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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 Report’s “PR Agency of the Year,” the China International PR Association and China’s New Media Festival for its creativity and effectiveness in strategic communications and industry-leading social media offering.

About MSLGROUP MSLGROUP is Publicis Groupe’s 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, MSLGROUP’s 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 McDonald’s hadn’t had an official weibo? Accelerate – Is 24 Hours Quick Enough? Human Touch – Winning the case or winning hearts? Ethics – You can’t 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 McDonald’s, don’t 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 don’t 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.

When does an issue become a crisis? Every PR manager has experienced the following

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 don’t need the media: they just see the photo, our brand, and have a negative association, damaging our overall reputation.

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

evolves in social media?

situation: Negative information begins to spread on Sina, Sohu, Netease, Tencent, or some other portal or news

Of course, the most important determinant is the overall

site. The crisis management team begins to prepare

attention received. So how can we evaluate the level of

for action. Then, somehow, the negative commentaries

attention, and when should we prepare for action? The

fade out and the issue resolves itself without developing

following observations can help us form a framework for

into a full-blown crisis. Yet, many managers have also

making decisions.

experienced the opposite: a small piece of negative information rapidly spreads through social media and

There is no single blanket number or percentage:

escalates into a crisis that disrupts business, causes

Companies and products have different critical

grave management concern and ultimately impacts the

attention levels. Some products are used by millions

company’s reputation and brand. So how can we better

of people while others are more exclusive. A rule

understand how negative information spreads and

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 communications crisis and the ratio is irrelevant.

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

imilarly, when there is exposure in major traditional

social media issue: the “first time user tweet ratio”. This

media – such as the CCTV Consumer Day Program

concept is applicable to many different types of social

– you can move directly into crisis management

media, so we use Sina Weibo as an example:


Determine the “communications cycle time” for the

You still need to immediately launch real-time

social media channel in your industry: for FMCG

social media monitoring in both cases. Regardless

(Fast-Moving Consumer Goods) brands on Sina

of the source, the most important factor influencing

Weibo, for example, this is around six to eight hours.

transmission on social media is the breadth, speed

and intensity of public discussion (which are factors

Analyze a previous issue to determine how many

measured by the ratio).

consumers discussed or shared a negative comment

within your industry’s cycle time before it went

The ratio gives companies a quantitative benchmark for

viral or precipitated into a crisis: the “first time user

the course of action when confronted with an issue. It

tweet ratio”. The best way of establishing this ratio

also provides objective data which can help the company

is by looking at cases from your own company; if

standardize its issues management and crisis prevention

you don’t have such data available, you can analyze

processes; if an experienced colleague leaves the

competitor issues in the same product category or

team, the company will have documentation for future

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


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

Social Crisis Management Tactics

What if McDonald’s hadn’t had an official weibo?

“McDonald’s Official Verified Account: McDonald’s 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 incredibly fast transmission in Chinese social media. This issue also illustrates another important point in social media issue management: you must have a readily

On March 15, 2012, also known as “Consumer Rights

available channel so that you can respond quickly and

Day” in China, McDonald’s experienced every PR

effectively when challenged online. When we discussed

manager’s nightmare: CCTV’s annual Consumer Day

the Consumer Rights Day issue with in-house PR

Program aired a story where one of the company’s

managers and other colleagues, they frequently raised

restaurants changed the freshness period on its food

that “McDonald’s had an established official weibo

and sold them to unsuspecting customers.

account which helped them deal with this issue. Frankly, I am really scared what would happen to our company

For many companies in the past, this kind of exposure

if we faced an issue like they did. Up to now, our

has led to drawn out media crises that have immediately

management has not been able to agree on establishing

affected sales and caused long-term damage to the

our own social media channel. If we had an issue, we

brand. However, in as little as an hour, McDonald’s

wouldn’t have a channel to defend ourselves.”

took the lead by publishing a frank apology on social media. The apology was widely accepted by online

We know that many managers, especially those that

commentators; within a short period of time, some 1,000

work in highly visible industries such as food & beverage,

consumers commented on the apology. Many expressed

retail, consumer electronics and services, are worried

opinions which included criticism of McDonald’s and

that social media platforms such as official weibo sites

blamed the company’s management for the problem.

