The Dragon & The Mouse - Public Affairs and Social Media in China


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How social media is impacting public affairs in China

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The Dragon & The Mouse - Public Affairs and Social Media in China

  1. 1. & the PUBLIC AFFAIRS DIALOGUES THE DRAGON THE MOUSE Public affairs and social media in China An Edelman/PublicAffairsAsia White Paper: December 2009
  2. 2. THE DRAGON & THE MOUSE SOCIAL MEDIA AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS IN China An Edelman/PublicAffairsAsia White Paper - December 2009 This White Paper is produced by Edelman and PublicAffairsAsia. Research in conjunction with its production was conducted qualitatively and quantitatively using a survey of public affairs practitioners and at a high-level roundtable held in Beijing, China on November 17, 2009. The survey was conducted over the internet between November 6 and November 13. A total of 132 interviews were submitted by the end of active data collection. The roundtable was attended by 26 public affairs and corporate communications professionals. Representatives and those surveyed included bluechip MNCs, Chinese corporations, SOEs, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tsing Hua University, The China International Public Relations Association, PublicAffairsAsia, Edelman and Pegasus. While the opinions conveyed at the seminar have informed this White Paper, for reasons of confidentiality no individual is directly quoted or referenced. The views expressed are not necessarily those of PublicAffairsAsia, Edelman or their subscribers or client base.
  3. 3. FOREWORD: ALAN VANDERMOLEN W hen I meet with clients and non-clients in China, there is one question which dominates their agendas: What should we be doing with social media? I get that question from foreign multinationals, from private Chinese companies from state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and from government departments. Most often, the question arises within the context of public affairs. In China’s social media environment, nearly every public issue is fair game: Disaster relief, mergers and acquisitions, intellectual property rights, anti-monopoly laws, workers’ rights, environmental practices and health policies to name a few. Participants and observers are both wrestling with the dynamics of this new medium. Is open, web-based dialogue helpful or damaging to issues that touch upon or directly target government policies? Is it too easy to manipulate content? Are netizens overly sensationalist in their reporting techniques? With PublicAffairsAsia as our partner -- and backed by the first ever survey on the topic of social media with public affairs professionals in China – Edelman convened a closed-door roundtable in Beijing on November 17, 2009, to ask participants and observers the questions above. There are no clear answers, but there are clear trends. As China balances being a global power against loud calls at home to participate in increasingly transparent dialogues on policy, the implications are far reaching for domestic and foreign business, for domestic and foreign media and for the government itself. We hope this White Paper gives you some insight into what is happening on the “front lines”. ALAN VANDERMOLEN, PRESIDENT, EDELMAN ASIA PACIFIC KEY CONCLUSIONS INFLUENCE: The majority of PA professionals believe social media is the most influential medium in China CAUTION: Western MNCs in China remain cautious as a result of the perceived inability to control messages in social media environments EVALUATION: The majority of those who have developed a public affairs and social media strategy have not yet evaluated its impact STRATEGY: Moving from a defensive to an offensive PA and social media 3 strategy is the key challenge
