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MSL China Executive Whitepaper

The Art of Weibo Crisis Management

Handling Issues and Preventing Crises in Chinese Social Media
Authors: Johan Bjorksten, Catherine Cao, Derek Dong, Enson Hu

About MSL China

Following the union with Eastwei MSL, MSL China is now a top 5 international strategic communications agency in Mainland China. With 200 colleagues across 4 offices, MSL China brings together over 20 senior consultants with more than 12 years of strategic communications experience in this key global market. Part of MSLGROUP Greater China, the largest PR & social media network in the region today, MSL China provides knowledge driven, integrated campaigns and advisory services spanning nearly every industry and communications discipline. MSL China has received recognition from the International Business Awards, The Holmes Reports PR Agency of the Year, the China International PR Association and Chinas New Media Festival for its creativity and effectiveness in strategic communications and industry-leading social media offering.

MSLGROUP is Publicis Groupes PR, speciality communications and engagement group, advisors in all aspects of communication strategy: from consumer PR to employee communications, from public affairs to reputation management and from crisis communications to event management. With more than 2,900 people, its offices span 22 countries. Adding affiliates and partners into the equation, MSLGROUPs reach increases to 4,000 employees in 83 countries. Today the largest PR network in Greater China and India, the group offers strategic planning and counsel, insight-guided thinking and big, compelling ideas followed by thorough execution. Learn more about us at: www. Twitter+ YouTube

Table of Contents Foreword Essentials of effective social media crisis management

P5 P6 Re-engineering your company for the Social Age Setting up your organization for great execution

What causes an issue to escalate into a crisis?

P7 When does an issue become a crisis?

Social Crisis Management Tactics

P9 P10 P10 P12 P13 P14 P16 P17 What if McDonalds hadnt had an official weibo? Accelerate Is 24 Hours Quick Enough? Human Touch Winning the case or winning hearts? Ethics You cant hide in the social age Data and Analysis Li Kui or Li Gui Flexibility Change is the Only Constant Clarity Drafting a 140-character Modern Classic Customization What should be the Role of Traditional Media?

Conclusion Social Crisis Management Starts Before the Crisis

P18 Practice Makes Perfect P20 MSL China Social Media Crisis Simulation System

MSL China Executive Whitepaper

The Art of Weibo Crisis Management - Handling Issues and Preventing Crises in Chinese Social Media


Who was behind the smear campaign against Zhang Ziyi? Who came up with trust McDonalds, dont trust CCTV? If Siemens had proactively apologized, would Lao Luo still have destroyed his refrigerator? How did Guo Meimei, within two days of posting a picture, become the discussion point for over a million netizens?

Chinese social media have developed rapidly over the last ten years. Starting with BBS forums and moving on to blogs, the focus today is on social networking sites like the Chinese equivalents of Facebook and Twitter: and Sina weibo, respectively. For the first time, social media allows the Chinese public to circumvent the traditional state-owned media, giving them a platform to express their opinions. Social media authors are sometimes surprised to discover their new ability to influence public opinion. Many weibos have accumulated more than a million views, shares or followers succumbing to the snowball effect. Journalists also turn to influential weibos for stories. Social media allows businesses and brands to engage in timely and continuous dialogue with consumers and the public. By the end of February 2012, more than 130,000 businesses had registered official Sina weibo accounts. Pressure to increase follower volumes and activity levels have led PR managers and digital agencies to do all they can to attract the attention of netizens. In addition to daily posts about the company, companies offer everything from raffles and free trials to in-store promotions and after-sales services. Even polls on weibo generate volumes of activity. Just as companies continue to leverage social media for marketing purposes, negative coverage and the potential for issues and crises to develop and escalate in online forums is an increasing source of concern for PR professionals. In fact, fear of negative comments is one of the reasons that some companies have not yet created official weibo accounts. So how can communications professionals fully leverage the weibo channel while avoiding social backlash? How

We dont have an official account in Sina Weibo yet because we are afraid it will become a platform for consumer complaints.

Comment from a PR manager in retail industry

should companies respond to negative online voices? How can they manage issues and prevent crises, so as to protect business and brand reputation? The Art of Weibo Crisis Management tries to answer these questions by employing best practices from our own experience of managing social media crises for large multinationals in China. We hope that this whitepaper will serve as a checklist and source of ideas for corporate managers, as well as for all of our PR colleagues fighting on the weibo frontlines at companies and agencies in China.

MSL China Executive Whitepaper

The Art of Weibo Crisis Management - Handling Issues and Preventing Crises in Chinese Social Media

Essentials of effective social media crisis management

Re-engineering your company for the Social Age
To manage social media properly, especially in challenging situations, companies must begin by reviewing internal processes and establishing internal consensus around the challenges that social media place on all parts of the organization. We outline the key steps from our experience with clients in China.

