Crisis management in China hinges more and more on effective use of microblogs, the vibrant Twitter-like social networks that have become a key driver of public sentiment, a new report says.
As debate continues in the U.S. over the PR handling of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure group's controversial cutoff and restoration of funding to Planned Parenthood, the new Chinese white paper titled "Crisis Management in the Microblog Era" reveals many parallels between the two countries. In particular, millions of opinionated internet users who demand quick, transparent information during times of public crisis and scandal.
"The speed of information transmission is now calculated in minutes and seconds. Before (with traditional media), the cycle was maybe one hour, one day or one week," said Michael Chu, managing partner at Ogilvy & Mather Shanghai. The paper was produced by Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide China and CIC, a local social-media intelligence and analysis agency recently acquired by WPP Group's Kantar Media.
Known as "weibo," China's microblog platforms are popular among internet users partly because they provide a forum for information separate from the country's entirely state-controlled media. The biggest is Sina Weibo, which had 250 million registered users as of August 2011, posting 90 million messages a day.
The free-wheeling microblogs serve a grassroots journalism role, frequently breaking news that leads to widespread public attention. Censors sometimes clamp down on sensitive topics, though not before word has already gotten out and is quickly passed among friends and followers.
"Right now, online users do a lot of the work that reporters traditionally did to find information. They'll even make diagrams and other visuals to summarize the news. It's very powerful," said Robin Gu, senior research and consulting account director at CIC.
In one recent example, an accident on a Shanghai subway line in September 2011 injured 271 people. The crash was first reported on microblogs, with constant updates totaling nearly 2.3 million posts on the topic, according to the white paper.
The subway authority was "very proactive" amid the initial confusion and put out 27 posts on its official weibo account the day of the accident alone, including apologies, travel advisories and updates on the victims, Mr. Gu said. Shanghai Metro's first post came 10 minutes after the accident.
As a result, posts about the crash declined sharply by the following day and the amount of rumor and misinformation was minimal.
Responding to negative news with a delayed or vague statement will only cause microbloggers to doubt its sincerity and talk even more about the issue, the authors said. The emotional tone of discussions on Chinese social media ensures that users will increase the reach and intensity of the conversation.
For marketers, it's the biggest brands in China that need to be most wary of letting accusations go unanswered online.
"Many of the brands (that experienced crises in China last year) are from the fast-moving consumer goods industry, especially the best-known brands. Any type of crisis situation that they're involved in will be discussed by people on weibo," Mr. Chu said.
KFC was accused last August of cooking with old, dirty oil. The company put out a statement denying the charges that same day, and negative comments about KFC dropped from about 65% of posts to about 16%, according to statistics from CIC. The topic petered out after a couple of days.
Key to that shift was KFC's coordinated response, issuing the statement simultaneously on its official weibo feed as well as on the company's website, Mr. Gu said. The statement laid out the facts, saying KFC restaurants test cooking oil regularly to make sure it conforms to health standards and never reuse it. KFC employees also backed up the statement on their own weibo accounts.
The paper's authors recommend that brands ensure every crisis plan has a social-media aspect, while developing a good relationship with key online opinion leaders who can help shape the conversation. Language used on microblogs when responding to a crisis must be appropriate for the medium, and not so formal as to appear remote or uninterested.
"When information from all kinds of online platforms can be swiftly aggregated and amplified by microblogs, companies must understand how to minimize their risk and prepare for an outbreak of an online crisis," Debby Cheung, president of Ogilvy & Mather Group Shanghai, said in a statement. "The speed and emotional ferocity with which microblog crises strike, often seemingly from nowhere, is very alarming to most companies, so early preparation is key."