In 2003, Coca-Cola was running an advertising campaign, “Make It Real,” which featured—among other things—a poster depicting several Buddhist monks on a rollercoaster. The poster’s artwork captured the monks raising their arms and laughing as their carriage began a steep descent.
In 2008, a few weeks before the Beijing Olympics, a Chinese student traveling in Germany, came across one of the five-year-old advertisements at a railway station. He interpreted the ad as a message of solidarity with the Tibetan struggle for independence, and posted a photograph to one of many Chinese bulletin boards, Tianya. The photo was quickly seized upon by Chinese bloggers, one of whom called for a boycott of the company and for its expulsion from the Olympics, where Coca-Cola was a top-tier sponsor.
“Germany has started to really show adverts for Tibetan independence,” the blogger claimed, apparently ignorant of the fact that the ad in question was five years old. “Coca-Cola! Okay, I will remember. From now on I will not touch this shitty product.” He offered his interpretation of the image: “The three monks represent Tibetan lamas. They are riding a rollercoaster, which represents freedom. ‘Make it real’ means ‘make this [i.e. freedom] real.’” While at least one commenter who responded to the blog found that interpretation “far-fetched,” many more agreed with the blogger, and within days there was a movement afoot—driven primarily by students—to boycott the company and its products.
Coca-Cola responded with calm and good sense: “We regret if the use of an image featuring monks from an old print advertising campaign from 2003 has caused any offence. This was certainly not our intention … The old image was being used in the window of a shop in Bremen and has since been taken down … This image was designed to encourage people to try something new. The image is not linked to Tibet and is in no way an expression of support for any political issue.”
As a result, the immediate crisis was diffused. Still, the lessons remain clear. In a connected world, something that seems perfectly innocent in one cultural context can be interpreted or distorted to mean something ugly in another, and a crisis can spread half way around the world via the Internet before a company even realizes that there is an issue.
That’s true anywhere, but it may be particularly true in China, which has seen an unprecedented surge of online activism over the past 12 months.
I was in Beijing in April, shortly after the protests that accompanied the Olympic torch relay as it passed through Europe, and France in particular. Those protests prompted a huge outpouring of popular nationalism among the Chinese (while the sentiment might have been fueled by the Chinese government, it was clear from talking to ordinary citizens that their outrage was sincere, and there were indications that the righteous anger had grown so fierce that officials were concerned), as did a characteristically thoughtless comment by CNN’s Jack Cafferty, who described the Chinese as “thugs” in discussing the relay protests. As a result, there were calls for boycotts of a host of French products and American television networks.
The the earthquake that devastated the Sichuan region of the country provided another illustration of the newfound power of Chinese consumers. Within hours of the disaster, the first posts appeared on popular blogs and bulletin boards, castigating companies for their inaction.
In some cases, the criticism came from consumers; in others, it came from employees, who might have been reluctant to raise their concerns with supervisors and company managers, but felt quite comfortable posting anonymously online. Apparently, some had scoured official lists of companies providing financial and other assistance, and were drawing attention to companies whose names did not appear on those lists; others had simply heard nothing from their employers, and so assumed—not unreasonably—that their companies had done nothing. (And to be fair, many of them were justified: some major multinational companies initially made donations in the thousands of dollars, insignificant in the context of such an enormous tragedy.)
What happened next, however, was either ironic or perverse, depending on one’s perspective. Faced with internal and external criticism, companies stepped up their programs to assist with the recovery effort, and made sure that their stakeholders learned about those programs, issuing press releases and in some cases taking out advertisements discussing their charity.
The result was another wave of criticism, this one accusing several companies of attempting to take advantage of the tragedy to promote their products or services.
The unfairness of it all notwithstanding—these are the kinds of issues that companies must expect to face on a daily basis in an era of radical transparency—the rise of online activism in China is a fascinating development.
While similar activism is commonplace elsewhere, it spears to have a unique intensity in China, perhaps because until recently ordinary Chinese have had relatively little freedom to criticize any powerful institution. But over the past year or so, they have found that they can say things about companies—particularly foreign-owned multinational companies—that they could never say about their own government, and without any negative consequences. As a result, they are enjoying their newfound power—and so far, employing it none-too-judiciously.
As a result, during my most recent visit to China—a fascinating trip that took me to Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong—it was clear that public relations firms were all gearing up to help their multinational clients deal with this new wave of online activism, and that a broad array of specialist service companies were offering new tools to help them.
Those companies ranged from the legitimate (and technologically sophisticated) such as specialist media monitoring service focused on the Chinese-language Internet, providing companies with a near real-time assessment of what is being said about them on local bulletin boards on in the increasingly influential Chinese blogosphere, to the less scrupulous.
One company, mentioned more than once, employs low-paid Chinese workers to create fictitious online identities. Building up the credibility of these identities over time, posting intelligent, thoughtful posts in chat rooms or on blogs, these workers can create valuable, trusted, influential voices—which can then be bought by corporate clients and used to address significant crises.
It’s an approach that is highly unethical, and in a transparent world alarmingly likely to backfire. In the U.S., few companies have been able to get away with the use of so-called “sock puppets” online over an extended period of time; there’s no reason to believe companies will be any more successful at such subterfuge in a developing market. And even if individual companies are not unmasked, the practice is likely to become widely known, contributing to the erosion of trust that is such a major problem for companies already.
(Having said that, it’s an approach that is likely to appeal to companies that either don’t have a good story to tell or do not have the patience or inclination to invest in building authentic relationships and engaging honestly with their stakeholders.)
The point is that China is likely to be a fascinating testing ground for best (and worst) practices in digital and social media engagement and online crisis management over the next few years. There is a lot to be learned from the way the practice of public relations is evolving in developing markets.