can provide a platform for consumers to complain. In

But many others expressed their understanding and

spite of these worries, we strongly advise companies

declared their willingness to forgive McDonald’s. Some

to establish their own channels. It is possible, however,

even offered support and admiration for the swift and

to create multiple platforms with different purposes: a

sincere apology. By 11 pm, the statement reached over

brand weibo, CSR weibo, product weibo, and after sales

10 million consumers through more than 8,400 retweets

service weibo for example. Having several platforms

on the @McDonald’s official weibo, the @Sina Finance

administered by different departments not only helps to

and Economics account as well as other media accounts.

avoid content clutter, but also provides more effective

These 10 million retweets in such a shport time illustrate

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?

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

Decision Maker

Every PR professional knows the “24-hour rule”: take

action within the first 24 hours when a potential crisis

President or Managing Director

Crisis Team

has been identified. The crisis management team goes into action, starts monitoring the media, appoints an

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

Crisis Management Team

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.

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

One of the insights gleaned from the McDonald’s example is the importance of speed: imagine what would have happened if McDonald’s 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 company’s communication processes is required to attain the desired response speed. More specifically:

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

An official weibo account needs to be in place and

company taking concrete action to solve the issue, and

active; it is too late to register one and to train the

communicating these actions in a tone that resonates

team on how to use it after a crisis hits.

and creates sympathy among stakeholders. When dealing with social media, this approach needs to be

The company must have pre-prepared statements

further refined: whether or not we are dealing with a

for the most probable scenarios to avoid wasting

bona fide mistake by the company or a malicious rumor,

time on drafting messages in the face of an issue.

we must involve the online communities in real twoway discussion, allowing them to discuss, question and

Determine how responsibilities can be delegated,

challenge our solutions and remedies. Consumers want

so that the Corporate Communications team can

you to give them confidence: “Do you care about me?”

make decisions quickly without waiting for senior

and “Can you help me solve the problem?”

management approval. So what does this mean in practice?

A well-trained, experienced Social Media Team needs to be in place.

The language tone must be casual and personal, in line with the online community you are addressing.

The company’s Crisis Team must be up-to-date:

Language that comes across as formal, “corporate

clear responsibilities and reporting lines still hold

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

avoided. However, instead of immediately engaging in

an oral conversation. Your need to address your

dialogue with Lao Luo and the other affected consumers,

audience’s emotions at the same time that you

Siemens simply published an “official announcement”

address the facts of the case.

saying that “any consumer encountering a problem should contact Siemens’ 24-hour customer service

Be mindful of who you are talking to: the majority

number” and declaring “Siemens Home Appliances is

of audiences or online “participants” in a crisis are

committed to contacting every customer immediately to

not necessarily directly involved. A few customers

provide on-the-spot service”. In particular, the company

may have a real grievance, but most of the people

did not admit to any quality problem with its products.

commenting are there to “join the crowd”. These “secondary stakeholders” want to be noticed

The issue did not go away. Consumers complained

and feel that they have contributed to an issue’s

online that they had indeed been contacted, but that

resolution. Again, this is an emotional need rather

Siemens failed to provide any solution. To address

than a rational issue.

the increasing amount of negative comments online, Siemens published another statement in November,

One example of this is the well-known crisis involving

nearly one month later, containing the following main

Luo Yonghao (“Lao Luo”) that Siemens Home


Appliances faced in September, 2011. Luo bought a Siemens refrigerator but found that the door could not

Siemens refrigerators adhere to Chinese quality standards;

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

Siemens has already discussed this matter with Luo;

Siemens has already expressed its stance on the

an isolated incident – it was a product quality issue for which Siemens should publicly apologize in addition to

matter and is willing to provide service to any

providing remedies to all affected consumers.

consumers that have any issues. At this stage, the crisis could probably have been This statement highlights some of the main lessons from this case:

Official announcement

Your attitude is insincere, and we don’t feel you care about us.

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

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.

You’re cheating and I will find the clue...