Channels Establish an official social media "face" of the company

Some companies are still considering whether or not they need to establish an official presence in Chinese social media. In our opinion, this is no longer a matter of choice: consumer companies as well as industries need to realize that, even if they opt to stay out of social media networks, their customers, partners, and competitors are already there. If a crisis appears online, the only way to address it effectively is by utilizing your own social media channels.

Accelerate Prepare the organization for faster response

For many years, PR professionals have talked about the 24-hour response. But reaction times on social media presents unprecedented challenges; in fact, best-in-class companies have already replaced the 24hour principle with a 2-hour response. How should organizations adjust their crisis alert and management systems, so that they can respond quickly and effectively to any issue that arises?

Ethics Watch out for shortcuts that may look effective but will most likely cause further damage
Many managers in China still believe - to their detriment - that it's possible to cover up or remove negative reports using money or "guanxi". This is no longer the case. Although such solutions may initially look "successful", they are tantamount to sweeping the real problems under the carpet. And the risks of discovery are increasing - recently, a number of companies have had positive commentaries or deletions traced back to their PR departments or agencies, leading to public outcry and damage to their reputations.

Human touch Put yourself in the shoes of your audience

Companies in China have largely failed to understand that social media are inherently different from outdated, one-way communications: only if your audience feels engaged, and is willling to accept your dialogue, will they believe your authenticity. The Chinese online public is cynical and disenfranchised; they can scent when a company is being disingenuous, and this will often lead them to sympathize with disenfranchised individuals or organizations that are critical of this company. Social media and its advanced technologies can never replace basic human interaction.

MSL China Executive Whitepaper

The Art of Weibo Crisis Management - Handling Issues and Preventing Crises in Chinese Social Media

Setting up your organization for great execution

Understanding the strategic requirements of the social media environment is important but this can only address half of the challenge. The other half is implementation; in order to be successful you need to deliver the strategy. This requires the right tools, precise execution skills, and an experienced crisis management team.

Data Access to the right information and evaluation tools

Communications professionals understand that keeping cool and controlling facts and data are the basic principles of crisis management. Never regard criticism or negative information as false before checking your facts. Today, companies tend to overreact to issues online. Fortunately, there are ways of quantifying your decisions and letting the data stand on its own.

Flexibility Stay on top of developments and quickly adjust direction as an issue develops
Change is the only constant. Social media crises tend to be extremely fast-moving, undulating by the minute with the flow of public opinion. Because of this, companies need to develop attentive listening skills to online commentary. They must also build the capability to instantly analyze and gauge online opinion and continuously adjust strategies and tactics.

Clarity Getting your full message across in 140 characters

Space restrictions in social media, especially weibo, make it difficult or near impossible to introduce every facet of a story. How can we deliver the key information to all interest groups involved, in a way that will come accross as sensitive and credible, within a limited space? In this context, drafting a response to a social media crisis may seem like an artistic endeavor, akin to composing a haiku poem. Fortunately, some companies have already developed best practices that we can learn.

Customization Understanding the different roles that social and traditional media play in a crisis
Social media and traditional media each have their own advantages. Communications professionals must become skilled at choosing media strategies tailored to the characteristics and challenges of each particular issue or crisis that confronts them.

MSL China Executive Whitepaper

The Art of Weibo Crisis Management - Handling Issues and Preventing Crises in Chinese Social Media

What causes an issue to escalate into a crisis?

Before presenting and implementing detailed strategies and tactics to resolve a crisis, PR professionals must first understand how managing a crisis in the social media environment differs from traditional environments and which factors are worthy of special attention.

With social media, news is no longer local or isolated. Anything can gain widespread exposure on the Internet. Before, a single consumer could purchase a fake product, post a disgusting photo of it on weibo, and have media tag it to make it go viral. Now, netizens dont need the media: they just see the photo, our brand, and have a negative association, damaging our overall reputation.

When does an issue become a crisis?

Every PR manager has experienced the following situation: Negative information begins to spread on Sina, Sohu, Netease, Tencent, or some other portal or news site. The crisis management team begins to prepare for action. Then, somehow, the negative commentaries fade out and the issue resolves itself without developing into a full-blown crisis. Yet, many managers have also experienced the opposite: a small piece of negative information rapidly spreads through social media and escalates into a crisis that disrupts business, causes grave management concern and ultimately impacts the companys reputation and brand. So how can we better understand how negative information spreads and

Comment from a PR manager in food industry following a major crisis

evolves in social media? Of course, the most important determinant is the overall attention received. So how can we evaluate the level of attention, and when should we prepare for action? The following observations can help us form a framework for making decisions. There is no single blanket number or percentage: Companies and products have different critical attention levels. Some products are used by millions of people while others are more exclusive. A rule of thumb: the larger the volume of consumers, the

