Corporate Public Relations During Crises


Recently, the frequent occurrences of food safety problems have come into public attention.  At the same time, the hidden rules of Internet public relations activities have also been exposed.  When corporations detect quality problems, their first reaction is not to solve the problem.  Instead, they want to cover up the truth.  For them, "public relations" means to "fix" the government departments and the media.  How do these Internet public relations activities help the corporations to stem the disaster?  How do they affect our opinions?

During the storm around the melamine-tainted milk powder, the various dairy corporations provide some examples of Internet public relations.  This exercise will help netizens to get more familiar with "fake branding" and "public relations comments."

1. Position the brand as a Chinese people's brand

When Sanlu was exposed to be selling milk powder that contained melamine, it probably had no choice but to play the nationalist card.  In truth, there was actually already a small number of voices which were concerned that the crisis was hurting Chinese dairy companies.

Among these were a number of Internet posts setting up a nationalistic reputation for Sanlu, with titles like <Support the Chinese people's brand, Sanlu>, <Sanlu: I am a Chinese brand -- do you want to see me collapse?>, <Please release Sanlu, please release a Chinese people's brand>, <Support Chinese products and give Sanlu another chance>.  These types of post showed up in tsunami form at the various major Internet forums at around noon on September 12.  Please remember that September 12 was a key date, because it on this day that the negative information about the dairy industry as whole exploded.  On September 12, Google showed that the number of negative references to Sanlu jumped sharply to 11,400.  During the same period, Mengniu was also referred to as a "Chinese people's brand" in posts like <Save Mengniu>.

2. Buy off people to support the company on the Internet

The most famous "bought supporter" was Baidu.  On September 12, Google showed 11,400 negative items about Sanlu, but there were only 11 at Baidu.  After a netizen exposed the "crisis management agreement between Baidu and Sanlu," the number of negative references at Google was 11,800 while the number jumped "sharply" to 54.  There are numerous examples of "hired guns" at the Internet forums.

A netizen posted <Netizen exposed that he had been working for Sanlu public relations>.  He gave a detailed description of the history -- first he wrote a negative piece; he was bought off by Sanlu; the negative piece was disappeared; he posted that he had been mistaken about Sanlu; the details of the melamine affair then came out; he confessed that he had been paid off and he is now confessing.

3. Make good use of search engines

Compared to the other dairy companies, Mengniu was not afraid of search engines such as Baidu and Google.

If you search for other dairy companies like Sanlu, Yili and Guangming, the results on the first page will be their home page plus a number of other websites.  When an "incident" takes place, the entire first page would be filled with negative reports and information from other websites.  The companies do not have an Internet platform of their own to explain, justify, complain or even indulge in sophistry.  For many corporations, it is dangerous not to be able to control their own communication channels on the front pages of the search engines.

When Sanlu got into trouble, its website was hacked at one point.  The other dairy companies published some standard statements on their home pages.  Therefore, they had no platforms to communicate with the consumers in a way that was sincere, human and timely.  So they led their brand equity erode.

Mengniu is different because the second item of the Google search page was the personal blog of its chief executive officer Niu Gensheng.  In his blog, Niu Gensheng published the blog post <When responsibilty stares us in the face, we have no choice but to live up to our responsibiilty>.   He offered his excuses and he made his promises.  Based upon the almost 35,000 comments, this piece of communication definitely provided some defense for Mengniu.

After the incident, Mengniu owned its own information platform in such a prominent position at the search engines.  Whether it did so intentionally or unintentionally, this was part of the process of corporate management of Internet reputation by installing its own communication platform for the related keywords before a crisis hits.  Compared to the other dairy companies, Mengniu had better brand management on the Internet.

4.  The boss puts on a show.

After melamine was found in Mengniu milk powder, its chief executive officer Niu Gensheng apologized in tears.  Revenues fell at Mengniu, and threatened the financial independence of the company.  Niu Gensheng then wrote a 10,000-word essay.  You can use a search engine to look for posts with words like "Mengniu in danger of being bought out" and "Niu Gensheng in tears to beg for help."  At Google, 345,000 results pop up in 0.38 seconds.  These posts are spread across the websites, portals, forums and blogs.  Who needs "paid Internet supporters" when your chief executive officer could achieve such effects?

Sanlu and Mengniu used completely different methods to handle their public relations crises.  No matter how they did it, they only have one goal -- to deceive the consumers about their errors.  In addition, they want to set up the issues in a way that is favorable to them.  These are shameful activities.

Many corporations have used the new technology of Internet public relations to raise awareness about their company name.   But if they are dishonest, they are actually setting themselves for a fall.  Today, Sanlu is being broken up and Mengniu is facing netizen hostility.  Abraham Lincoln said, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time."