Social Media And Indonesian Fight To Keep Palm Oil Image

Surabaya – Tofan Mahdi, Head of Communication Division GAPKI (Indonesian Palm Oi Association), said that Indonesian palm oil industry is facing a tough communication challenge as the industry has been continually under attack by environmentalists.

“Everyday, we’re dealing with hoaxes and negative campaigns on palm oil. Why? Because countries in Europe and America produce other vegetable oils besides palm oil,” Tofan said during a webinar on the strategy of corporate communication in digital era, which was organized by the Indonesian Cyber Media Association (AMSI), in conjunction with the conference of AMSI Region II East Java on Thursday, 22 October 2020. The event was supported by PT. Pertamina (Persero), BNI, PT. HM Sampoerna, and a number of other companies.

Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil with a total production of 52 million tons from 16.3 million hectares of oil plantation areas in Sumatra, Kalimantan, and Sulawesi. Some 70 percent of the production is exported to China, India, and 26 countries in Europe. Such condition has disrupted the other vegetable oils as the competitors of palm oil in Europe and America.

Tofan said that due to such a condition, the foreign NGOs have systematically created issues to attack the palm oil industry in Indonesia. “The issue covers many things ranging from health to orangutan, elephants, Anak Dalam tribe and to other issues,” he said.

Their goal is to pressure industries in Europe not to buy palm oil from Indonesia. They have been even raising such pressure as the palm oil can be used as the raw material to produce biodiesel, which is currently being pushed up by the European countries. The European Union (EU) has planned to phase out the use of palm oil for biodiesel production until it will finally ban it in 2030.

Such pressures have been emerging since 15 years ago and there have been no counter-campaigns from the government and the palm oil players. “Even in 2009, 80 percent of national news reports are still very negative. We’re grateful that after 10 years the tone of the national reports changed. It is because the government has been very supportive to the palm oil industry and realized the important role of the industry to the national economy,” said Tofan.

Currently, the export of palm oil contributes foreign exchange at US$10 billion. Tofan is confident that by the end of 2020, the foreign exchange contribution from the palm oil industry will reach US$20 billion. The big amount of foreign exchange from the palm oil industry has saved the country during the Covid-19 pandemic, when other industries dropped drastically. “If we don’t have the palm oil, our rupiah exchange rate would not be Rp14,000 per US dollar, but Rp25,000,” he said.

To increase the public trust on the palm oil industry, Tofan has established a good communication with conventional media. “But suddenly, the communication platform changed to the digital platform, so that we have to formulate a different approach, as the social media could not be controlled. Everybody can write anything,” he said.

The NGOs that attacked the Indonesian palm oil industry also use the social media to launch their attacks. Communication strategy is changed. “I mobilized all workers and staffs of the palm oil companies to use the social media to support the palm oil positive campaigns,” Tofan asserted.

He noted that based on his own evaluation, the use of such method is effective. The number of palm oil industry workers in Indonesia is around five million people and there are 12 million oil palm smallholders. “I think around 50 million people in Indonesia rely on the palm oil industry. We mobilize them to become our ‘troopers’ to campaign in the social media. We do have a standard of positive campaigns in the social media,” he said.

Tofan further said that until now the Indonesian palm oil industries have been able to counter the negative campaigns against the palm oil through Facebook. “It is because the majority of our stakeholders, smallholders and workers, are the generation of baby boomers who are active in the Facebook. Quite effective in Facebook. When a foreign  NGO office in Indonesia posted a negative report on Astra Agro or other palm oil companies, then the report would be flooded with comments containing the right facts,” he said.

But Tofan admitted that they are still lagging in Instagram and Twitter. “Even in Twitter, 80 percent of posts are still very negative about palm oil. It is the Malaysian people who launched more countering posts against the foreign NGO in Twitter, as Indonesian people are not yet ready due to their English capability,” he said.