‘Fake news’ in China: When Chinese companies attack bad PR

Business & Technology

Why do some companies in China forgo brand-building opportunities when bad things happen? Nine international public relations experts explain.

BEIJING — A while back, I was having lunch with a journalist friend of mine, a post-’80s-generation Chinese woman. “A lot of my friends I went to journalism school with are in public relations (PR) now, because it pays better, but they really just get paid to lie for the company,” she said.

I’ve noticed this attitude among a lot of my friends in the fields of PR, branding, and journalism in China. There is a general sense of cynicism about the field of corporate communications here. I remember how one friend of mine, who works in PR for a Chinese tech firm, referred to his job as “the mafia guy who clears the crime scene of evidence after the murder.”

In contrast, for many organizations in the U.S., PR and corporate communications are having a bit of a renaissance. As the internet has developed over the past 10 to 15 years, the most successful organizations and individuals have used social media as an opportunity to develop close, intimate connections with customers and fans. For example, on Instagram, about two-thirds of the people I follow are my friends, but a third are public figures. As I scroll down, it gives me the impression that I intimately know and understand my favorite celebrities, athletes, politicians, and business leaders.

This is because rather than hiding from today’s media environment, many public figures and organizations are using new media to show more of their authentic selves, both the good and also some of the bad. By doing this, they are reaching their target audience, building strong brand loyalty with their fans, and using a method of public relations that is authentic, effective, and very inexpensive.

In China, it’s different

I’ve noticed that for many Chinese companies, it is common to, when facing a PR crisis, simply deny the facts, or blame sinister forces conspiring against them, even when the facts objectively show they are wrong. This is not unheard of in the West (“alternative facts!”), but it doesn’t seem to be as common. Savvy brand-builders increasingly use the attention brought to them by controversy to highlight the positive aspects of their corporate identity.

For example, the food-delivery giant Meituan-Dianping became the subject of controversy when it added a halal option to its app. Many Chinese internet users responded angrily, claiming discrimination against non-Muslims. In response, Meituan deflected blame: In an official company statement, it claimed that the special boxes were the idea of local agents, and also removed the halal channel from its app.

Meituan-Dianping CEO Wang Xing 王兴 implements a common, but confusing, PR strategy

Then, CEO Wang Xing 王兴 chose to rail online (screenshot at right) about an unnamed perpetrator conspiring to make Meituan-Dianping look bad. He complains:

In recent days, we have had the opportunity to see just how low business rivals will go to compete. They will utilize all sorts of things for instigation, defamation, and stirring up troubles. We conducted an internal check and didn’t find this person. We don’t have a stupid teammate like him. We can basically conclude that someone faked being a Meituan employee to intentionally discredit us with disgusting comments. This is an organized attack.

This confused me. Why wouldn’t Meituan use this opportunity to build a brand identity? If it wanted to continue offering a halal option, why not say something like:

At Meituan, we are obsessively focused on meeting the needs of our users, which is why we offer a special channel to meet the religious dietary preferences that are part of China’s diverse ethnic groups. For those who are offended, rest assured that this is not our intent, and we plan to offer more customized channels to meet the dietary preferences of other groups as well.

If they wanted to stop offering the halal service, which is what they did, why not say something like:

At Meituan, we believe in offering equal service to all our users, regardless of religion, ethnicity, or dietary preference. In our recent rapid expansion, we clearly did an insufficient job of communicating that policy to all of our employees and agents. We apologize to those whom we have offended, and promise that it will not happen again.  

With either of these responses, the company would have taken a clear stance about what it is as a brand. While as a foreigner I clearly am not the target market, the impression that Meituan’s response gives me is that it seems scared, unprincipled, lacking in clarity of vision or brand identity, and would rather point the finger at others than use the attention to make a statement about its values and policies.