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 didn’t Siemens accept responsibility in the first place?” and celebrating “consumer victory” over the corporate giant. Anyone can be Sherlock Holmes in the Social Age

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

Trying to address the symptom rather than the cause

always possible to use language that conveys a humble,

illustrates a legacy problem in Chinese PR: a decade

responsible attitude in a way that garners sympathy from

ago, it was possible to control, or at least heavily

online stakeholders, even when they feel they have been

influence, traditional media coverage through personal


relationships, guanxi, or by bribing journalists. However, this is no longer an effective approach in traditional

In the end, Siemens was forced to apologize. If the

media and nearly useless online.

company had taken a more humble attitude and engaged consumers in real dialogue from the outset,

Because of the speed and broadness of communications

the worst effects of the crisis could probably have been

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

Ethics – You can’t hide in the social age

negative online sentiment. In our opinion, there is only

There is also another lesson to be learned from the Lao

companies should openly and transparently cooperate

Luo case: you cannot mend an issue, real or perceived,

with media and related online platforms to delete

by trying to address its symptoms. Companies often

such content. There are two reasons to avoid any other

rely on PR agencies to remove negative commentary

intervention through deletions:

one situation where deleting information is warranted: when a company is facing a systematic campaign of malicious gossip or untrue accusations. In this situation,

by negotiating with web sites or “sinking” the posts by spamming forums with positive messages, as well

Deleting a weibo post may seem easy, but unless

as other methods typically used by so-called “digital”

you are a highly capable hacker, you will leave a trail

agencies. However, the Lao Luo case shows that this is

that can be traced in online communities. Several

no longer possible in the present environment. After the

companies have recently been exposed through the

crisis, Siemens changed its PR counsel to a well-known

actions of their PR departments or PR agencies that

international firm.

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 company’s integrity, causing greater loss of trust and damage to the brand. On the other hand, as we can see from the McDonald’s

It’s not uncommon to see brand attacks in Chinese social media

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

results for themselves, as well as to attack competitors.

trustworthy, whether or not they are in the wrong”.

We already introduced the “first time user tweet ratio” as

Most companies now understand this, but some still

a reference point for PR managers, but how do we know

want to remove negative comments, particularly after

that the data is credible? When the ratio is large, can we

the crisis has ended. In our experience, this is a needless

be sure that there is already broad consumer interest

use of resources. Leaving the full story of how the

over this issue? In short, how can honest companies

company took responsibility for its mistakes, real or

differentiate legitimate concerns and real complaints

perceived, actually builds long-term confidence and

from malicious, deliberate attacks?

brand equity. Another famous online case can serve as a perfect illustration of this point: the smear campaign against

Data and Analysis – Li Kui or Li Gui th

leading Chinese movie star Zhang Ziyi. Zhang was invited to serve as image ambassador for one of our client’s products. At the time the actress was also

In the 14 Century Chinese novel Water Margin, one of

the subject in a speculative poster outside her home

the characters named Li Kui is a famous hero whose

which had been disfigured with black ink. Suddenly, a

reputation is known throughout the country. A bandit

number of online postings appeared, ruminating about

named Li Gui assumes the identify of Li Kui in order to

Zhang’s finances and personal life, and questioning her

attack and rob highway travelers. One day, Li Gui meets

moral integrity.

the real Li Kui who is upset with the impostor and quickly defeats him in a duel. The story illustrates the danger of

In the course of a single week, the MSL team collected

using a fake identity to cheat and blackmail others for

more than 14,000 related posts from various social

personal gain.

media platforms. A closer look at the data revealed something interesting: many of the posts were related to

In modern China, there are many online “Li Guis”:

each other.

companies or their so-called PR agencies use “zombie accounts” to achieve superficially strong marketing

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

Content is only posted during working hours


Many accounts show common behaviors such as writing about a similar topic within a short period of

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

If we find that a certain issue is not real stakeholder

real interest.

discontent, we need to treat it differently:

Most postings were published during short, concentrated time periods. In fact, the postings

Interest Level

Genuine Issue

Malicious Attack


Prepare and release an official statement; if you don’t have the facts, acknowledge stakeholder concerns initially and convey how the issue will be addressed.