MSL China Executive Whitepaper

The Art of Weibo Crisis Management - Handling Issues and Preventing Crises in Chinese Social Media
higher the probability that small issues will escalate. However, some companies have adopted a useful tool for analyzing and predicting the crisis potential of a social media issue: the first time user tweet ratio. This concept is applicable to many different types of social media, so we use Sina Weibo as an example: Determine the communications cycle time for the social media channel in your industry: for FMCG (Fast-Moving Consumer Goods) brands on Sina Weibo, for example, this is around six to eight hours. Analyze a previous issue to determine how many consumers discussed or shared a negative comment within your industrys cycle time before it went viral or precipitated into a crisis: the first time user tweet ratio. The best way of establishing this ratio is by looking at cases from your own company; if you dont have such data available, you can analyze competitor issues in the same product category or industry instead. Determine the threshold that requires crisis management action. For example, if the total number of consumers in China for a particular FMCG brand is 1.4 million, and the brand establishes a first time user tweet ratio of 0.05%, then if within eight hours, more than 7,000 consumers discuss and/ or share a negative topic, you should classify it as a potential crisis. Continuously monitor social media and adjust your ratio as you track more data and build more experience related to your own brand. The first time user tweet ratio is thus an empirical concept which is based on calculations from a number of recent crises in China. In addition, we need to pay attention to a few other factors: Issues with high public interest have obvious crisis potential. For example, if your business is part of the food supply chain and the issue is related to food safety, then the issue will surely escalate into a The ratio gives companies a quantitative benchmark for the course of action when confronted with an issue. It also provides objective data which can help the company standardize its issues management and crisis prevention processes; if an experienced colleague leaves the team, the company will have documentation for future evaluations. imilarly, when there is exposure in major traditional media such as the CCTV Consumer Day Program you can move directly into crisis management mode. You still need to immediately launch real-time social media monitoring in both cases. Regardless of the source, the most important factor influencing transmission on social media is the breadth, speed and intensity of public discussion (which are factors measured by the ratio). communications crisis and the ratio is irrelevant.

MSL China Executive Whitepaper

The Art of Weibo Crisis Management - Handling Issues and Preventing Crises in Chinese Social Media

Social Crisis Management Tactics

McDonalds Official Verified Account: McDonalds China is very concerned with the reports on CCTV about non-compliant operations at our Beijing Sanlitun restaurant. We are launching an immediate investigation into this isolated incident and will deal with the issue in a serious and resolute manner, taking concrete measures in order to express our regret to consumers. As a result of this issue, we will enforce the implementation of all standard procedures, and provide safe and sanitary food for consumers. We welcome and are grateful for oversight from the government, media, and consumer.

What if McDonalds hadnt had an official weibo?

On March 15, 2012, also known as Consumer Rights Day in China, McDonalds experienced every PR managers nightmare: CCTVs annual Consumer Day Program aired a story where one of the companys restaurants changed the freshness period on its food and sold them to unsuspecting customers. For many companies in the past, this kind of exposure has led to drawn out media crises that have immediately affected sales and caused long-term damage to the brand. However, in as little as an hour, McDonalds took the lead by publishing a frank apology on social media. The apology was widely accepted by online commentators; within a short period of time, some 1,000 consumers commented on the apology. Many expressed opinions which included criticism of McDonalds and blamed the companys management for the problem. But many others expressed their understanding and declared their willingness to forgive McDonalds. Some even offered support and admiration for the swift and sincere apology. By 11 pm, the statement reached over 10 million consumers through more than 8,400 retweets on the @McDonalds official weibo, the @Sina Finance and Economics account as well as other media accounts. These 10 million retweets in such a shport time illustrate

the incredibly fast transmission in Chinese social media. This issue also illustrates another important point in social media issue management: you must have a readily available channel so that you can respond quickly and effectively when challenged online. When we discussed the Consumer Rights Day issue with in-house PR managers and other colleagues, they frequently raised that McDonalds had an established official weibo account which helped them deal with this issue. Frankly, I am really scared what would happen to our company if we faced an issue like they did. Up to now, our management has not been able to agree on establishing our own social media channel. If we had an issue, we wouldnt have a channel to defend ourselves. We know that many managers, especially those that work in highly visible industries such as food & beverage, retail, consumer electronics and services, are worried that social media platforms such as official weibo sites can provide a platform for consumers to complain. In spite of these worries, we strongly advise companies to establish their own channels. It is possible, however, to create multiple platforms with different purposes: a brand weibo, CSR weibo, product weibo, and after sales service weibo for example. Having several platforms administered by different departments not only helps to avoid content clutter, but also provides more effective interaction with different types of followers.

MSL China Executive Whitepaper

The Art of Weibo Crisis Management - Handling Issues and Preventing Crises in Chinese Social Media


Accelerate Is 24 Hours Quick Enough?

