Damage Control in China: Bow Down Before Your Leaders!

PR in China: it’s a brave new world! Yet, despite all the talk of a dirty “black PR” industry and the impressive propaganda powers of a one-party government, damage control campaigns in the People’s Republic seem to be very simple. Based on the recent PR fails and recoveries of Western brands like Apple, KFC and Volkswagen, a big “yes sir” apology seems to be the way to go.

This issue is very relevant because, as the economy grows more global by the hour, every company that doesn’t sell artisanal pickles in Williamsburg, Brooklyn wants to build a strong reputation in China.

Here’s the backstory:

Chinese customers were understandably a little peeved to learn that iPhone customer service standards were different in their country, with shorter warranties and none of the “brand-new back cover[s]” mentioned in related ads. How did the public learn about this problem? From the state-run TV network China Central Television, which airs annual investigative reports on ways in which companies cheat or mistreat Chinese customers.

And the kicker: not only did these citizens take to Twitter clone Weibo en masse to voice their disapproval, but lots of major celebs did so too via messages and instructions supplied by the government! Op-eds trashing Apple for its “unparalleled arrogance” also appeared in state newspapers, but this wasn’t all about corporate practices — it was about calling out a Western company as a bad actor to score political points.

Apple stayed silent for too long, but it had to respond at some point — and it did so in the most basic way possible by posting an apology letter on its Chinese website in which CEO Tim Cook promised to amend his company’s China policy standards and apologized for coming off as arrogant in his silence. Many cynical American critics probably would have snorted in distaste at Cook’s attempt to be earnest, and some say Cook’s decision to go forward with the apology was a mistake:

Still, the Chinese media seemed satisfied and quickly ran op-eds complimenting Apple for its “consistency.”

This is a good and somewhat intimidating example of the PR powers of the Chinese state. If an entity rubs party leaders the wrong way, they won’t hesitate to throw their full messaging power behind a public shame campaign — and they won’t let up until they get what they want.

Looks like quite a few Western brands will need to learn how to bow before the state-run media if they want to keep doing brisk business in the People’s Republic.

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.