November 25, 2009

Online News/Posts Deletion: New Form of PR Crisis Management in China

"Had Jiujing Zhou (周久耕) hired us for crisis management, he would still be the director of the real estate bureau of Nanjing's Jiangning District and smoking his expensive Vacheron Constantin cigarettes." On November 11, 2009, this arrogant statement by a Nanjing web design and development company drew nation-wide attention, focusing the spotlight once again on the most recent form of crisis management in China--comprehensive elimination of negative news coverage and forum posts from the internet.

Baidu (百度)

Baidu, a popular Chinese search engine, is one of the most famous Chinese companies to offer the "public relation protection service." Its reputation has been less than stellar and in 2008 was chastised by state media CCTV for letting websites bid for their page ranks (among other reasons).

Baidu's PR services came under intense scrutiny amidst the scandals and death reports concerning Sanlu baby milk powder (三鹿奶粉), when an internal confidential document from Sanlu Dairy Company leaked. The document mentioned a payment of 3 million yuan to Baidu to suppress any negative news links in Baidu search results. After more posts with unfavorable details about Baidu PR operations surfaced on the internet, Baidu made a public announcement, in which it categorically and fervently denied any collusion with Sanlu Dairy Company.

How Many of These Companies Are There?

An article on Xinhuanet (via Beijing Daily) detailed a reporter's investigation into these "posts deletion companies" (删贴公司). A keyword search on Baidu returned millions of results, among which several advertisements are prominently displayed. Besides contact information and phone numbers, some even include informative and well-written tutorials on proper internet crisis management.

The reporter chose one of the heavily promoted PR companies and contacted them via QQ (a Chinese internet messenger). The conversation proceeded as follows:

away(reporter): Hello!

Xuer(sales rep): Hello, this is professional posts exterminator.

away: How much do you charge for removal of forum threads due to personal reasons?

Xuer: Can you show me the link(s)?

away: Please hold, let me find it.

On an online housing forum, the reporter found some complaint about broken heaters and sent the link over.

away: There are other similar threads. Can you quote me a price and also describe steps you take to delete the thread? I am responsible for maintaining the property. Too many complaints like this would adversely impact my status as one of the exemplary employees

Xuer: We charge 2000 yuan.

away: 2000 for just one thread?

Xuer: Yes, or you can show me all the negative information that need to be removed. I can give you a bulk price.

away: It takes some effort to find them all. What about a ballpark number instead? Also how do you go about this? Do you provide the service first or do I pay first?

Xuer: We require half of the money to be paid up front as deposit. The rest can wait until we delete everything. A job like this requires 2 to 3 days.

away: Do you guarantee elimination of negative information from this forum only? Or the entire World Wide Web?

Xuer: I will only delete this thread. No promise that other websites won't have similar complaints. The price I have given you is the lowest we can offer, because it is a little hard to remove material from that forum.

Internet Crisis Management for Businesses

To find out more about PR services tailored to a business, the reporter contacted the same company again, this time via phone. Mr. Salesperson on the other end of the line sounded very excited about the prospective customer but still insisted to see the links before he could determine the price. Since the reporter pretended to be a food company representative , the cost of deleting one thread rose to 4000 to 5000 yuan. It depends on the nature of the threads, explained the young man, and the websites from which negative articles are to be removed. Food, sanitation, drugs, and health-related are more expensive than others. News that have been printed on paper or discussed on TV are beyond the scope of their services.

After several rounds of investigation, it was obvious none of the PR companies have a fixed list for price. Links and articles must be provided first before the cost can be estimated. Furthermore, the companies usually recommend posts-deletion in bulk, claiming it is the most economical for costumers. The two employees mentioned above emphasized that their company can be trusted and will sign confidentiality agreements if necessary. Some of these professionals even showed a demo of their work flow.

Brand Maintenance

The reporter attempted to schedule an in-person appointment with one young man who works for such companies. Despite of reassurances that both he and his company would remain anonymous, the skittish worker canceled their meeting at the last moment. Persistent efforts on the reporter's part finally procured him a telephone conversation. During the call, this young man said that posts-deletion services are not a secret. Many of the negative information online can be totally erased, regardless whether the customer is an individual or a large business.

Furthermore, some companies will offer a year-long service called "brand maintenance" for 50000 yuan as annual payment. Under this service, any negative news appearing in that year will theoretically be deleted. Of course how thoroughly this is carried out depends on the size of the PR company and the scale of the scandal. In the case of Sanlu, no one could have reversed the tide.

How Negative News are Eliminated

In theory there are three ways PR companies can promote a customer's good name.

1. Flood search engines with positive news articles.

2. Pay website moderators to delete negative information.

3. Hacking

Contrary to some beliefs, most PR companies do not hire hackers, because hacking a website is high risk and high tech. As public relation companies, they prefer asking inside people at various websites to delete the requested information (for a fee).

Articles that have very high viewership are extremely difficult to kill; few website moderators and editors are willing to risk their careers. The most difficult articles to remove are the ones that appear on the home page of a website.

Is Online News/Posts Deletion Legal?

Currently there is no law regulating these companies.

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