Every PR professional knows the 24-hour rule: take action within the first 24 hours when a potential crisis has been identified. The crisis management team goes into action, starts monitoring the media, appoints an official spokesperson, prepares statements, drafts Q&A documents, verifies the necessary communication channels to deliver its messages, and so on. But in the age of Social Media, 24 hours is no longer fast enough. One of the insights gleaned from the McDonalds example is the importance of speed: imagine what would have happened if McDonalds have adhered to its traditional media crisis process and waited a day or two before releasing an apology. Modern consumers would have been infuriated with the perceived lack of responsiveness. So how can a company compress what used to take 24 hours into two hours? In working with clients to resolve such issues, we conclude that a total re-engineering of the companys communication processes is required to attain the desired response speed. More specifically: An official weibo account needs to be in place and active; it is too late to register one and to train the team on how to use it after a crisis hits. The company must have pre-prepared statements for the most probable scenarios to avoid wasting time on drafting messages in the face of an issue. Determine how responsibilities can be delegated, so that the Corporate Communications team can make decisions quickly without waiting for senior management approval.

in the Social Media Age, but companies must also ensure that Crisis Team members are internetsavvy.

Decision Maker
President or Managing Director

Crisis Team

Crisis Management Team

Marketing Manager, PR Manager, HR Manager, In-house Counsel, etc. PR Agency, Law Firm, etc.

External support
Legal consultant, Government relations consultant Analyst Support media Opinion leaders ...

Human Touch Winning the case or winning hearts?

Every experienced PR professional knows that a crisis will not be resolved until all stakeholders see the company taking concrete action to solve the issue, and communicating these actions in a tone that resonates and creates sympathy among stakeholders. When dealing with social media, this approach needs to be further refined: whether or not we are dealing with a bona fide mistake by the company or a malicious rumor, we must involve the online communities in real twoway discussion, allowing them to discuss, question and challenge our solutions and remedies. Consumers want you to give them confidence: Do you care about me? and Can you help me solve the problem? So what does this mean in practice?

A well-trained, experienced Social Media Team needs to be in place. The companys Crisis Team must be up-to-date: clear responsibilities and reporting lines still hold The language tone must be casual and personal, in line with the online community you are addressing. Language that comes across as formal, corporate speak or aloof will hazard immediate outcry.

MSL China Executive Whitepaper

The Art of Weibo Crisis Management - Handling Issues and Preventing Crises in Chinese Social Media
Remember that a weibo discussion is similar to an oral conversation. Your need to address your audiences emotions at the same time that you address the facts of the case. Be mindful of who you are talking to: the majority of audiences or online participants in a crisis are not necessarily directly involved. A few customers may have a real grievance, but most of the people commenting are there to join the crowd. These secondary stakeholders want to be noticed and feel that they have contributed to an issues resolution. Again, this is an emotional need rather than a rational issue. One example of this is the well-known crisis involving Luo Yonghao (Lao Luo) that Siemens Home Appliances faced in September, 2011. Luo bought a Siemens refrigerator but found that the door could not close properly. He published a weibo comment and found that many other consumers had experienced the same problem. He therefore felt that this was more than an isolated incident it was a product quality issue for which Siemens should publicly apologize in addition to providing remedies to all affected consumers. At this stage, the crisis could probably have been This statement highlights some of the main lessons from this case:
Your attitude is insincere, and we dont feel you care about us.


avoided. However, instead of immediately engaging in dialogue with Lao Luo and the other affected consumers, Siemens simply published an official announcement saying that any consumer encountering a problem should contact Siemens 24-hour customer service number and declaring Siemens Home Appliances is committed to contacting every customer immediately to provide on-the-spot service. In particular, the company did not admit to any quality problem with its products. The issue did not go away. Consumers complained online that they had indeed been contacted, but that Siemens failed to provide any solution. To address the increasing amount of negative comments online, Siemens published another statement in November, nearly one month later, containing the following main points: Siemens refrigerators adhere to Chinese quality standards; Siemens has already discussed this matter with Luo; Siemens has already expressed its stance on the matter and is willing to provide service to any consumers that have any issues.

Several weeks into the issue, Siemens still considered Luo as the main problem, but in fact, an analysis of the online sentiment shows that ordinary consumers were more upset with Siemens cold attitude and lack of responsibility. Online commentators increasingly felt that Siemens was trying to hide a major quality problem from consumers. On the surface, Siemens statements look like a company trying its best to take responsibility, but instead, consumers interpreted the lack of

Official announcement

A coolly-worded statement will only upset consumers

an apology as a reason to criticize the company further. A different tone would have made a huge

