Our two-part Echo Chamber podcast interview with Baidu comms director Kaiser Kuo was fascinating for a number of reasons, but in particular for his comments on how companies should respond to social media crises in the country. It's a very important area, and one we have covered in detail. Companies are now regularly taken to task on China's various online platforms. One good example is Siemens, which endured a campaign of online criticism that culminated in its products being smashed in public, forcing a chastened company CEO to issue a fulsome apology. More recently, Apple has found itself in the digital crosshairs, also bowing to pressure and apologising for its customer service policies in the country. Despite these high-profile examples, Kuo cautions companies to take social media criticism with a pinch of salt. As he explains in the second of our two-part interview with him:
"What I generally advise people is: Don't lose too much sleep over the beating that your reputation is beating in some online forum. Most savvy Chinese consumers understand that this phenomenon is commonplace. It's baked into their own assessments of brands."
Kuo made the point in reference to the infamous '50-cent army' - spammers that are paid to attack companies and other organizations online. The phenomenon is part of the wider 'black PR' industry, where enterprising agencies often attack corporates so that they can get paid to remove the offending posts. The Apple episode certainly brought some of these concerns to light, not least in the manner in which the online campaign was conducted, which appeared to signal a certain level of formal planning, rather than genuine grassroots outrage. Kuo's advice, though, flies in the face of conventional PR wisdom regarding social media management in China. Indeed, it poses an uncomfortable question for the country's PR industry, which has seen rapid growth from persuading companies to police their social media presence more aggressively, particularly on Weibo. Kuo expanded on this point more in the first part of the interview, where he explained why corporates should perhaps not take social media criticism as seriously as their PR firms would like:
"The tendency often is simply to over-react. You need to actually be circumspect about this. You have to remember that everyone that signs up for a Weibo account, they have game mechanics built in. They want to get followers, they want people to retweet what they write. That doesn’t happen if what you write is mild and milquetoast. It happens only if you are really strident and boisterous and particularly snarky. There is a tendency to be a little hyperbolic on Weibo. Corporates should understand that not everything is a gale force wind."
PR agencies like to spell out the social media threat to corporates in fairly unmistakable terms, claiming that it requires constant monitoring and rapid responses. Perhaps, in our own coverage, we've been guilty of accepting this premise without question. Certainly, the Siemens experience appears to indicate the worst-case scenario for a brand that does not take social media criticism seriously. And, as Kuo explains on the podcast, microblogs are certainly reshaping the level of transparency required of all types of organizations in China. Yet, the question remains. Are PR firms deliberately overstating the threat to nervous clients? I'd be interested in hearing your views.