  4. 4. EXECUTIVE SUMMARY media comment remains difficult in a political system such as China’s. However one central conclusion is clear from PublicAffairsAsia/Edelman research for this White Paper. The majority (66%) of PA prac- titioners believe social media is the most influential medium in China – and a similar number expect its influence to grow over the coming 12 months. Taking ownership and control F rom the Sichuan earthquake to the tainted milk scandal, social media in China is changing the way corporations and governments engage. Most SOCIAL MEDIA is, therefore, too important for public affairs executives in China to leave to others within the corporate hierarchy, although opinion recently Coca-Cola’s bid for Huiyuan resulted in is divided on the best strategies for engagement. online comment reaching fever-pitch. Three key concerns remain about the medium: Social media allows facts to be checked, distor- that it is often sensationalist, can be driven by tions exposed, corporate reputation to be tested and nationalism and can be difficult to manage. For performance/products assessed. It is also driving public affairs practitioners representing Western debate on policy in China, creating a new forum for multinationals, engagement with social media, citizen engagement. What was already a challeng- therefore, is not without risk. But that does not ing PA arena has become more complex still, as 181 mean it is something to be avoided. million bloggers drawn from a Our research shows an increased fo- community of 340 million internet TAKE-AWAYS cus among PA professionals on social users engage in online discussion • Social media = the fastest media strategies, although evaluation about contemporary issues in Chi- growing communication still appears patchy – and just eight na. This transformative landscape, medium in China per cent of survey respondents said in which anyone with a keyboard their PA department was responsible and a point of view can join the • Ignoring social media = reputational/corporate risk for “strategic social media communica- debate, is resulting in significant tions” in China. challenges for senior public affairs • Social media in China Fundamentally the debate centres practitioners. appears more influential on whether MNCs should view social than the US and Europe media as an “active” or “reactive” Peer pressure medium. Even the most social media THE EXTENT to which social aware public affairs professional is media comment is driving outcomes in China often on the back foot, in a crisis scenario, when en- remains open to discussion, with government figures gaging with China’s netizens. The challenge, as this expressing the view that it forms part of the wider White Paper identifies, is to move from a defensive “consultative” process but rarely determines the to an offensive strategy, while maintaining control of actual outcome. Social media comment in China is widespread and deeply rooted, and its volume means the message in pursuit of desired policy, legislative it is increasingly difficult to ignore. or regulatory outcomes. Disentangling exactly which public policy, govern- CRAIG HOY, ment or corporate decisions are driven by social EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, PublicAffairsAsia
  5. 5. PRACTITIONER DESCRIPTIONS OF SOCIAL MEDIA •Internet linked, mass medium - user generated, many-to-many •Entry criteria - A keyboard and a point of view THE LANDSCAPE, •Governments, companies and citizens are becoming media ‘companies’ OPINIONS & ATTITUDES SOCIAL MEDIA is redefining communications and IN NUMBERS the processes of influence in China. It is “filling a • 338 million internet users in China, with 181 void” through greater digital dialogue – giving an million bloggers and 155 million people using apparently equal voice to a wide range of consum- mobile devices for web use (CNNIC - June 2009) ers, corporations and activist groups. The resulting • 84.3% of Chinese internet users believe that public affairs landscape is more complex, and the the web is the most important source of infor- volume of discursive social media communications mation (CNNIC - June 2009) (often as a sub-set of mainstream websites), is rising • 74% of public affairs practitioners say inexorably – despite the restrictions imposed on social media is “important” to their broader PA strategy in China (PAA/Edelman November 2009) online channels in China. This is creating a new • 67% of public affairs practitioners believe “sphere of cross-influence” where information moves social media is the most influential, or often rapidly, but which can be difficult to control. Evi- the most influential, medium on public policy dence suggests China is moving further and faster in China (PAA/Edelman November 2009) towards the adoption of an influential and trusted • 60% of PA professionals use social media as mass social media community than many of its a part of their