In the Hutong
Watching candy-wrappers blow in the wind
Gady Epstein and Imagethief have offered spot-on commentary about Mengniu‘s alleged hiring of a Beijing PR firm to disseminate libelous disinformation about a competitor. This sort of extreme case makes a good story, and hopefully there will be a few visible prosecutions to ensure these particular practitioners never twist the truth again.
But there are a wide range of activities in the public relations industry in China that, while they would be considered unethical or illegal elsewhere, are accepted practices here. While the practices in isolation may not seem egregious, they create an atmosphere of permissiveness that undermines the effort by many public relations people, both Chinese and foreign, to move public relations out of the sewer and into the boardroom.
Practices I have witnessed in the past decade include:
- Corporations and their public relations firms paying reporters a “transportation fee” of anywhere from RMB 200 – RMB 700 simply to come to a press conference or an interview, regardless of any relationship that fee has to the actual costs incurred.
- Public relations firms writing pro-client stories – essentially press releases in the style of a feature – for reporters to publish under their own bylines.
- PR firms pricing their services on a per-published-word basis, who, after taking a cut, then pay reporters to write reams of laudatory copy in return for a gratuity for each word published.
- Companies entertaining reporters at expensive restaurants, plying them with expensive gifts, or taking them on junkets.
- Companies paying reporters outright to write positive stories about them.
- Companies paying reporters outright to spike negative stories about them.
- Companies buying ads in newspapers in order to keep those publications for writing negative stories about them, with the reporter taking a commission on ad sales.
- Companies paying PR firms to hire people to go onto online forums and pretend to be consumers who love their company’s products (or who hate a competitor’s products). (We call it “astroturfing” because it fakes grassroots sentiment.)
These are not practices followed by all PR people or companies in China. There are firms and clients who are willing to put themselves at a short-term disadvantage in order to keep their practices above reproach, and they do so quietly. But the ethically-challenged practices remain altogether too common.
Until they are stamped out or drastically reduced, they will not only foster more scandals, they will undermine the credibility of China’s maturing news media in the eyes of the public. The government and the Party can afford neither. And therein lies a great danger for the PR business.
A PR industry truly interested in its future would move to put a stop to practices that may be considered unethical. If the motivation of protecting their clients against the kind of official attention Mengniu is getting these days is not enough to provoke a change, perhaps the specter of the government stepping in to regulate the industry in detail will be.
The global PR industry is not without its considerable ethical failings. Indeed, I reckon I will spend the rest of my professional life in a quixotic battle against spin as a substitute for true communications.
But it is early days in the evolution of China’s own craft of corporate communications. It would be a regrettable pity if that craft were to dissolve itself in the acids of disinformation and ethical compromise, right when it – and the companies it advises – most desperately needs to learn to communicate.
- Creating A Scandal For A Fee: The Dark Arts of Chinese PR [del.icio.us] (blogs.forbes.com)
- Curdling the News (forbes.com)
- Public relations nightmare – Global Times (news.google.com)
- China’s New Scandal: Tainted Milk or Smear Campaign? (time.com)
- Mengniu Manager Held in Smear Scandal – CRIENGLISH.com (news.google.com)
- Chinese Milk Company’s Campaign Leads to PR Exec Arrest (mediabistro.com)
- ‘Precocious puberty’ attack linked to rival – Global Times (news.google.com)
- Public relations in China: dirty tricks, scandals (msnbc.msn.com)