We have heard about shills lurking in forums, studios bribing bloggers to write praising movie reviews and astroturfing campaigns (or anti-Astroturfing campaigns) as part of the emerging story of PR and reputation management in the Internet era.
Now it seems there is a growing number of PR companies devoted to monitoring influential forums and having a set of responders who either countervail against the neagtive spin online, or arrange for the client
Daqi is one of a new breed of company that helps multinationals navigate China’s perilous Web. Nike, (NKE) PepsiCo (PEP), McDonald’s (MCD), French cosmetics maker L’Oréal (LRLCY), and others have hired the likes of Daqi, fellow Beijing outfit Chinese Web Union, and Shanghai-based CIC. These companies charge $500-$25,000 monthly to monitor postings and squelch negative information or to create positive buzz.
This year has brought the Net monitors plenty of opportunities to win clients as hot-tempered bloggers have attacked global companies for perceived slights to Chinese culture. Coca-Cola (KO) and French retailer Carrefour were lambasted for what was seen as support for Tibetan independence. McDonald’s, KFC (YUM), and Nokia (NOK) have been tarred for allegedly being stingy with relief money after the Sichuan earthquake. And Citroën had to apologize for an ad featuring a scowling image of Chairman Mao. “If it touches on nationalism, or if the client clearly made a mistake and disrespected a customer, that’s dangerous,” says Sam Flemming, CIC’s founder.
When online commentary turns negative, the monitors assess whether it might flare up. They figure out who’s generating the criticism—an irate consumer, a nationalist teen, even a rival. Then they consider how fast the complaint is spreading, and whether it’s likely to be picked up by Web portals such as Sohu and Sina. “You know it’s a crisis when Sohu (SOHU) or Sina (SINA) has created a special page to collect all the news articles and aggregate comments,” as they did when bloggers angry about Tibet called for a boycott of Carrefour in April, says Flemming.
The companies also can help clients win sympathy. Metersbonwe Group, a domestic apparel retailer, faced eviction from its flagship outlet in Shanghai last year when the local government wanted to replace Chinese-owned brands with big names such as Nike and Adidas (ADDDF). Daqi seeded the Net with opinions linking the issue to a simultaneous controversy over Starbucks’ (SBUX) presence in Beijing’s Forbidden City. While Metersbonwe ended up losing the space, Daqi says the pressure helped the retailer win a lease for a larger store. “In Internet forums we said: A Chinese brand is being pushed out while a foreign brand is still located in the Forbidden City,'” says Daqi’s Zhou. “We got intense and rapid response. People were very angry.” Metersbonwe confirmed that Daqi helped with the Shanghai case but declined to comment further. [From Inside the War Against China’s Blogs ]