Chinese business title Caixin has a fascinating feature that chronicles the rise and fall of the country's 'black PR' industry, where firms 'scrub' the internet to remove negative posts about their clients. A major police clampdown last July has apparently ensnared the firms that prospered most from this lucrative business model. As Caixin reports, not only did Yage Advertising and its cohorts charge large sums of money to delete negative articles. In a breathtaking display of entrepreneurialism, they also posted negative stories so that they could then delete them for gullible clients. While some firms have been caught, it seems unclear if this will ultimately put paid to the practice. It is also worth noting that unethical PR practices in China, as we have described before, incorporate a multitude of sins. Last year's police clampdown, for example, follows a highly-visible Chinese Government campaign two years ago that targeted 'illegal PR'. In that case, the trigger was a PR firm hired to disseminate libellous information about a client's competitor. We have also reported the saga of Siemens' attempts to deal with a damaging Weibo crisis, which ultimately led to the appliance giant parting ways with a major local PR firm after its attempts to quieten online criticism were revealed in public. And, last year, the New York Times took a long look at paid media placements in China, wondering if American companies in the country might be in contravention of US corruption laws. If nothing else, you could argue that the appearance of these types of stories is a good thing, as it suggests that ethical transgressions are not simply being swept under the carpet. What is particularly unsettling about the Caixin story, though, is the number of foreign brands that are implicated. Because where MNC brands lead, international agencies are likely to follow. It is, of course, impossible to find an international agency that admits to these types of nefarious practices. Yet, in private conversations, many senior executives admit it is rather more common than their global CEOs might like to think. Today, I asked the head of one of China's largest international PR firms whether 'black PR' is limited to local firms alone. His reponse?
"Many if not most are. They outsource quite a lot of this kind of arms-and-legs work to 'local' agencies."
Last year, rather uncharacteristically, I wrote a post on this that seems reasonably prescient. I'll even quote the specific paragraph because there is little chance I could put it better now:
"It is easy for global agency CEOs, safely ensconced in New York, to issue blanket statements that lapses such as these are not tolerated at their companies. It is considerably more difficult to police every act in every country, particularly down at the day-to-day account handling level, where split-second decisions are often made by executives who are inexperienced and under pressure."
To that I would add, it is similarly tough to draw a direct line of responsibility when the work is outsourced to another firm. This is not to presume that China is the only country where these issues persist. In fact, it is encouraging to see the country's authorities take such a hardline stance, an approach that other markets could certainly emulate. The hope is that the crackdown forces the kind of behavioural change that still seems required of clients and agencies. The shame, perhaps, is that it still requires such drastic measures to make it happen.