MSL China Executive Whitepaper

The Art of Weibo Crisis Management - Handling Issues and Preventing Crises in Chinese Social Media
difference to online sentiment. The issue continued to escalate, culminating into the famous incident where Luo took a sledgehammer to his fridge in front of Siemens headquarters, to the delight of gathered journalists and consumer representatives. At this stage, Siemens finally published an official apology, admitting that its refrigerator doors were faulty. But at this late stage, even a genuine apology generated online commentary asking why didnt Siemens accept responsibility in the first place? and celebrating consumer victory over the corporate giant. To avoid misunderstanding, we are not advising clients to apologize unless the company is clearly at fault; the legal implications may prevent the company from immediately accepting responsibility. Still, it is almost always possible to use language that conveys a humble, responsible attitude in a way that garners sympathy from online stakeholders, even when they feel they have been wronged. In the end, Siemens was forced to apologize. If the company had taken a more humble attitude and engaged consumers in real dialogue from the outset, the worst effects of the crisis could probably have been avoided. Because of the speed and broadness of communications through social media, it is impossible today to control an escalating crisis by deleting negative posts. Professional PR agencies and in-house managers now understand that deleting or sinking negative comments risks more Trying to address the symptom rather than the cause illustrates a legacy problem in Chinese PR: a decade ago, it was possible to control, or at least heavily influence, traditional media coverage through personal relationships, guanxi, or by bribing journalists. However, this is no longer an effective approach in traditional media and nearly useless online. Anyone can be Sherlock Holmes in the Social Age


Youre cheating and I will find the clue...

Ethics You cant hide in the social age

There is also another lesson to be learned from the Lao Luo case: you cannot mend an issue, real or perceived, by trying to address its symptoms. Companies often rely on PR agencies to remove negative commentary by negotiating with web sites or sinking the posts by spamming forums with positive messages, as well as other methods typically used by so-called digital agencies. However, the Lao Luo case shows that this is no longer possible in the present environment. After the crisis, Siemens changed its PR counsel to a well-known international firm.

negative online sentiment. In our opinion, there is only one situation where deleting information is warranted: when a company is facing a systematic campaign of malicious gossip or untrue accusations. In this situation, companies should openly and transparently cooperate with media and related online platforms to delete such content. There are two reasons to avoid any other intervention through deletions: Deleting a weibo post may seem easy, but unless you are a highly capable hacker, you will leave a trail that can be traced in online communities. Several companies have recently been exposed through the actions of their PR departments or PR agencies that promise quick solutions to issues.

MSL China Executive Whitepaper

The Art of Weibo Crisis Management - Handling Issues and Preventing Crises in Chinese Social Media
In the era of social media, the speed of deleting information will never be as quick as the ability to share it. When consumers see a company trying to remove or hide negative information online, they may conclude that there are corporate secrets and will continue to take an interest in the issue. Therefore, removing information that relates to the issue itself can lead to wider questions about the companys integrity, causing greater loss of trust and damage to the brand. On the other hand, as we can see from the McDonalds case, a company that is seen as taking responsibility will get the benefit of the doubt even when the problem is real! Consumers willing to concede that a company that is prepared to apologize and make corrections is trustworthy, whether or not they are in the wrong. Most companies now understand this, but some still want to remove negative comments, particularly after the crisis has ended. In our experience, this is a needless use of resources. Leaving the full story of how the company took responsibility for its mistakes, real or perceived, actually builds long-term confidence and brand equity. Another famous online case can serve as a perfect illustration of this point: the smear campaign against results for themselves, as well as to attack competitors. We already introduced the first time user tweet ratio as a reference point for PR managers, but how do we know that the data is credible? When the ratio is large, can we be sure that there is already broad consumer interest over this issue? In short, how can honest companies differentiate legitimate concerns and real complaints from malicious, deliberate attacks? Its not uncommon to see brand attacks in Chinese social media



Data and Analysis Li Kui or Li Gui

In the 14 Century Chinese novel Water Margin, one of the characters named Li Kui is a famous hero whose reputation is known throughout the country. A bandit named Li Gui assumes the identify of Li Kui in order to attack and rob highway travelers. One day, Li Gui meets the real Li Kui who is upset with the impostor and quickly defeats him in a duel. The story illustrates the danger of using a fake identity to cheat and blackmail others for personal gain. In modern China, there are many online Li Guis: companies or their so-called PR agencies use zombie accounts to achieve superficially strong marketing

leading Chinese movie star Zhang Ziyi. Zhang was invited to serve as image ambassador for one of our clients products. At the time the actress was also the subject in a speculative poster outside her home which had been disfigured with black ink. Suddenly, a number of online postings appeared, ruminating about Zhangs finances and personal life, and questioning her moral integrity. In the course of a single week, the MSL team collected more than 14,000 related posts from various social media platforms. A closer look at the data revealed something interesting: many of the posts were related to each other. The wording of most posts was identical or highly

