriously misguided. Whoever is the client that is spending money on this digital campaign is being misled by whichever agency is behind the digital effort.

To understand why one needs to get to the objective behind such campaigns. Usually, when you need to take on a mighty company/brand (like Tetra Pak, in this case), the objective, from a communications perspective, would be,

  • Target audience: Regulators/Governments. Get regulators and relevant Governement officials to be aware of Tetra Pak’s poor recycling potential and actual recycling (if at all).

Towards this, the route would be to consider the kinds of media that regulators and Government officials (after identifying who within the Government would be decision-makers for topics like this) and present the counterclaims to Tetra Pak’s argument through credible voices/influencers in respectable media outlets/vehicles.

  • Target audience: General public. Engage with people using factual information credibly and create broader awareness in the minds of the general public to wean them away from buying products in Tetra Paks.

Towards this, the route would be similar to what Tetra Lies is undertaking now, but with two major changes: One, use credible individuals to make those claims instead of them being made by an anonymous handle, and two, reduce the abrasiveness in the language that makes it sound like a tacky goon shouting at Tetra Pak if they need more serious and well-intentioned people among the general public to take note of the messages, and more importantly act on it.

Both these are not rocket science and any person/team with decent-enough experience in public relations would be able to put this together and prepare a plan to credibly counter Tetra Pak’s claims, if at all.

It’s very easy to showcase ‘impact’ based on the number of Likes, Shares or Follows on Facebook or Twitter because those can be bought and manipulated. But the kind of people who would end up Liking or Sharing such a poorly executed campaign would be more than apparent if the paying client takes a look at the so-called ‘impact’.

For instance, here is a snapshot of the kind of retweets their latest (promoted – notice ‘Twitter ads’ as the source of the tweet) tweet has generated:

Or the kind of comments the same post has generated on Facebook:

Even when there are legitimate questions or some kind of engagement, the reaction from Tetra Lies is simply, ‘We are saying so, believe us’ without any specific evidence that can be credibly explored.

Even the kind of responses offered to ‘alternatives’ seems similar to GlassHurts campaign – sweepingly evasive and identifying only one as the chief villain.

On one occasion, I noticed that Tetra Lies shared a link from the blog of Pathwater, a brand of aluminum bottles from the US. Pathwater, by nature of producing a competent alternative to Tetra Pak, has a legitimate reason to explore Tetra Pak’s poor sustainability quotient (and their blog post is well-researched and well-argued too, incidentally), but why is Tetra Lies piggy-backing on another brand’s blog post instead of putting its own weight and credibility behind its campaign?

Unlike the anti-glass campaign that aimed at a generic material, this anti-Tetra Pak campaign is against a specific company. This company owns the technology that makes Tetra Pak and is obviously very powerful, globally. Given its sweeping power, the company could wield a lot of influence across countries and quell news that is not too conducive to its brand.

That presents two routes – if the detractors remain anonymous, the company cannot target them directly to delegitimize their voices, but the campaign would seem rag-tag and tacky without any credibility. The other route is to gather the most credible voices the detractors can muster (and considering this is about the environment and ecology we are talking about, there are tons of voices in this segment to rival even a company the size of Tetra Pak) so that the counterpoints truly matter through their credibility and register seriously in the minds of the audiences.

The former is very easy to launch but largely useless. The latter requires genuine effort, persuasion, and time.

The idea behind Tetra Lies seems well-intended on a much broader level. But the campaign’s tone, shady nature, and execution make it very difficult to take them at face value, let alone believe them. This is a perfect example of a very poorly conceived and executed digital PR campaign that ends up looking like slander given how dubious the claims are and how badly those claims are presented.



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