A publicist’s worst nightmare is to get a perfectly crafted story out, after endless screening, planning and forecasting, at the wrong moment. No matter how well a media strategist does her homework, there always is the possibility of a bigger, more compelling story lurking out there, waiting to overshadow her brainchild – a case of pure bad luck. And what a nightmare it must have been for those who worked hard to get a story out a couple of weeks ago only to have it completely overshadowed by the only one that seemed to matter: the Vietnam visit of Nick Vujicic, a Serbian-Australian evangelist and motivational speaker with tetra-amelia syndrome, who captivated Vietnam with seven motivational talks over the course of four days. The one PR flunky in the country who was smiling last week was the one working for Hoa Sen Group, which sponsored Nick’s tour and who watched their value jump 180 billion Vietnam Dong ($85.7 million) due to the enormous media attention they drew in the process. When all was said and done, Hoa Sen Group saw a 500% return on their investment of 32 billion Vietnam Dong ($15.2 million) they spent on the program.

Nick Vujicic in Vietnam in May. Source: vov.vn

Nick Vujicic in Vietnam in May. Source: vov.vn

If you’re even passingly familiar with motivational materials, Nick Vujicic should be no stranger – he’s published books, produced DVDs, and delivered talks in over 40 countries. Vujicic’s entrance to Vietnam bears pertinence to the local market too – walk around any local bookstore and you’ll see hundreds of motivational book titles overwhelming the Vietnamese language book landscape. Why this seems to be the case in Vietnam is, however, a topic for another discussion.

Nick Vujicic is all people could talk about in recent weeks. Not all international events yield this much online discussion. There were the interpretation fiascos: Nick’s call for youth to “dream big,” for example, was transformed by a limelight-hogging interpreter into a call to “drink beer,” and “secrets” became “cigarettes”. There was the fact that Vujicic’s praise to God was curiously redacted from his speech upon interpretation. There was that army of heavy motorbikes escorting Vujicic through the streets while waving their truncheons at people around Saigon. But more than anything else, people have been talking about money, media and the politics of disability in Vietnam.

It all started with a long Facebook post by a local journalist named Phan Anh, titled “Bụt chùa nhà không thiêng” (“No man is a hero to his own valet”), in which he expressed his view that Nick Vujicic’s visit to Vietnam was inappropriate, “especially in this context of economic crisis and Vietnamese people’s submersion in difficulties.”

“If only Hoa Sen could spare half of that money on local disabled people,” he continued. “As a journalist myself, I’ve never seen Vietnamese media this naive. If only they knew that behind Nick lies a gigantic American media launcher. Simply put, Nick is yet another media product manufactured for the purpose of book selling.”

Phan Anh’s post was full of insider information, none of which can be easily corroborated. “One of Nick’s requirements was ‘No meeting with the media’,” he claimed. “He turned down a budget airline sponsorship and asked for VIP treatments for his crew of over 10 people. He also has people pre-test his food (this may be due to his special physicality), and word is that he earns a lot of money from touring.”

“People as courageous and talented as Nick here in Vietnam, I can list five of them in just a minute,” he wrote. “People are willing to spend as much as 2 million VND to listen to Nick telling them stories about his difficulties and courage, while they don’t even bat an eyelid or spare a penny at local disabled beggars. Why is there that difference?”

“Why Nick?” Phan Anh asked “Because he’s a foreigner. That’s right, Vietnamese are Europhiles. B- or C-ranking stars from foreign countries come to Vietnam just to be amazed at the level of admiration they get from our people. Our ancestors are never wrong – no man is a hero to his own valet.”

The post received thousands of comments and inspired numerous subsequent commentaries on online news portals. Comments range from agreement to skepticism to downright contempt. Some express anger over the gigantic amount of money spent while others are simply amazed by the ROI; some think bringing up the topic of disability is entirely irrelevant — Vujicic comes to Vietnam as a world-renowned motivational speaker, not just some random disabled guy — while some lament on the fact that people have to think twice about spending money on the man:

“If Angelina Jolie were to ask for high-class treatments and refuse to fly with Jetstar (a local budget airline), would any of you have anything to say about that?”, reads one comment.

Others look at the story from a more long-sighted perspective. “So what if Hoa Sen Group spend all that money on poor, disabled people in Vietnam? It would still be giving the man a loaf of bread. Would it sustain the whole community of disabled people in Vietnam for all their lives? After all, it’s private money – people can do whatever the hell they want with their own money.”

Well, not really. In Vietnam money is never truly “private.” Even a decision from a private organization finds its way back to the government somehow. “I’d rather see that money spent on inviting Nick over,” one comment read. “You guys are all talking theories and no reality. Over the years we have had countless donating programs taking money from people to build houses for the poor and help the disabled. How many percent of that money actually reach the ones in need? How much of that money go straight into those corrupted governmental jerks? You must be so proud of yourself badmouthing about a limbless guy”.

The media and its role figured prominently in the discussion. As elsewhere, content on TV or newspapers traditionally tends to be perceived as credible, authentic and free of overt propaganda. Non-mainstream views are typically ignored or pushed into the background, swiped away as easily as one would unlock a smartphone. The media used to be seen as a neutral medium. But skepticism of the state-owned and controlled media among Vietnamese has been on the rise in recent years. One of the possible forces leading up to this new sentiment could be the unveiling of the highly artificial nature of some popular local programming, among them a scripted Vietnamese adaptation of “The Voice” where the producer’s girlfriend was revealed to have been allegedly scheduled to win the competition last year. The popular thing to do for the savvy now is to scrutinize and question all media content.

Hoa Sen Group’s sponsorship of Nick’s tour in Vietnam seems to have paid off handsomely for them (Source: thethaovanhoa.vn)

“Reading all these comments you guys have written about this event,” a comment goes, “I can’t help but wonder how much of the inspirational stuff Nick’s been talking about is really his and how much of it is just what his professional crew tells him to say. The media push behind him is huge.” Or, “If our local disabled people had the same media support, they would really go places. I feel sorry for them somehow.”

Disability is as much a social concept as it is a biological one. The sociology of disability literature often refers to disability as representing a “master status” where the person behind the impairment fails to surface her identity as perceived by others; what remains to be seen of her most, if not all of the time, is the impairment itself (see for example, Physical disability: a psychological approach by B.A. Wright). It is simply not possible for people to see Vujicic just as a motivational speaker while his rise to fame is tied so closely to his disability and how he overcame it in spite of the forces aligned against him, both within him and without. Overcoming a disability has a lot to do with overcoming social stigma.

Money, of course, is power; those who own it spend it for a purpose, and that purpose always is subject to moral, ethical, social and political scrutiny. With every monetary decision there’s an alternative that someone else would prefer — and spending billions of dong on a foreign speaker is a decision rife with controversy in a society where patriotism comes up in all sorts of discourse.

Vietnam has a long track record taking care of people with disabilities. As a country that only knows peace for less than 40 years after coming out of the war with its head held high, Vietnam has a prioritized set of privileges and policies to support those being left impaired as a result of fighting the war, and consequently all those whose lives are made difficult because of their impairments. There is a Ministry of Labour – Invalids and Social Affairs, there is a Disability Law, there are special schools for children with special needs, and there are numerous local NGOs working on providing assistance for people with disability, along with their INGO counterparts in Vietnam. In the face of an increasingly consumerist, market-driven and sophisticated Vietnam, discussions such as this one display interesting changes in public perception on social values – which can’t be simplistically labelled “socialist” or “naive.”

– Nguyen Hong Hai Dang