MSL China Executive Whitepaper

The Art of Weibo Crisis Management - Handling Issues and Preventing Crises in Chinese Social Media
similar; only a few posts displayed major textual differences. Page views were high, but response levels were low. With the exception of one lively discussion on leading BBS Tianya, few people seemed to take any real interest. Most postings were published during short, concentrated time periods. In fact, the postings gave the impression that someone was moving from platform to platform, posting comments in one forum after the other with little or no activity in between. With our suspicions raised, we took a closer look at the Tianya discussion. The situation looked serious: there were more than two million page views and some 12,000 responses! But when we looked at the data, we discovered a number of questions: Two-thirds of the people using highly negative language about Zhang Ziyi, including the originator of the discussion thread, had registered their accounts within the last four weeks. The online identities used to attack Zhang did not discuss many other topics; the only topic of interest it seemed was to promote a local sports brand! Our conclusion seemed obvious: the negative commentary about Zhang Ziyi was a deliberate and orchestrated malicious attack for some purpose. This pattern is a general one; most internet identities launching attacks on brands are zombie accounts. We have established the following rules of thumb for identifying zombie attacks: Registration is recent, usually 2-3 weeks The account lacks original content Content is business related, especially brand promoting Content is identical or similar to other comments But the real crisis began when the company released a statement on its official weibo account. Consumers are emphatically concerned about food safety and wide-spread debate was unavoidable. Some 60,000 weibo discussions appeared from April 24 to May 31, and by the middle of June the number had grown to over 900,000. If we find that a certain issue is not real stakeholder discontent, we need to treat it differently: Content is only posted during working hours Many accounts show common behaviors such as writing about a similar topic within a short period of time


Interest Level

Genuine Issue
Prepare and release an official statement; if you dont have the facts, acknowledge stakeholder concerns initially and convey how the issue will be addressed.

Malicious Attack
In addition to the official statement, take immediate measures to remove malicious content and seek legal support.



Evaluate crisis potential and how to prevent escalation or prepare for a crisis.

Prepare official statement for use in case of escalation.

Flexibility Change is the Only Constant

One of the greatest challenges of crisis management is never being sure how a crisis will develop. In April 2012, a major tea brand faced what became known as the pesticide issue. At the time, Greenpeace had just released its Greenpeace 2012 tea leaf investigative report, which claimed that several of the brands products contained trace amounts of pesticides.

MSL China Executive Whitepaper

The Art of Weibo Crisis Management - Handling Issues and Preventing Crises in Chinese Social Media
In the message, the company stated that our products adhere to Chinese standards. But in its pesticide report, Greenpeace had actually used EU standards, so by declaring that its products adhered to Chinese standards was interpreted as treating Chinese and foreign consumers differently. Any indication of a double standard is one sure way of angering Chinese netizens and sure enough, consumers were outraged. One netizen, Monoer, summarized the complaint: Unless you guys provide proof, who will be willing to bet their health on your so-called credibility? I am certainly not going to continue drinking your tea. The company had now cornered itself by moving the debate to double standards, which is even more difficult to address. The issue continued to escalate. Luckily for the brand, the China Tea Association entered the debate stating that there is a need to raise Chinese standards relating to tea. The debate switched focus again, with the industry becoming the main topic of discussion. This highlights the volatility of online opinion in China. Compare the brands handling of the tea issue with the sensibility of McDonalds Consumer Day issue. After the release of the companys first statement, some weibo users actually started a movement saying I believe McDonalds and not CCTV and urged netizens to use your voice to support McDonalds. Soon, other online commentators became suspicious: was this McDonalds or its PR agency orchestrating a behind-thescenes campaign against CCTV? In response to these comments, the company immediately released a second statement which thanked consumers for their support while emphasizing that all such expressions of support were spontaneous and in no way arranged or promoted by McDonalds. Thanks to the companys swift and unambiguous response, this second wave issue quickly died down.


@McDonalds: We have observed that some netizens have started spontaneous weibo campaigns to express support for McDonalds. We express our sincere thanks to netizens for this attention, and at the same time want to officially announce that such campaigns are in no way initiated by McDonalds China. McDonalds China continues to sincerely welcome the scrutiny of the government, media and consumers.

We must be cautious when facing negative news in todays social media. One slip and its another bad news cycle. Even worse, it could escalate into a crisis.

