CCTV 315: An Anatomy of a Modern Chinese Crisis

While most were out celebrating the weekend, Social@Ogilvy Beijing was in the office all Friday night watching TV…

No, not a soap opera… It was Consumer Day in China, the night that CCTV, the national broadcaster and one of China’s most influential media, hosts its annual 315 Consumer Day Gala. Every year some of the biggest brands operating in China are named and shamed for alleged misdemeanors in front of hundreds of millions of viewers.

A mention on the show can be a nightmare for brands… and their communication agencies. So, naturally, Social@Ogilvy wanted to be there ready and waiting in case any clients were reported.

Last year CCTV took on giants such as Carrefour and McDonald’s, resulting in major issues for the brands involved. The response of their communications people was essential in mitigating the damage.

When McDonald’s was accused of poor hygiene, to use last year’s example, the brand responded in minutes on Weibo. The response generated more than 18,000 retweets, many of which were in support of the fast-food chain. What could have been a catastrophe for the brand turned out to be an opportunity to enhance consumer support and loyalty.

With last year’s events still fresh in our minds, we were ready for more on Friday night – and we were not disappointed.

A key highlight (or lowlight, depending who you are) was Apple, who was accused of discriminating against Chinese customers by providing them with lower quality after-sales services. Yet the story did not end with this TV report…

It all started 20 minutes into the program, when Chinese actor and spokesperson for Samsung Peter Ho, with over 5 million followers, tweeted the following:

“Apple played so many tricks in customer service? As an Apple fan, I am really hurt… So you bully customers just because you are big! To be sent at around 8:20.”

This last sentence was, believed many, the instruction of a third party – perhaps a competitor, perhaps media – that was hoping to coerce Ho into attacking Apple. Cynical observers thought Ho had forgotten to remove this reminder.

The hashtag #PostAround8.20, along with variations of the true story, rapidly went viral on Weibo. It was soon believed that Peter Ho was paid by a third party for its anti-Apple tweet.

Things got even worse when the post was deleted and Ho claimed his phone had been stolen. This explanation is hard to believe, since the post was one of many sent by influential personalities simultaneously attacking Apple on Weibo. Coincidence or not, consumers felt that Apple was being targeted.

So what can we learn about a modern Chinese crisis?

  • The role social media plays in amplifying crises and scandals is huge. As Ogilvy’s manual states, “If news isn’t on Chinese microblogs, then it hasn’t reached crisis level yet” [1]
  • Traditional media is still important. Like almost all China crises, print or TV media play an initiating – if not, an amplifying – role driving and shaping the story.
  • Influencers, often celebrities, play an equally important role in public opinion and are keen to weigh in on such issues.
  • “Hidden hands” are often operating. Ogilvy has been involved in a number of crises, like this one, where a competitor or media have been behind the scenes attempting to manipulate public discussion and opinion.

Here are some tips that should help brands manage a crisis on China’s social media (inspired by a guide authored by Ogilvy and social listening provider CIC):

Create your own account: Brands who own an official account on Sina Weibo prove to be more effective in resolving a crisis.

Respond quickly: Brands should be prepared to respond quickly, as shown in the McDonald’s case. We recommend a “315” where agencies and clients order sit together, as we did, and take out, drink coffee and prepare for the worst…

Adapt tone: Netizens have shown to be more sensitive to direct responses from brand executives.

Manage Key Opinion Leaders: Key Opinion Leaders play an important role in spreading information and leading public opinion.

[1] More information can be found in the Ogilvy PR manual, Crisis Management in the Microblog Era in 2012, OgilvyPR 



Authors:  Lucie Mukendi, with input from Bob Wang, Jackie Zhang, Jeremy Webb and Victoria Cook