The PR Problem for Chinese Online Public Relations Firms

Several days ago, Sam Flemming of CIC, a Shanghai-based online reputation management company pointed me to a news article on Business Week called “Inside The War Against China’s Blogs”.

The article specifically highlighted a company called (in Chinese the name means “Big Flag” which has a certain nationalistic appeal), and cited a case in which it helped Toyota satisfy a customer who had not received his car after three months. According to the company’s CEO, her company, an Internet online reputation management company, helps its customers, mostly western multinationals, to monitor their online reputations and help put out fires with users in China.

Out of curiosity, I then entered into my browser address bar so that I could visit the site and learn more about the company and what they do.

What I found, and what I did not find, were very interesting.

First of all, I thought I was going to find an online reputation management company, or public relations company, or whatever buzzwords they are using now to lure in corporate business.

But I found nothing of the kind. Instead, I was confronted with what I would call a typical Chinese portal website, complete with channels for “Homepage”, “Society”, “Military”, “Strange and Curious”, “Autos”, “Digital”, “Women’s Makeup”, “Pictures”, and “Reputations” (in beta).

(I have uploaded the screenshots of the pages mentioned below to Picasa and you can access them here.)

Aha, I thought to myself, I’ll click on “Reputations” and see what I find. When I went there, I found that it was full of forums divided into the categories “Cars”, “Cameras”, “Notebooks”, “Digital Cameras”, “MP3”, and “MP4”. The page is very long, and like most Chinese pages, scrolls on quite a distance with recommended products in each product category. This page, like the rest of the website, was designed very much to lure Chinese visitors. To visit the page, you can go to

My next question was whether they took advertising? The only banner advertising I saw was for Dell, which ran on the two pages I visited. But it would be foolish to think that their only revenue came from banner advertising. Looking at how the page was designed, and the way some of the products were given larger photos and highlighted, it was easy to see that some makers were paying for higher rankings for higher visibility.

But nowhere did I see anything about their online reputation management services. So I thought to myself, “Surely the person who wrote the Business Week story, Dexter Roberts, could point to a website where Daqi offered their online reputation management services, in either Chinese or English.”

I could find nothing of the kind.

Daqi claims that it regularly searches 500,000 forums daily for its corporate clients. I’m sure that it works on many sites which are not related to Daqi. However, it also raises the very uncomfortable possibility that it may actually manipulate online reputations by starting flame wars over product reputation, then charging their corporate clients money to put them out. (I’m not claiming that Daqi does, but the very fact that they run their own portal under their own company name and URI means that they have very little respect for their non-Chinese corporate clients and western journalists’ capability to conduct online research in Chinese.)

The clash of interests which arises from revenue from makers for higher rankings on their own portal site, and then revenue from non-Chinese corporate clients for “research insights” and “firefighting services” into Chinese online behavior is obvious to anyone. The temptation to use their own forums to “seed” opinions must be very great. These seeded opinions would then quickly proliferate to other sites.

There is a simple way to find out, and that is to check timestamps of postings. All forum software includes a posting timestamp, and it’s easy to check the timestamps on a subject to push it back in time to where and when a rumor started. What is harder to find out is the identity of the poster, but this can sometimes be done by checking the IP address of the poster if IP cloaking is not used. Different online identities sharing the same IP would most likely be the same poster.

I wonder how many corporate clients do this kind of checking?

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 a common practice. A Beijing-based PR professional, William Moss, talks about this in more detail.

Online public relations firms will have to draw up and aggressively publicize clear guidelines on what they do, and what they don’t do when it comes to monitoring online behavior in China. Playing multiple roles as player and referee doesn’t make it in my book. I have talked about some of the skills needed in a previous posting.

This is part of the problem which actually slows down Internet growth in China. In spite of it all, there are healthy groups for product discussions.

Of course, each corporate client will have to make its own call as to what it is most comfortable with. And so will their VC backers. (I wonder if they read Chinese?)

But if someone does do an article on a Chinese company, at the very least, the URI mentioned should include, in either Chinese or English, the business they are in which is mentioned in the article.

Nobody likes bait and switch tactics, and I’m no exception.

Is that too much to ask for?

11 Responses to “The PR Problem for Chinese Online Public Relations Firms”

  1. […] which featured and other companies which try to manipulate voice online. Sam Flemming, Paul Denlinger, David Wolf and William Moss all have great posts to respond BusinessWeek’s […]

  2. […] As a business and marketing consultant who spends considerable time in China, I get upset when I see marketing and PR terms not used the right way. One thing which is done very frequently in China, but whose terminology is not used correctly, is astroturfing. As a matter of fact, I have not even heard of a Chinese term for astroturfing, even though I have seen it in many forms all the time. In fact, a good deal of what the Internet is used for in China in the BBSes in China, is astroturfing in different forms. […]

  3. Tanyaa says:

    Social media allows PR professionals to connect with our clients’ audience on an individual basis. Sure, it’s slow to catch on among more traditional clients, but those who “get it” don’t hesitate.
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  4. Bobwilliams says:

    The week before last I had lunch with a foreign correspondent who asked me if there was corruption in PR in China. Although I was only providing background, and not speaking to him on the record, I was, to put it politely, diplomatic in my answer. Ever mindful of the brand that graces my business-card, it’s an issue that I tend to tread lightly upon. I did, however, send him on to a friend who has been here longer than me and who works independently and is, therefore, inclined to be more forthcoming about such things. But the topic arose again last week, courtesy of bloggers Bingfeng, of Bingfeng Teahouse, and Myrick, of Asiapundit. Bingfeng fired the first shot in a post telling foreigners who complain about China’s media restrictions to find something better to do with their time. The crux of his argument was the blocking of any individual site affects only a few thousand people. However, a pervasive culture of media corruption fostered by “foreign MNCs” (multinational corporations) affects everyone in China:


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  5. valrossie says:

    Public relations firms work for a wide range of clients – corporations, trade associations, governments and even some non-profit advocacy groups.

    Some PR campaigns could genuinely be characterised as being in the broad public interest, such as campaigns against smoking or crisis communications aimed at minimising the impact of natural disasters.

    However, as PR skills don’t come cheap PR firms gravitate towards those with the deepest pockets which are generally corporations.

    Some PR campaigns are designed to boost the public profile and sales of products. The most controversial however, are those aimed at shaping public opinion to defeat or delay government regulatory moves designed to protect the environment or public health and safety.

    While corporations fuelled the growth of the industry in more recent times governments and political parties have come to rely on PR companies to sell controversial policies and win election campaigns.

    While not all PR campaigns are manipulative and deceptive, many of the world’s largest PR firms have been involved in disinformation campaigns.
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  6. […] readers, try here) – Will Moss, Is it “war” against Chinese blogs? – Paul Denlinger, The PR Problem for Chinese Online Public Relations Firms – China Web2.0 Review, The PR Problems of China’s Social […]

  7. […] issue very wrong here, and we clarified our stance here. David Wolf, Will Moss (aka Imagethief) , Paul Denlinger, and Tangos all wrote thoughtful pieces on this […]

  8. […] Delinger on his excellent The China Vortex explores the particulars of one company mentioned in the article, and notes in his conclusion: “I […]

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