A PR manager comments about social media crisis management

MSL China Executive Whitepaper

The Art of Weibo Crisis Management - Handling Issues and Preventing Crises in Chinese Social Media
At any time during the evolution of a crisis, there is potential for renewed attention, escalation or deterioration. Typically, this will be due to: The increased severity of the underlying problem. For example, the victim of an accident is in a worse condition; Shifting attentions to deeper causes: a product quality issue reveals fundamental management problems; Additional stakeholders become involved: new dissatisfied customers appear or government starts an investigation. In the age of traditional media, companies could gauge the reaction of journalists by looking at the articles they published, but it was difficult to obtain direct feedback from consumers and the general public. Today, social media gives companies a great opportunity to understand their stakeholders: online audiences will engage the company directly with critical and constructive opinions. Companies must pay constant attention to this feedback and respond in a timely manner. The CCTV report only broadcasted hidden camera material from the Sanlitun outlet but it implied that all McDonalds restaurants in China had compliance problems. This gave McDonalds the opportunity to immediately start limiting brand damage by focusing attention on one specific location. By talking about an isolated incident and non-compliant operations, the company indicated that this was not a widespread problem. @McDonalds: McDonalds China is very concerned with the reports on CCTV about non-compliant operations at our Beijing Sanlitun restaurant. We are launching an immediate investigation into this isolated incident and will deal with the issue in a serious and resolute manner, taking concrete measures in order to express our regret to consumers. As a result of this issue, we will enforce the implementation of all standard procedures, and provide safe and sanitary food for consumers. We welcome and are grateful for oversight from the government, media, and consumer. The statement contains four key messages: It defines the issue; shows sincerity and concern; promises specific actions; and speaks directly to key stakeholders. Let us look at each of these messages more closely.


Defining the issue

Clarity Drafting a 140-character Modern Classic

Just like on Twitter, weibo messages are limited to a string of 140 characters. Although the Chinese language is more compact than English, the amount of content you can input in each tweet is limited. Using 140 characters to write an effective statement in a crisis situation is the ultimate test of the companys public relations competency. In our opinion, the gold standard so far comes from McDonalds; the companys Consumer Day apology is still available in the Baidu Library:

Show sincerity and concern

McDonalds used strong language to show that it took the issue seriously: very, immediate, serious and resolute, concrete measures in order to express our regret, enforce, and so on. This is a proven approach that has become even more important in the social media context. Sure enough, netizens applauded the company for its serious attitude.

Prove that you are taking action

By strengthening management, McDonalds promised to enforce the implementation of all standard procedures, and provide safe and sanitary food for consumers. This

MSL China Executive Whitepaper

The Art of Weibo Crisis Management - Handling Issues and Preventing Crises in Chinese Social Media
showed that the company was taking responsibility, but also defined the issue as a management problem: the only thing needed was to ensure standards were enforced, and the company could continue to provide safe and sanitary products. As a rule of thumb, the use of social media is warranted a two-pronged approach: employ traditional media to explain its strategies and actions in-depth, while leveraging social media to communicate directly with local audiences.


Speak directly to key stakeholders

The final sentence in the statement is worth highlighting, since it is different from the declarations of most other companies that we have analyzed: McDonalds specifically addressed government, media, and consumers, which builds positive sentiment with its three most important stakeholders.

when: The issue concerns only the company itself, as opposed to government agencies or the entire industry; The issue mainly affects consumers or end users, as opposed to partners or other stakeholders; The issue is relatively straightforward and the risk of

Customization What should be the Role of Traditional Media?

Experience has shown that there is a strong link between social and traditional media. It is often impossible to manage a crisis by addressing only one or the other: both demand our attention. When the issue is complicated, it becomes especially important to use customized language and channels to communicate with various stakeholders. Returning to our McDonalds example, the highly visible food brand needed to immediately address the TV report by directly communicating with consumers. In such a case, social media becomes the most effective and timely communication channel. In other cases, the immediacy and brevity of social media is ill-suited to the dynamics of an issue. Take BPs oil spill as an example. Large numbers of citizens went online to criticize the companys handling of the disaster, but having an in-depth discussion of the underlying causes, potential methods to stop the leakage, clean up actions, progress and follow-up measures, damage estimates and compensation policies and more would clearly not be possible using short tweets. Therefore, BP chose

secondary issues and complications is relatively low. Traditional media still provides an authoritative platform for companies to clarify the facts and to lead and guide public opinion on a complex issue. Therefore, its sometimes necessary to focus first on traditional media, sometimes to the point of avoiding social media engagement altogether. Social media should also be avoided in highly sensitive cases such as when there is strong nationalist or patriotic sentiment or when consumers may be prone to other extreme emotional reactions.

Traditional media or social media? A crisis management balancing act in the Social Age

MSL China Executive Whitepaper

The Art of Weibo Crisis Management - Handling Issues and Preventing Crises in Chinese Social Media


Conclusion Social Crisis Management Starts Before the Crisis

Practice Makes Perfect
Crisis management poses a number of well-known challenges on organizations: Ensuring that the Spokesperson communicates according to script Building consensus within the Crisis Team on the causes and appropriate remedies of an issue Coordinating the actions of different departments to avoid conflicting messages The social media environment now requires us to consider new questions. How can we: Ensure that the company has access to minute-byminute monitoring and analysis of online opinion? Ensure that the companys Crisis Team and decision-makers understand the requirements of social media communication, such as the limitations on length and the appropriate tone? Avoid wasting valuable minutes or even hours on translation and approval of statements, if the companys top decision-maker does not speak Chinese? As such, traditional crisis management wisdom is more relevant than ever, but it also needs to be revised to address these new challenges. The only way to ensure that your organization will handle a crisis in the most effective way is to address common challenges before

they occur. Best-in-class companies tend to consider the following three areas:
Conduct a "Social Media Immersion Workshop" to help the Crisis Team and senior management understand the social media landscape and how a communications crisis breaks online. This hands-on workshop gives attendees common knowledge about a crisis and build consensus on the appropriate systems and mechanism to manage it.

