6,600 websites involved in illegal online public relations practices were shut down in China, as part of a special campaign that began in April this year. Most of the websites claimed to specialize in deleting online news stories, or hiring web users to disseminate opinions on the Internet in mass online PR smear campaigns.
The authorities – the State Internet Information Office, MIIT, the Ministry of Public Security and the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC) – confiscated more than 1.13 million yuan ($176,500) and deleted more than 790,000 online postings and articles, as well as 1.65 million cached pages that contained illegal online PR content.
The campaign was triggered after online rumors that a brand of milk powder caused three-year-old girls to grow breasts and reach premature puberty. To prevent more illegal PR practices online, the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee distributed a list of websites and phone numbers where the general public could report such issues.
“Despite the pall this incident casts on the entire public relations industry, the response from China’s PR agencies has been disappointing. Last November in Shanghai, not long after the original scandal broke, twelve of the larger global PR firms signed a pledge to eschew some of the more egregious practices in China. But the pledge lacked teeth, made no promise to address the root of the problem, and frankly came off as little more than a PR exercise for the signing agencies. That the Chinese Communist Party and a huge portion of the online media industry felt compelled to take action just a few months later should tell us as much,-” reported David Wolf, CEO of Wolf Group Asia.
China is not the only country dealing with such issue, but it’s the first to take radical measures. In other countries, competitor-generated online PR smear campaigns are settled in court. No company is immune to such incidents. Remember that recently Facebook hired Burson-Marstellar to plant stories criticizing Google’s privacy practices. And this is not a singular case.
Such practices impact the PR industry as a whole, and if our reputation as spin doctors was not enough, we now have to deal with mass unethical practices as well. PR gives PR a bad name, as Tom Murphy would say.