In a recent blogpost by Anne Sofie Tieman, she states that the Dutch television channel RTL framed oneself neutral in the ongoing ‘Zwarte Piet’ discussion in the Netherlands. To chose for a ‘Chimney Piet’ instead of ‘Zwarte Piet’ last December, RTL tried to stay away from the original discussion which was heavy and evolving at the time. The choice for another version of the same ‘Piet’ is framing in itself and neutral framing doesn’t exist in my opinion.
‘Zwarte Piet’ discussion
Let’s start with some background information. Every year, on December the 5th, children in the Netherlands celebrate ‘Pakjesavond’. On that night children get presents from ‘Sinterklaas’ who has ‘Pieten’ to help him (as the fairytale states). What Santa Claus is for children in the US and UK, is Sinterklaas for children in the Netherlands. What leads the discussion is that Sinterklaas is a white man and the Pieten have a black colored face, which is racist and leads back to the slavery according to opponents. Advocates highlight Sinterklaas as heritage of the Dutch culture, a long tradition of many generations which shouldn’t be given up.
Social media change the discussion
Even though some people use the discussion as an example of the increased discrepancies between people in Dutch society, the discussion about the special feast in the Netherlands is ongoing and of all times. However, the discussion really exploded with the rise and interfering of social media. The outburst on social media supports Valentini’s view that social media is not always good for the public relations profession. Now, people who have been never heard before can give their opinion on online blogs, networks and sites. A Korean study found that online personal media have a leading role in agenda setting of a crisis and this was exactly what happened. Special demonstrations were organized online, television shows and newspapers focused upon the issue and it was even a topic for the Dutch government: they rejected this February a special ‘Zwarte Piet’ law.
RTL and their framing
Because the discussion is so fierce and complicated, a lot of brands seek for Zwarte Piet alternatives. RTL created a new version: a so called ‘Chimney Piet’ in which the black skin color is replaced with smudges of root. This decision was made after ‘many conversations with the proponents as well the opponents of Zwarte Piet’. As mentioned by Anne Sofie Tieman, RTL tried to frame this decision as neutral as possible to highlight both sides of the story. However, the choice of RTL to replace the original Zwarte Piet with a Chimney Piet matches the opponents’ view. After the press release, #BoycotRTL appeared on social media but RTL did not actively interfere and left it mostly for what it was.
Neutral framing doesn’t exist
The problem with the way RTL handled the situation is that neutral framing of a situation is not possible. For RTL and every other brand involved, the Zwarte Piet discussion can be seen as a crisis since many people made accusations and to stay away was simply not possible. Framing is the way people chose words to make sense out of a situation. RTL framed the situation implicitly, as many frames are not explicit. To say that RTL understood both sides of the discussion but chose (implicit) for the opponents’ side is their choice, but to stay away from further comments and discussion is not well considered and will backfire in the end. It leads me wondering what RTL will communicate upcoming Sinterklaas.
Judith Koster is an enthusiastic, eager Persuasive Communication student at the University of Amsterdam who would love to work in retail when she’s finished. After an internship at a large Dutch women magazine she thought of PR as a shallow profession. The course ‘PR, Media and Public’ at the UvA opened her eyes: the way Public Relations is interacting with the media and society is an interesting and exciting field.