Chinese PR goes global

When companies try to take common Chinese approaches with overseas media and markets, they often have disastrous results. In 2015, the Australian Financial Review gave an account of what it called “Huawei’s epic PR fail.” During a visit by foreign and Chinese reporters to the Shanghai campus of the telecoms and mobile phone manufacturer, one journalist asked a question about Huawei’s official position on the company’s national-security-related controversies overseas, which is what many people outside of China associate it with. At that moment the tour was promptly halted, and reporters were told they were not allowed to mention Huawei, nor the name of the tour guide.

Take also the case of Chinese tech company LeEco, which last year made a concerted push into the U.S. market with a high-profile launch event. Using a strategy that is common in the Chinese market, it invited dozens of influential journalists to attend the event, paying for flights and luxury hotel rooms, hoping to attract big names and curry favor. In the end, the plan backfired, with the most-viewed article the following day calling it “confusing, bizarre, and a bit full of itself,” while the article’s author mentioned the plane tickets and hotel rooms explicitly and called out LeEco for its attempt to buy influence.

A less-than-authentic review for a Chinese tech company in the U.S.

In the case of yet another Chinese tech company entering the U.S. market, a social media snafu was less high profile, but still quite obvious. In an earlier pair of pieces (part 1, part 2) in which I evaluated the overall performance of major Chinese tech companies on U.S. employer-rating site Glassdoor.com, I noticed a trend in one company’s positive reviews. While the reviews that rated the company one to four stars looked like normal reviews, many of the five-star reviews possessed a distinctly, well…less-than-authentic tone. See this example on the right:

Reading reviews like these, it is easy to assume that someone in the company wrote the comments in an attempt to manipulate the review score, which is not uncommon. But my questions are: Who do these people think they are fooling? Who in their right mind would see these reviews and think they weren’t written by the company? And who is the communications or social media director who looks at these and says, “Yes, these are convincing”?

To try to get clearer answers to the cultural and organizational causes of why the corporate communication and branding situation in China is what it is, I spoke with nine Chinese professionals in the fields of PR, branding, and business journalism — plus a few others in a position to comment — to get their opinions; all spoke on a condition of anonymity. Here are the general trends:

The “cleanup” tendency

A PR professional for a large international firm explained it this way:

For a long time, Chinese companies didn’t really have to care about PR, because there was not much independent media… Because it is not a strong part of their corporate structure and history, PR, marketing, and branding are not closely involved in the decision-making process, whereas in much of the rest of the world, they are embedded in almost every decision a company makes.

Another added:

To many companies, the very concept that business is even required to be accountable to the public is new.

Because of this approach, PR seems to be relegated to a cleanup role for many companies in China, rather than a strategic partner. A PR consultant who has worked in China and the U.S. had this to say:

Right now, PR agencies are not viewed as consultants, we are seen as workhorses. In America, we are consultants and clients respect us, because we are the experts. But in China, many clients don’t view us equally and treat us as such.

But change is coming, he added:

When you compare with how long it took the West to develop its PR and branding approaches, China is catching up quite quickly.

The masses vs. the tribe

An editor for a popular Chinese business news website argues as follows:

Tribes, a best-selling book about brands.

Most companies are not looking to attract really passionate fans, or even care that much about what the news says about them. The people who think about those things are the more educated, wealthier, and international people in the first-tier cities. They just want to be the first company that comes to mind for the average Chinese person, and in order to do that, they just need to advertise more than everyone else.

This approach runs contrary to the way that much of Western branding is conducted these days, much of which is articulated by marketer and author Seth Godin, best known for his best-selling book Tribes. Godin advocates that rather than building a shallow connection with everyone, the most effective brands are able to develop a deep connection with a small group, and then foster that group so that it can grow. “In fact, in nearly every case, trying to lead everyone results in leading no one in particular,” says Godin. He calls these groups “tribes.” Tribes are built by having a strong message and value set that thoroughly resonates with a group of people. By taking such a bold stance, it may alienate some people, but what is gained in having a strong tribe is far greater than what is lost alienating those who aren’t a good fit for your brand anyway.