public affairs strategy in main- Western counterparts. land China (PAA/Edelman November 2009) PUBLIC AFFAIRS practitioners believe SOCIAL MEDIA STATEMENTS that social media is often the most influ- Agree Somewhat No Somewhat Strongly ential medium in mainland China – and strongly agree view disagree disagree expect its importance to grow. They also confirm that the Chinese leadership is Social media is the most influential 20% 46% 15% 14% 5% responsive to its influence, a fact sup- medium in China ported by the government machine’s Social media will grow in importance 22% 47% 19% 8% 3% increasing interaction with the medium. in next 12 months Yet fears exist that the social media Social media is more trusted than other 16% 38% 19% 28% agenda can be driven by nationalism, media and print and some senior practitioners view it as Chinese govt will potentially dangerous territory for not respond to social media 7% 12% 22% 43% 16% Western MNCs in China. PA profes- Social media sionals understand that social media is is too much of a risk 7% 24% 24% 35% 10% influential, but many have not yet mas- 5 Social media is tered how to utilise this information to impossible to control 15% 32% 14% 37% 2% deliver positive public affairs outcomes. 0 20% 40% 60% 80% 100% Source: Edelman/PublicAffarsAsia survey, November 2009
  6. 6. STRATEGY To view the full presentation from the Beijing roundtable visit: ACCORDING TO CASE: MASTER KONG our research many The bottled water company Master Kong became PA executives are engaged in controversy after a Bulletin Board post often reluctant to demanded “Master Kong, where is your water pro-actively utilise source?”. The post sparked a netizen outcry, social media. While claiming Master Kong mineral water was merely some companies at the forefront of digital adoption tap water. Amid accusations of false advertising believe “marketing product” and “issues manage- the story transferred to the mainstream media - ment” cannot be separated online, there is a risk prompting the firm to admit “everyone does it” and that a “gap in understanding” had led to the that social media is mistakenly viewed as a nega- confusion. tive environment in which to apply public affairs After regulators stepped in to review bottled techniques. PA practitioners representing Western water standards an online poll by China Youth MNCs also suggest that too much social media Daily found that 57 per cent would no longer buy comment is “sensationalist” in nature, and can often Master Kong water and 73 per cent supporting be compromised, or eclipsed, by nationalism. strengthened supervision of the water industry. Netizens are closely monitoring Chinese corporate LESSONS LEARNED: stories as they break on the web. In recent months • Social media is the world’s biggest fact checker • False advertising can be rapidly exposed the potential sale of Hummer to Tengzhong led to • Traditional media feeds off social media a flurry of social media comment, and Coca-Cola’s failed acquisition of Haiyuan came in for similar TAKE AWAYS: digital cross-examination and comment. • Social media is rapid media: response times But it is not just the actions of corporations are important which are coming under netizen scrutiny. Officials • Government and corporations are both in China are also subject to the forces of the social subject to the forces of social media • False claims can spread quickly online media as the below case shows. • Social media engagement does not always mean a loss of control THE 70kph HANGZHAO CRASH • Netizens are suspicious of elites - business and political In May 2009 the Chinese internet was ablaze • Celebrity bloggers carry significant influence with comment after exposing the driving • Bloggers deny that their tone is sensational, record of a wealthy driver, Hu Bin, whose souped-up vehicle knocked down and killed but is instead “objective” and geared for a working class graduate Tan Zhuo. Police ini- younger audience tially said the car was being driven at 70kph The Beijing ‘Public Affairs Dialogue’ and issued a minor rebuke, but in the glare of internet claims they later conceded that the driver was going between 81-101kph. In a culture where some believe money and 6 connections can get the wealthy out of trouble, intense web pressure and scrutiny resulted in Hu’s previous driving offences being exposed and a three-year jail sentence handed out.
