China’s War for the Soul of Online Corporate Communications

In the Hutong
It’s a wet wet wet wet wet wet world

1913 hrs.

Last week BusinessWeek ran an article on the way some companies and their agencies try to deal with bloggers and BBS posters in China, a piece that was unfortunately titled “Inside the War Against China’s Blogs.”

This is not a war

The article itself, and specifically the way it associates by proximity the thoughtful and highly ethical work of Sam Flemming‘s CIC with the rather seedier efforts at online manipulation practiced by some other agencies, underscores how complex the topic is. It can be quite difficult for even the most intelligent and dedicated business journalists to miss the critical nuances separating different tactics and techniques that are emerging to help companies conduct marketing and communications on the Wild, Wild Web, all the more so for company executives who spend far less time looking at the matter.

For his part, Sam has written an intelligent, measured clarification in his blog. In addition to a reasoned defense of the more wholesome parts of the online word-of-mouth business, he takes powerful exception to the use of the “war” metaphor in the title (likely the work of some hard-pressed editor.)

Failing the smell test

Paul Delinger on his excellent The China Vortex explores the particulars of one company mentioned in the article, and notes in his conclusion:

“I find the whole practice of hiring Chinese and paying them to post favorable comments on a per-posting basis to be an unethical PR practice. According to the BW article, this is common practice.”

Imagethief notes in his post about the article that:

“Imagethief has been doing PR in China long enough to know that the ethics of Chinese media, including online media and therefore of the PR industry that surrounds it are still pretty grey. But that’s not the whole picture…”

There are some morally questionable things happening out there, to be sure. But not everyone does them.
What concerns me is that well-intentioned executives of respectable companies, desperate to address some of the unsavory (and therefore viral) things that are being said about them online, may fall prey to the contention of their agencies that “hey, everybody does this in China, and if you don’t, you are going to have real problems here.”

A warning to corporate executives of all flavors. When your agency says that, begin questioning immediately.

Often, such contentions are born of a lack of sophistication that can rear its head in an agency populated by account managers with less experience than time in a classroom. Possibly they are born of institutional laziness, a desire to do things in a certain way because that is the kind of service they are set up to deliver. At worst, such bold statements come from agencies who have a vested interest in getting the client to think that way.

Trust your instincts. If something sounds like it is wrong and feels like it is wrong, it probably is. Ask hard questions, and do not settle for pat answers.

Zubin Mehta, meet Charlie Parker

Next to newspaper editors, there is probably no group of people on the planet more confounded by the explosion of blogs, social networks, and (in China) bulletin-board systems (BBSs) that public relations folks.

Clients come to us desperate for answers. Some of us counsel patience, principles, and parley. Not all clients are happy with those answers – they are type-A, take charge folks who demand “solutions.” This opens the door for agencies who feel the need (or see the opportunity) to respond with something that looks like a concrete solution, even though it is really meringue.

But the ugly truth is that we as marketing communicators are all still figuring this out.

We don’t have a toolkit of time-honored techniques and practices to address what is going on in the way we do for advertising, direct marketing, media relations, crisis management, government affairs, or any of the dozen or more sub-crafts in the industry. All of this is as new to us as it is to everyone else, and while some agencies are further along in finding answers than others, it is all still experimentation right now.

Agency folks don’t want to admit that – they are used to selling something clear, definable, and proven. It is kind of like getting a great symphony conductor comfortable with the improvisation of jazz. It is hard. It demands rewiring the very way you think.

So the best agencies, the really smart ones, start with a set of principles that guide them in the process. (The World of Mouth Marketing Association – WOMMA – has come up with some good ones.) They look at the specific challenges a client faces, they listen to the audience and start improvising. And that is what happens. Great online PR – indeed any great PR in an age where participation increasingly trumps Big Media – is like jazz, not a symphony.

Beyond just wrong

Unfortunately, not everybody gets this. As the BusinessWeek article points out, there are agencies who are far more, um, utilitarian in their approach. Principles are for suckers, they think. The client wants solutions, we have got a solution here that will make their problem go away, and they are willing to pay for it. What is wrong with that?

What is wrong, they ask, with a company paying an agency not only to pose online as fictitious people who love the client and their products, or pose as someone who hates their competition and their product, but also to arrange to delete negative comments already posted?

(And how dare anyone attempt to impose their foreign/western/judeo-christian-islamic values on the people of China!)

If the contention that such behavior is evil, wrong, and contrary to the unwritten rules that govern the Internet is not convincing, here is why, in enlightened self-interest, you should perhaps consider that it is in your enlightened self interest to steer clear.

First, and most important, the audiences companies are trying to reach in China via online word-of-mouth value one thing above all else: credibility. If a company wants to build credibility and support among China’s netizens, it is essential to come across as a company that understands – and lives by – their values. Creating fictitious personas or paying to delete their comments betrays their values and runs the risk of undermining if not permanently damaging a company’s reputation with this valuable audience.

Second, engaging in such tactics suggests to China’s online population that the only way anyone is going to say something positive about the company in question is to pay them to say it. That is hardly the way to build confidence in a brand.

Third, if a company gets caught doing this in China, anyone who does say positive things online about that company will be instantly suspected of doing so only for the payola. In short, a company impugns by association the credibility of its best evangelists, and betrays their trust, ultimately eroding their support.

Fourth, as the BusinessWeek article demonstrates, there is global interest in this topic. If a company’s actions on this score were to be made public, there is the risk of global online backlash against the company.

Fifth, as proven by codes like those promulgated by WOMMA, the International Public Relations Association, and the International Association of Business Communicators, engaging in this type of deceptive behavior defies public and government expectations that companies abide by generally accepted industry standards. At worst, this leaves you open for investigation. At best, it gives your competition an opportunity to look cleaner than you.

If the above is not enough reason for you to avoid this kind of behavior, good luck and zai gezunt.

No excuse

There will be those who protest that I know not of what I speak.

Some will say “you don’t understand. You are a foreigner. This is China, and China is different.”

Even granting everything else suggested in those remarks, China is different, but it is not so different that company behavior that does not hold up under the light of exposure somehow becomes right. If the public, or even a large part of it, would be outraged at a corporate practice, it is unsafe (if not pernicious, dangerous, or downright evil) to continue or countenance, . As such, it is our ethical duty as advisors to our clients – or as corporate executives – to steer clear of such practices.

Others will suggest that “everybody else is doing it,” so they have to as well.

With respect, that line hasn’t held water with the public since the Nuremberg trials. All it does is prove that those following the herd lack the imagination and creativity to come up with a better way to defend a company’s reputation.

So often in China I am reminded of H.L. Mencken’s words: “For every problem there is a solution that is simple, workable, and wrong.”

Doing the right thing here is often difficult and fraught with complexity. But as experience continues to prove, it is the only course that truly pays off.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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