Study reveals China’s microblog phenomenon increases frequency, speed of crises

Shanghai: As the Chinese social media landscape matured in 2011, microblogs emerged as the source of most of the country’s most damaging and far-reaching scandals and crises. These spanned a wide range of issues ranging from the incendiary Guo Meimei/Red Cross saga to billionaire investor Wang Gongquan’s elopement with his mistress to a number of corporate crises affecting both multinational and domestic brands.

With more than 250 million microbloggers in China (a 297 percent increase from 2010), a new white paper, Crisis Management in the Microblog Era, by Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide/China and CIC found that the pervasive use of microblogs has created a scenario where major public crises and scandals erupt with increasing frequency and speed. What’s more, the emotionally charged tone of discussions on Chinese microblogs and the across-the-board demographic of users means that a larger proportion of the Chinese public is now not only aware of more crises, but are also actively participating in furthering their reach and intensity – a distinct shift from only a few years ago.

“The far-reaching popularity of microblogs has serious implications for companies and brands operating in China,” said Debby Cheung, President of Ogilvy & Mather Group/Shanghai. “Today it is not only about increasing the number of fans on your weibo and creating fun contests online. It’s a two-sided coin. When information from all kinds of online platforms can be swiftly aggregated and amplified by microblogs, companies must understand how to minimize their risk and prepare for an outbreak of an online crisis. The speed and emotional ferocity with which microblog crises strike, often seemingly from ‘nowhere’, is very alarming to most companies, so early preparation is key.”

Ogilvy PR and CIC’s research identified and analyzed the major online crises of 2011 based on trending topics on Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo microblogs, Baidu’s top searches report and various media review reports. The 30 most significant cases were then classified into three categories: public credibility crises, personal crises, and brand crises which were then ranked according to the number of microblog posts and reports they generated in traditional media sources (see Appendix 2 for full details). The research team then analyzed the biggest crises to determine noteworthy trends and their implications for crisis management, and suggest ways that brands can mitigate their risk.

CIC CEO Daisy Zhang said, “Real-time monitoring and analysis of microblogs is especially critical at the initial outbreak of a crisis when the news being spread occurs not in hours, but in minutes and seconds. Failure to swiftly and effectively respond can easily lead to a second crisis or even multiple crises online. What we’re seeing is that often times a company’s unsatisfactory response to an initial crisis triggers a subsequent crisis, or aftershock. So it’s crucial that companies implement regular, ongoing monitoring of their reputation online so that they can respond quickly to negative sentiment before it’s too late.”

Ogilvy’s Cheung adds, “In addition to establishing a system of online buzz monitoring, brands should also create and integrate their online assets including their website, microblog and other social media channels. Brands should also maintain open and regular communication with the public and key stakeholders, including media, so that potential issues can be addressed early and so that important relationships are in place long before potential problems arise. Other ways to reduce risk including establishing codes of conduct for employees to follow online and keeping up to speed with net culture and social tensions. And if negative issues do come up, always respond as quickly and as thoughtfully as possible so that the response does not become a new crisis in itself.”

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