“A lot of it is a maturity issue”

As social media and the internet have exploded over the last five years, it has become easy for companies to overreact to short-term PR disruptions rather than focus on long-term brand-building. A branding executive who has worked for Chinese tech firms as well as global PR consultancies said:

In every country, the purpose of PR is to build goodwill in the hearts of the public. In the internet age, it’s become different. Companies are tempted to get in arguments and quarrel online. In the long run, long-term brand reputation is much more important, and that comes from building your credibility over time.

Another executive added this:

Many companies panic when bad news about them goes out on the internet. They try frantically to squash the story ASAP without sitting back and thinking about how the company should respond in a way that is most consistent with their brand… It’s hard to say this in a respectful way, but a lot of it is a maturity issue. In life, a big part of growing up is having impulse control, thinking of the big picture instead of letting your emotions in the moment get the best of you. It’s the same thing with companies dealing with the internet’s hot topic of the moment.

Cultural and social expectations of CEOs

When comparing the open and public styles of brand-building by young executives in the West with the standards of expectations, as well as comfort levels with speaking frankly in public, a PR professional for a Shenzhen-based technology company says:

Chinese are not taught to express themselves and be eloquent in the same way that a lot of Westerners are.

Another PR consultant, based in Beijing, mentioned differing levels of pressure from investors:

I think investors in the U.S. really like seeing their CEOs out in public, but in China, there doesn’t seem to be that same expectation.

Those expectations are starting to change in China, and many of the country’s tech leaders have become increasingly vocal about their personal stories, and use it to build the company’s brand. Take Jack Ma, for example, who has famously told his personal story of getting rejected by dozens of employers, including KFC, only to later build his ecommerce empire. This has helped emphasize the company’s cultural value of entrepreneurship, and build a brand that is aligned with that value. However, I should say that it is pretty easy to talk about your past failures when you are now one of the richest men in the world.

Mistakes? Fake news!

By far the biggest factor that those I interviewed cited was a simple human emotion: fear. A communications executive for a Sino-foreign joint venture said:

Many business leaders are far more worried about alienating consumers than they are energized by the idea of creating an engaged fan base.

A PR professional who has worked with some major Chinese tech firms added:

Most Chinese companies are afraid to fail, so they try too hard to make everything look ‘perfect,’ even though they know it’s just an illusion.

Another gave what I thought was an especially thoughtful response:

People are afraid expressing vulnerability will make them appear weak rather than real and honest, relatable and likable here, so they tend not to risk.

It’s this idea of vulnerability, and the perception of it, that is so powerful in building a connection, whether with friends and family or colleagues and customers. The idea of vulnerability as an expression of courage and strength rather than weakness has become in vogue in recent years, partly popularized by researcher and author Brené Brown, whose TED talk “The Power of Vulnerability” is the fourth most watched of all time.

In her talk, she talks about the paradox of human connectedness: that when we allow ourselves to be open and vulnerable, when we are true and honest about ourselves and who we are, we connect most deeply with others. This is true for individuals and brands alike. This doesn’t mean oversharing all your intimate details, but not trying to hide them, and to be willing to share when it is helpful. When we open ourselves up and become vulnerable, we find a sense of belonging. When brands open themselves up, they find loyal fans. So far, very few large Chinese companies have been willing to admit mistakes and make this gamble to find those fans.

Final thoughts: Maybe some are learning

So imagine my surprise — a sense of being charmed and amused, to be precise — when earlier this year I saw the response of tech giant Tencent to a mild controversy. An employee went on social media, accusing the company of manipulating employees into working overtime, since the only way the employee could use company perks like shuttle buses, free dinner, and comped late-night taxis would be to stay late. In response, Tencent was not defensive, but cleverly used the attention it received to highlight the many perks that the company offers its employees.