While online attacks in the West tend to focus on stealing a company’s confidential information, attacks in China more often aims to damage a company or individual’s reputation.
For both domestic and international companies doing business in China, attacks on brand reputation pose a larger threat than many managers realize and there’s an army of journalists and bloggers willing and able to run deliberately misleading stories about your brand.
And with competition getting more aggressive, online attacks are expected to get even nastier.
In his new book Managing Online Reputation, Charlie Pownall explains how companies and individuals can handle their online reputations and not fall victim to peeved customers, aggrieved employees or online trolls. I recently exchanged e-mails with Pownall after he relocated to London from Hong Kong. Edited excerpts follow:
How big a problem are online attacks on companies in China?
Pownall: There are many factors that make China’s online landscape uniquely challenging. The country has long been a brutally competitive place to do business and the internet, social media and mobile technologies make its’ dog eat dog business culture even more unpredictable, enabling companies to compete more aggressively on the one hand and to damage their competitors’ reputations much more easily on the other. Both are done with relish.
Compared to the west, where online attacks tend to focus on stealing a company’s confidential information and customer data or crippling its IT infrastructure, and where ad hominem attacks on competitors are generally regarded as unacceptable, attacks in China are more often designed explicitly to damage a company or individual’s reputation. The ease with which people can be anonymous or pseudonymous online in China makes it difficult to know who is behind an allegation, and the huge volumes and incredible speed with which news, opinions and rumors circulate means it is extremely difficult to contain it. Then there’s the ease with which the mainstream media (and its political masters) can manipulate internet companies, social media platforms and online communities. There is also the fact that the laws governing online behavior are in some areas notoriously ill-defined and can appear to change arbitrarily.
Local companies are the primary targets. However foreign companies are also sitting ducks given their visibility, relatively deep pockets and their reputation for playing fair in a market in which they cannot afford to be discovered bending the rules or operating in the shadows.
What form do these attacks take?
Online attacks in China can be openly hostile and direct, and covert and insidious, and take many forms, from negative, misleading and outright false media articles and cooked-up research studies to underhand online smear campaigns, rumors, innuendo and blackmail. Whilst their nature may differ, what they have in common is that they have a nasty tendency to go viral at extraordinary speed.
Negative media coverage is an acute problem in China. In part this is due to a ready market of journalists, freelancers and bloggers willing and able to run deliberately misleading market research studies, knocking copy and hit pieces alleging financial irregularities, sexual misconduct and all manner of other nastiness to order. There is also a media-savvy government actively shaping media output and online discussions across a wide range of issues and at all levels of society to contend with. The latter is at its most visible on China’s annual Consumer Rights Day, when local and foreign firms are ritually taken to task on state TV and online for poor quality products, bad customer service, unfair pricing and a host of other issues.
Compounding matters is a thriving industry of so-called ‘black PR’ agencies, digital marketing firms and unscrupulous individuals using all manner of underhand techniques to spread mis- and disinformation, delete negative posts, block search terms, buy bloggers and online community moderators, and blackmail unwitting targets. Chinese business magazine Caixin ran a 2013 exposé into the industry which revealed the going rate for deleting a negative post was 1,000-10,000 yuan ($150-1,500), and 100,000 yuan ($16,000) for blocking a search term.
How should companies handle online attacks in China?
The cut throat nature of business, the unrelenting pace of technological change, the high turnover of employees, widespread skepticism about authorities and big business, rampant nationalism and the furtive, febrile, volatile culture of the web in China combine to make online attacks particularly difficult to anticipate and, when they happen, exacerbate the awkward balancing act many companies face between moving fast to contain an issue while getting to grips with who’s behind it, why they are after you and how much damage it is likely to have on your business and reputation.
Most immediately, companies should start by assessing whether the attack is legitimate and take a close look at who is making it, where it was first made, how much attention it is drawing, whether it is seen as credible, and by whom. They also need to understand the motivation, background and affiliations of their detractor(s) and even more importantly, identify who is behind the allegations – something that can be tricky when most false rumors and slurs are started anonymously. If it has been started anonymously, you may need to use a digital forensics expert to analyze the detractor’s digital footprint, including their IP address, user names and online interactions. You should then be in a position to make a full response, taking into account the appropriate mix of business, communications, legal and technology options at your disposal.
Given the underhand nature of many allegations in China, it can be tempting to meet fire with fire by deploying black PR techniques of your own. Be careful, for while local firms can–and do–use shady techniques to fight back, foreign firms are advised to play it straight where possible and not be unduly provoked–the sheer volume of rumors and allegations means many die a natural death anyway, in other cases they are uncovered for what they are: entirely or at least partially false. Digging around online and into the professional and private lives of your detractors may also risk the attention of the authorities, as Peter Humphreys, a private investigator hired to look into allegations of fraud at Glaxosmithkline, discovered.
Beijing is steadily cracking down on China’s ‘black PR’ industry. Are its efforts working?
Beijing has announced several crack-downs on shady public relations and marketing practices, notably in 2013 when it closed down a number of black PR agencies. It may now be harder to identify firms offering these services, the problem has not gone away – indeed it is arguably getting worse as many players simply went underground and the techniques they use have necessarily become more covert and sophisticated.
For instance, many smears are now spread via closed groups on China’s Weixin/Wechat mobile platform, which is harder for the authorities and others to monitor, from where they spill onto the open web. And despite several attempts to introduce real-name registration systems for China-based websites, communities and mobile systems, anonymous and pseudonymous accounts remain a real problem, and the use of false email addresses and IDs remains common. Nor does a government crackdown on VPNs appear to have had much effect.
There again, attempts by central and local authorities to encourage a more constructive local internet culture by encouraging free speech (within certain parameters) while clamping down on fraud, rumor mongering and other things seen to impair China’s ‘national dignity’ are all well and good, but are stymied by the extraordinary scale of its own efforts to further its political, economic, military and social objectives using many of the techniques it has explicitly outlawed.
This article was written by Johan Nylander from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.
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