Web Guanxi?

The rise of social media means that China is networked like never before. Qu Hong examines how this rapid shift is forcing the need for integration in comms, marketing and government relations


Government relations and social media have long seemed disconnected, sitting at the two extreme ends of public relations. At first glance, both involve very different dynamics and different target audiences – this is particularly true of a country like China, where the government is opaque and dominant, whilst the media is strictly controlled.

The rapid rise in the use of social media in recent years, however, is changing the landscape, not least in the case of China, which has witnessed an explosion of social media platforms. The public has found such an arena to be a most effective and powerful channel not only to obtain and exchange information, but also to voice opinions and concerns.

According to the government-run China Internet Network Information Center, by the end of 2011 China had 513 million internet users, around 250 million of whom use weibo–the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. With such sheer volumes of users, social media is playing an important role in exposing social and political discourse, as stories quickly spread online about different scandals and crises, ranging from food safety to corruption within NGOs – consequently, nobody can afford to ignore its influence.

Given the importance and sensitivity of social stability in China, it is interesting to see how social media has at times contributed to elevating a perceived minor issue into a crisis for the government; since China’s active Netizens can quickly broaden the scope of the discussion through online chatter. A simple conversation about a single issue, product or company has the potential to escalate into a debate that challenges the lack of regulations or standards, decries negligence,  or exposes the corruption of individual officials, thereby pushing the government into a corner.

As a result, the government is pressured to take more visible action than it may otherwise prefer, and is very likely to come up with broad new regulatory standards,  launch other initiatives; or make an important decision about industry developments because of heightened levels of attention. This can bring either good or bad news to relevant industry players, since nobody can predict what the government’s (potentially) hasty decision maybe when under such public pressure.

The rise of new media and real-time communication channels further complicates the stakeholder environment. Let’s take a recent oil leak in China as an example – traditionally in the past, interest in similar cases has tended to be an industry-only issue, garnering little public attention, quietly handled by the relevant government agencies. However, in this instance, thanks to the massive online buzz, news of the oil leak quickly turned into a high-profile crisis nationwide.

Serious move

THE PUBLIC began to discuss the serious implications to the environment, as well as the huge financial loss to fish farmers, the accountability of the oil company in terms of compensation, anger at the negligence of the relevant government agencies and the slowness in reporting the incident by official media, among other issues. The crisis ballooned, presenting nearly all stakeholders with both further pressure and opportunity.

The central government set up a cross-ministry working group to supervise the resolution of the issue official media started to report the case more proactively, the NGOs pushed hard for clean-up operations to protect the environment and aid recovery, key opinion leaders and experts gave their comments and interpretations of the issue via social media, whilst the local government asked for compensation on behalf of the fish farmers.  The technical reasons behind the leak and its impact on the ground seemed to be less important than media interest and public enthusiasm.
The stakeholder environment has never been more complex and intertwined, and yet many continue to behave as if government relations has no place in social media.

Without a doubt, such an increasingly challenging environment has raised the bar for communications experts to  navigate complex issues successfully. For any corporation or communications agency designing a more integrated communications strategy and programme has become a necessity, rather than responding passively to different issues in a scattered and disconnected way.

Government relations and public affairs experts have to work more seamlessly with the communications team, including traditional media and digital experts, to monitor jointly the progress of an issue on all fronts and analyse how these different elements interact with each other, as well as how they influence the stakeholder dynamic. Following that, a comprehensive strategy, with an overarching communications objective agreed upon by senior management, should be developed to lead and coordinate the efforts of engaging different stakeholder groups, to make sure that messages delivered to these groups are consistent and speaking with one voice.

It is important for a company to conduct social media monitoring, incorporating a risk radar or matrix, so that when certain topics start to receive attention via social media channels – such as negative comments about the company or its industry – which could potentially result in government action – then the company should pro-actively communicate with both the government and the public, so as to minimise further damage.

It is vital for companies to maintain constant, open communications with relevant government officials and agencies. Firstly, companies should be aware of possible future policy and regulatory changes, thereby allowing time to adapt. Secondly, and of more importance, this may give companies an opportunity to have input on the policy and regulatory-making process and head off unwarranted, negative change.

Government officials may not be aware of the full impact a potential policy change may have on business, and they therefore welcome appropriate input. Companies can proactively share positive messages from the government in an appropriate manner, which may help the corporation gain more support or trust through the media, key opinion leaders and the public.
It is crucial that corporate social responsibility programmes also incorporate government relations initiatives.

Programmes should not only focus on charity, but also consider how better to  engage the government and key stakeholders to make CSR activities more relevant to the unique role of the company or industry. This will provide an additional opportunity for the corporation to engage the government, but more importantly, it will provide an opportunity to emphasise the company’s contribution to the industry and to the broader development of society.

Paths have started to cross. Government relations and social media are no longer at opposing ends of the spectrum, but now must be seen as different elements of one, holistic communications plan. This is certainly without question a great challenge to communications practitioners. But adopting a live strategy will enable us to develop stronger pathways for engaging both the government and the public, no doubt yielding further opportunities for success in the future.

Qu Hong is Chief Consultant at Weber Shandwick in Beijing

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