Develop a crisis management manual with a detailed structure of the Crisis Team, roles and responsibilities, reporting lines, and decision-making framework. Conduct scenario planning with preprepared statements, standardized Q&A, and relevant action steps. Include external resources and outside support where relevant.

Give the Crisis Team the opportunity to fine-tune its skills in a full-blown Social Media Crisis Simulation, which combines the challenges of managing traditional media with real-time simulation of the online environment.


Social Media Immersion Workshop

In our experience, the senior management of most companies does not have a deep enough understanding of social media to be able to respond adequately in a crisis situation. Companies should complement traditional Media Training with a "Social Media Immersion Workshop" where the company's PR professionals as well as senior managers can attain a joint understanding of the dynamics of social media and the new demands placed on crisis management. During the workshop, managers should have the opportunity to experience online user behavior firsthand and to interact with online stakeholders using the appropriate content and language tone. This will allow them to see things from the viewpoint of the audience when addressing hot topics.

Updating the Companys Crisis Management Systems

Every aspect of the companys crisis response

MSL China Executive Whitepaper

The Art of Weibo Crisis Management - Handling Issues and Preventing Crises in Chinese Social Media
mechanisms need to be revised to meet the challenges of social media: Update the Company Crisis Manual Ensure that the Crisis Management Team understands social media in addition to having a clear work process with detailed roles and responsibilities Ensure that the company can get response times down to social media timing, usually two hours, by re-engineering Decision Processes, simplifying approvals, etc. Update the company's scenario planning and develop statements and Q&A's that can be used for both traditional and social media Make sure that your list of External Resources includes online KOL's in addition to traditional groups like Government Officials, Associations and Academics


MSL China Executive Whitepaper

The Art of Weibo Crisis Management - Handling Issues and Preventing Crises in Chinese Social Media 20

MSL China Crisis Simulation with Social Media

We believe the best way to prepare for a crisis is to experience one. In the MSL China Social Media Crisis Simulation, participants are presented with a case tailormade for their company and industry, which tests their ability to manage and resolve the situation as realistically as possible. Most crisis communications simulations in China still focus on traditional media and conventional techniques. As our whitepaper has shown, managing a communications crisis in the Social Media Age poses new requirements on companies and teams. A different approach is needed to replicate the pressures and challenges associated with social media. To re-create those settings for participants, MSL China has developed web-based tools that simulate a social media crisis with real-time interaction from social channels such as Sina Weibo and Renren. These tools are hosted on a virtual private network so participants can practice in a safe and closed environment.

offices or at MSL China. Every effort is made to make the simulation true. By using our proprietary tools, participants are pressed to respond quickly to broadcasts, articles and news flashes. The MSL China team prepares message documents targeting various stakeholders, media interviews, legal documents, and other materials depending on how the crisis media team behaves during the simulation. The MSL Crisis Communications Team has created, customized and conducted crisis communications training and simulation exercises for management groups in a wide range of industries and geographies. Recent assignments include clients from the following sectors: FMCG Retail Utilities and energy Construction Manufacturing Public sector Professional Services, for example investment banks and law firms The MSL Crisis Communications Team has vast

Objectives of the MSL China Social Media Crisis Simulation

Train the senior management team on how to manage a communications crisis in China Sensitize senior managers on the challenges of Chinese social media Develop the knowledge base with example scenarios from which to act in the case of a real communications crisis Update existing checklists, policies and protocols for more effective operations

experience within crisis management, crisis benchmark workshops, developing crisis plans and handbooks and post-crisis assessments. Ask us how we can adapt one of our offerings for you.

Structuring a Social Media Simulation

A simulated case takes two- to three-hours to complete followed by thirty minutes of feedback and discussion. The simulation can take place either at the clients

MSL China Executive Whitepaper

The Art of Weibo Crisis Management - Handling Issues and Preventing Crises in Chinese Social Media


Simulation management MSL China



Clients Crisis Management Team (CMT)

MSL China regularly publishes Executive Whitepapers with insights and comments on trends, the industry and society as a whole. To get information from MSL China or to subscribe to future whitepapers, as well as to contact us for any other matter, please send us an e-mail on or call us +86 21 5169 9311 (SH) or +86 10 8573 0688 (BJ). MSL China Executive Whitepaper December 2012 Copyright MSL China