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.

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!

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

Our conclusion seemed obvious: the negative

2012, a major tea brand faced what became known as

commentary about Zhang Ziyi was a deliberate and

the “pesticide issue”. At the time, Greenpeace had just

orchestrated malicious attack for some purpose.

released its “Greenpeace 2012 tea leaf investigative report”, which claimed that several of the brand’s

This pattern is a general one; most internet identities

products contained trace amounts of pesticides.

launching attacks on brands are “zombie accounts”. We have established the following rules of thumb for

Consumers are emphatically concerned about food

identifying zombie attacks:

safety and wide-spread debate was unavoidable. Some 60,000 weibo discussions appeared from April 24 to May

Registration is recent, usually 2-3 weeks

31, and by the middle of June the number had grown to

The account lacks original content

over 900,000.

Content is business related, especially brand


But the real crisis began when the company released a

Content is identical or similar to other comments

statement on its official weibo account.


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

believe McDonald’s and not CCTV” and urged netizens

adhere to Chinese standards”. But in its pesticide report,

to “use your voice to support McDonald’s”. Soon, other

Greenpeace had actually used EU standards, so by

online commentators became suspicious: was this

declaring that its products adhered to Chinese standards

McDonald’s or its PR agency orchestrating a behind-the-

was interpreted as “treating Chinese and foreign

scenes campaign against CCTV? In response to these

consumers differently”. Any indication of a double

comments, the company immediately released a second

standard is one sure way of angering Chinese netizens

statement which thanked consumers for their support

and sure enough, consumers were outraged.

while emphasizing that all such expressions of support were spontaneous and in no way arranged or promoted

One netizen, Monoer, summarized the complaint:

by McDonald’s. Thanks to the company’s swift and

“Unless you guys provide proof, who will be willing to bet

unambiguous response, this “second wave” issue quickly

their health on your so-called ‘credibility’? I am certainly

died down.

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 brand’s handling of the tea issue with the sensibility of McDonald’s Consumer Day issue. After the release of the company’s first statement, some weibo users actually started a movement saying “I

@McDonald’s: We have observed that some netizens have started spontaneous weibo campaigns to express support for McDonald’s. 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 McDonald’s China. McDonald’s China continues to sincerely welcome the scrutiny of the government, media and consumers.

We must be cautious when facing negative news in today’s social media. One slip and it’s 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

@McDonald’s: McDonald’s China is very concerned with

is potential for renewed attention, escalation or

the reports on CCTV about non-compliant operations

deterioration. Typically, this will be due to:

at our Beijing Sanlitun restaurant. We are launching an immediate investigation into this isolated incident and

The increased severity of the underlying problem.

will deal with the issue in a serious and resolute manner,

For example, the victim of an accident is in a worse

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

Shifting attentions to deeper causes: a product

safe and sanitary food for consumers. We welcome and

quality issue reveals fundamental management

are grateful for oversight from the government, media, and



Additional stakeholders become involved: new

The statement contains four key messages: It defines

dissatisfied customers appear or government starts

the issue; shows sincerity and concern; promises specific

an investigation.

actions; and speaks directly to key stakeholders. Let us look at each of these messages more closely.

In the age of traditional media, companies could gauge the reaction of journalists by looking at the articles

Defining the issue

they published, but it was difficult to obtain direct feedback from consumers and the general public.

The CCTV report only broadcasted hidden camera

Today, social media gives companies a great opportunity

material from the Sanlitun outlet but it implied that

to understand their stakeholders: online audiences

all McDonald’s restaurants in China had compliance

will engage the company directly with critical and

problems. This gave McDonald’s the opportunity to

constructive opinions. Companies must pay constant

immediately start limiting brand damage by focusing

attention to this feedback and respond in a timely

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.