  7. 7. RISKS & REWARDS IN OPAQUE environments it is still difficult to TACTICS AND RULES calculate which influencer affected which outcome. Government figures say that decisions will always be taken based upon long-established legal or regulatory foundations. However the volume of social media con- versation is such that policy formulation and regulatory decisions are subject to intense scrutiny and comment – therefore making the decision-making process more transparent in some respects. However, as the Coca-Cola case study shows, ignoring or responding ineffectively to grass roots or digital com- munications appears to carry significant downside risk – 1. Social media can be a platform for particularly for Western multinationals fearful of increased strong statements of “national pride” protectionism or creeping nationalism. Social media has 2. Netizens are often anti-establishment and the web is being used to tackle increased scrutiny on both the public and private sectors authority and can result in wrong-doing being rapidly exposed. It 3. Sensationalism/“chauzuo” often has also created a culture where malicious falsehoods can emerges in online discussion and flourish. But it can also be used to validate positive claims coverage and drive positive outcomes. Netizens can shape the policy 4. Content is replicable - the “Zhuanzai” agenda and increase transparency. principle. Expect the same story, true or not, to materialise in multiple locations In conclusion, the engagement of public affairs 5. Bad news travels fast; but so can practitioners in these processes will become increas- positive news if transmitted effectively ingly influential on the wider success or failure of their companies in China. EDELMAN’S KEY TIPS: Compiled by: Adam Schokora, LISTENING: Develop a sound understanding of the “who, what, and where”. WHO is saying WHAT about issues/ topics relevant to desired communications objectives, and WHERE are they saying it. Brands and companies need to invest significantly in internet word of mouth (IWOM) conversation audits/monitoring. PARTICIPATING: Actively participate in relevant conversations identified in ongoing IWOM monitoring - using microb- logs, social networks, discussion forums, bloggers’ websites, etc.) and dedicated branded digital assets (i.e the brands/ company’s website/blog, etc.). ENGAGING/RELATIONSHIP BUILDING: Modify and expand your ongoing traditional media relations efforts to include online platforms/communities and individual influencers (i.e. “media publications” and “journalists” in the traditional media relations model). AUTHENTICITY: Champion open dialogue by being transparent and honest, and speaking with an authentic (not 7 necessarily a corporate or PR scripted) voice. AUDIENCE: Your goal in the social media space is not to win an argument; it is to win an audience. It’s important to remember that popularity does not equal influence. It is not how many people are your “fans” or how much traffic you get to your site, but rather “who” those people are.
  8. 8. TOOLKIT & TAKE AWAYS 1. Public affairs professionals require insight and analysis about the rapidly-developing social media, including Chinese language blogs and Bulletin Boards: which often feed the global mainstream media. The rise of the “celebrity” blogger has given personality to issues of national pride. 2. Rigorous monitoring, strategic engagement and continual impact assessment are required. PA professionals need to develop transmission skills across a diverse collection of social media formats and understand how messaging techniques must change in these environments. Take stock of your social media engagement efforts and be flexible in adjusting your approach. 3. Governmental agencies insist decisions are based on merit, the regulatory framework and the rule of law, although the proliferation of media requires corporations to examine the quantity and quality of their social media comment in order to ensure “share of voice”. 4. Greater offensive and proactive use of social media could enhance corporate reputation and deliver upside “wins”, although more significant engagement and ownership of both the medium and message will be required by corporations in mainland China for this to be achieved. 5. Sensationalism, nationalism and the different control levels do not mean social media should be off limits for PA professionals. Instead new strategies of engagement, which tackle these issues, need to be developed as part of a wider stakeholder and public affairs strategy in China. 6. Failing to proactively use social media can result in missed opportunities to shape the policy, regulatory and M&A landscape. This could impede growth or damage commercial operation, reputation or development. About Edelman Edelman is the world’s largest independent public relations firm, with 3,400 employees in 54 offices worldwide. Edelman was named “Large Agency of the Year” in 2008 by PRWeek and a top-10 firm in the Advertising Age “2007 Agency A-List,” the first and only PR firm to receive this recognition. CEO Richard Edelman was honored as “2007 and 2008 Agency Execu- tive of the Year by both Advertising Age and PRWeek. PRWeek also named Edelman “Large Agency of the Year” in 2006 and awarded the firm its “Editor’s Choice” distinction. For more information, visit or About PublicAffairsAsia PublicAffairsAsia is the network for senior government relations, public affairs and corporate communications professionals operating across the Asia Pacific region. It offers news, features, analysis and intelligence on practice and policy through PublicAffairsAsia magazine, online channels, intelligence and events. For more information, to REGISTER, or SUBSCRIBE: visit PublicAffairsAsia Unless otherwise stated all material is copyrighted by: Public Affairs Asia Ltd. 3rd Floor, 3 Pacific Place, Queen’s Road East, For more information contact Craig Hoy at Hong Kong SAR. Company Registration: 702801 or Alan VanderMolen at