Beyond censorship in Chinese social media

When I got my hands on a copy of 'PR Magazine,' published by the China International Public Relations Association, I realized half the content was about Chinese social media, particularly microblogging website Sina Weibo.

When I got my hands on a copy of PR Magazine, published by the China International Public Relations Association, I realized half the content was about Chinese social media, particularly microblogging website Sina Weibo.

It should come as no surprise that social media has become of one of the sharpest swords for the PR industry. But while the importance of social media to the PR industry in America has been much discussed, Chinese social media must be approached with more caution.

Chinese social media websites started to gain traction a few years later than those in America. Nonetheless, they have quickly changed the face of Chinese media and communication, which was formerly dominated by traditional forms of media. But while American TV stations and the publishing industry blame the Internet for stealing their business, the similar shift in Chinese media and communications has a far more significant and positive connotation for the general public there.

Traditional Chinese news media has a long history of censorship and government restriction. Leading news agencies and newspapers are state-owned and burdened by the Communist Party's agenda. China's grip on non-Mainland-Chinese press from Hong Kong or the West is less firm, however.

David Brain, president and CEO of Edelman Asia-Pacific, says: “China's social media landscape is a more closely regulated environment, with government measures in place to monitor and, in some situations, censor online discussions.”

But although Chinese social media has inherited this tradition of censorship, it is much less effective due to the sheer amount of information and speed of dissemination on the Internet. Much news would not have been known to the public without social media, particularly the food-safety and Bo Xilai/Neil Heywood scandals.

Like American social media, the popularity of its Chinese counterparts has grown exponentially in recent years. With the success of post-PC mobile devices, social media gives people the ability to share information whenever they want, and wherever they are.

“Users of both [American and Chinese social media] are highly active in sharing their opinions and information with their social networks,” says Brain. “And both have a strong celebrity and influencer presence that helps shape trends and conversations.” Though still subject to censorship, Chinese social media is set to play a big role in the PR industry.

Unlike the Facebook- and Twitter-dominated American social media market, China has a broader spectrum in terms of the public's taste in social media sites. For example, an often unknown and neglected site is Douban.com. A combination of social media, blog, and forum, Douban.com is much less prone to censorship. Users are younger and edgier, which makes it a preferred tool for small businesses and cultural events to promote themselves.

Microblog, or Weibo, is often considered the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, and is one of the leading pipelines for disseminating information and building brands. According to Bloomberg.com, it has 300 million registered users and 100 million messages posted per day.

In comparison with Twitter, it also integrates thread comments, which enhances its use as an information-distribution mechanism. Brain adds that “information is nonetheless travelling ever faster across social media in both China and the US. Organizations need to actively listen to the space for any news or talk about their industry or brands, and have a solid strategy for response and engagement.”

Nevertheless, one of the biggest differences in Chinese social media is the recent regulation on ID verification. In December 2011, the Chinese government introduced a regulation forcing all social media users to verify their identity by providing their ID card numbers before March 16, 2012. However, users do not need to use their real name on the websites. The measure was mainly introduced to control the spread of false rumors, zombie followers, and to increase the general credibility of information on social media websites. Some argue this may undermine “freedom of speech” of users, which is somewhat ironic since China was never a nation noted for its tolerance of free speech.

Learning the lesson from the TV networks, which are ignoring the importance of online syndication providers to their detriment, PR firms in China need to treat social media as a top priority. And, as new media take over, the PR industry needs to adjust its modus operandi and use social media in a much savvier way.

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