Clarity – Drafting a 140-character Modern Classic

Show sincerity and concern McDonald’s 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

Just like on Twitter, weibo messages are limited to

that has become even more important in the social

a string of 140 characters. Although the Chinese

media context. Sure enough, netizens applauded the

language is more compact than English, the amount

company for its serious attitude.

of content you can input in each tweet is limited. Using


140 characters to write an effective statement in a crisis

Prove that you are taking action

situation is the ultimate test of the company’s public relations competency. In our opinion, the gold standard

By strengthening management, McDonald’s promised to

so far comes from McDonald’s; the company’s Consumer

“enforce the implementation of all standard procedures,

Day apology is still available in the Baidu Library:

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,

a two-pronged approach: employ traditional media

but also defined the issue as a management problem:

to explain its strategies and actions in-depth, while

the only thing needed was to ensure standards were

leveraging social media to communicate directly with

enforced, and the company could continue to provide

local audiences.

“safe and sanitary” products. As a rule of thumb, the use of social media is warranted

Speak directly to key stakeholders The final sentence in the statement is worth highlighting,


The issue concerns only the company itself, as

since it is different from the declarations of most

opposed to government agencies or the entire

other companies that we have analyzed: McDonald’s


specifically addressed “government, media, and consumers”, which builds positive sentiment with its

three most important stakeholders.

opposed to partners or other stakeholders;

Customization – What should be the Role of Traditional Media?

The issue mainly affects consumers or end users, as

The issue is relatively straightforward and the risk of “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,

Experience has shown that there is a strong link between

it’s sometimes necessary to focus first on traditional

social and traditional media. It is often impossible to

media, sometimes to the point of avoiding social media

manage a crisis by addressing only one or the other: both

engagement altogether. Social media should also be

demand our attention. When the issue is complicated,

avoided in highly sensitive cases such as when there

it becomes especially important to use customized

is strong nationalist or patriotic sentiment or when

language and channels to communicate with various

consumers may be prone to other extreme emotional



Returning to our McDonald’s 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 BP’s oil spill as an example. Large numbers of citizens went online to criticize the company’s 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

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

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.

Understand 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.

Prepare 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.


“according to script”

Building consensus within the Crisis Team on the causes and appropriate remedies of an issue

Social Media Immersion Workshop

Coordinating the actions of different departments to avoid conflicting messages

In our experience, the senior management of most companies does not have a deep enough understanding

The social media environment now requires us to

of social media to be able to respond adequately in

consider new questions. How can we:

a crisis situation. Companies should complement traditional Media Training with a "Social Media

Ensure that the company has access to minute-by-

Immersion Workshop" where the company's PR

minute monitoring and analysis of online opinion?

professionals as well as senior managers can attain a

Ensure that the company’s Crisis Team and

joint understanding of the dynamics of social media and

decision-makers understand the requirements of

the new demands placed on crisis management.

social media communication, such as the limitations

on length and the appropriate tone?

During the workshop, managers should have the

Avoid wasting valuable minutes or even hours

opportunity to experience online user behavior first-

on translation and approval of statements, if the

hand and to interact with online stakeholders using the

company’s top decision-maker does not speak

appropriate content and language tone. This will allow


them to see things from the viewpoint of the audience when addressing hot topics.

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

Updating the Company’s Crisis Management Systems

that your organization will handle a crisis in the most effective way is to address common challenges before

Every aspect of the company’s 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

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

We believe the best way to prepare for a crisis is to

targeting various stakeholders, media interviews, legal

experience one. In the MSL China Social Media Crisis

documents, and other materials depending on how the

Simulation, participants are presented with a case tailor-

crisis media team behaves during the simulation.

made for their company and industry, which tests their ability to manage and resolve the situation as realistically

The MSL Crisis Communications Team has created,

as possible.

customized and conducted crisis communications training and simulation exercises for management

Most crisis communications simulations in China

groups in a wide range of industries and geographies.

still focus on traditional media and conventional

Recent assignments include clients from the following

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

Public sector

Weibo and Renren. These tools are hosted on a virtual

Professional Services, for example investment

private network so participants can practice in a safe and

Utilities and energy

banks and law firms

closed environment. The MSL Crisis Communications Team has vast

Objectives of the MSL China Social Media Crisis Simulation

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

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

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 client’s

of our offerings for you.

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

Simulation management – MSL China



Client’s 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 速 MSL China

The Art of Weibo Crisis Management  

Fully leverage Weibo while avoiding any social backlash with our report on crisis management