ON Thursday, January 29, Mitsubishi Motors Philippines Corp. (MMPC) officially inaugurated its Sta. Rosa, Laguna vehicle assembly plant, a replacement for its 50-year-old factory in Cainta, Rizal, which ended production on December 16.
The opening of the new plant was a major corporate event with a guest list that featured the President of the Republic of the Philippines, a couple of Cabinet secretaries, the mayor of Sta. Rosa, the governor of Laguna, the Japanese ambassador to the Philippines, and the Chairman of Mitsubishi Motors Corp. from Japan, and a number of other dignitaries.
It should have been a happy occasion, but there was just one problem: January 29 was the day the somber ceremony of the return of the fallen was held at Villamor Air Base, homecoming day for 42 of the 44 (or more) PNP troopers massacred by Islamic terrorists in Maguindanao a few days earlier. President B.S. Aquino 3rd skipped the rites at the airport because they “were not on his schedule,” according to one of his spokespeople, and instead followed through with his previous engagement at the Mitsubishi plant, causing the nation to erupt in fury at Aquino’s callousness.
The episode was a complete disaster as far as Mitsubishi is concerned. Even if the president had sent his apologies and gone instead to fulfill his duties as head of state and commander-in-chief of the country’s military and police forces, that best case scenario would have still meant the automaker’s big debut would have been completely overshadowed by current events and likely ignored by the press.
As things turned out, it did get the volume of attention Mitsubishi’s marketing and corporate communications people were probably hoping for, but for the horribly wrong reason that the guest of honor prior to his arrival in Laguna had, in the words of noted dispenser of justice Darwin the Merciless, “alienated the police force, alienated a number of supporters, caused a PR nightmare, cost the government millions, made [DILG Secretary Mar] Roxas look stupid, derailed his own peace process, and otherwise contributed mightily to the senseless deaths of 44 heroes. It takes a unique talent to be that stupid.”
Mitsubishi Motors Philippines quite obviously had nothing at all to do with the Mamasapano Massacre, but because of someone else’s execrable behavior found themselves part of a controversy. Any company that unwittingly finds itself caught in a political issue in a foreign market finds itself balancing on the head of a pin. If it becomes too “involved” it risks being accused of meddling in local politics, but if it doesn’t acknowledge the issue, it risks alienating its local market and stakeholders by being perceived as uncaring or worse.
The safe call is usually to avoid the controversy as much as possible, which is what Mitsubishi has done; in its official press release about the Sta. Rosa plant opening, the company notes the President’s attendance at the event, but does not quote any of his remarks and instead focuses on the features of the new facility. In doing so, however, the company has had to waste the effort to stage the opening ceremonies for the new factory, and sacrifice any publicity dividend it hoped to collect from it.
Was the safe call the right call? My opinion, which is largely informed by a long association with an auto manufacturer that continues to struggle with a legacy of being a key part of the German military-industrial complex in both world wars, is that it was not in this case. Mitsubishi Motors Philippines, as is any foreign company which has operated in this country for any length of time, is a part of a social fabric; the people who make MMPC what it is are Filipinos, Filipinos who are filled with grief and fury over the tragedy in Maguindanao. Not acknowledging it at all makes the company seem insensitive and detached from the community which makes its successful operations here possible.
A simple statement of condolence and perhaps a short explanation that the company could not have foreseen the horribly coincidental timing of the plant opening (after all, it is not really possible to withdraw an invitation to the president) and intended no disrespect would not only be courteous, it would eliminate the liability of Mitsubishi’s being mentioned in the same breath as Noynoy Aquino. And it would recover the opportunity to draw some positive public attention to MMPC’s new facility, which was the point of having a grand opening in the first place.