Sanlu and Public Relations Gone Amok

Thanks to ESWN for leading me to this story that says a lot about the state of the media in China. I think it crosses into those areas PR people want to keep out of the public eye, the industry’s “dirty little secret” (not really so secret anymore) that you cannot take anything you read in the Chinese media at face value, especially if it is corporate-related. Chances are quite high that what you are reading is either advertorial, complete BS, a press release — in other words, the writer was a PR person or propagandist, not a “news reporter” as we understand the term to be. What boggles the mind about this story is just how blatant this crisscrossing of PR, propaganda and journalism was.

The article starts by noting Sanlu was conspicuously awarded an honor for its great contributions to China shortly before we learned their products cause infant kidney stones and death.

The August 6 article reporting the “30 Years” honor bestowed on Sanlu was written by Miao Wanfu (苗万福) and appeared virtually everywhere — in scores of newspapers, at the website of the official People’s Daily, at Tianya, at Sina, and at a leading food industry website, to mention just a few.

And who is Miao Wanfu?

As the Oriental Daily and others have reported, Miao runs Sanlu’s internal public relations machine. But readers of the above “news” would never have guessed as much. Miao is identified — when a byline appears at all — as “correspondent Miao Wanfu” (通讯员苗万福).

On the People’s Daily website, Miao manages to come off as a staff reporter for the CCP’s top daily. And when the report runs subsequently at China’s leading food industry website it is attributed again to “correspondent Miao Wanfu.” We are told that the news comes from “People’s Daily Online.”

Misrepresentations of this sort are perpetuated across China’s media, where a lack of professional standards means “news” space is stuffed routinely with material from valuable advertising clients.

Here is “correspondent” Miao Wanfu again for People’s Daily Online, and for Hebei Daily. And here he is apparently reporting for the Central Propaganda Department’s Guangming Daily in June 2006 about the purchase of a stake in Sanlu by New Zealand’s Fronterra Group.

When Southern Metropolis Daily broached the topic last week of how Chinese media had contributed to the tragedy of China’s tainted milk crisis it was opening up a great big can of worms.

There are many hard and searching questions to answer. As the newspaper asked, why, before the breakthrough report by Oriental Daily journalist Jian Guangzhou (简光洲), did media suggest only that “certain brands” of milk powder had problems? And why, even as questions were beginning to surface about the safety of milk powder from Sanlu, were the company’s supposed contributions to the lives of ordinary Chinese being trumpeted so loudly.

Chinese media will not be given an opportunity to delve very deeply into these questions. The answers, after all, point to the ugliness of state media controls and the failure of media policy as well as to runaway commercial greed. The Chinese media’s role in the tainted milk crisis should remind us again just how poisonous the combination of rigorous press controls and unfettered commercialization can be.

This is always a dilemma when PR people talk to their multinational clients about winning domestic coverage. Does the PR person simply say it’s all a racket, and that much of the coverage the client will get is pay for play?

This is something that goes unspoken, more or less. Everyone knows all about the “transportation allowance” handed out to the journalists at every event, along with a generous gift. Everyone knows that much of what’s in the domestic publications is advertorial or propaganda. There is an understanding between the PR people and the client that this is how it works but I don’t think they ever quite say so, and in some ways all the players go through the motions of pretending it’s like getting coverage in the Western media: they make message documents, Q & As, briefing books, all the bells and whistles, while knowing the reporters will report what they are told. And often – though certainly not always – there is payment in one form or another.

With international media in China, as in the US, we are used to our pitches being declined. It takes lots of calls and hard work and message shaping to convince a real reporter to cover your story. That’s not usually the case when it comes to the Chinese media, where press releases are often printed verbatim. The domestic media will sit through just about any press conference, no matter how long and sleep-inducing, and then write their story. After you hand them the goody bag.

Reform of the Chinese media is a tough nut to crack. The red envelope and the advertorial and all sorts of pay for play games keep a lot of the publications functional. How do you reform an industry that’s rotten from head to toe? As usual, there’s a thin beam of light that offers some hope. It was, once again, Southern Metropolis Daily that helped get this story out. There are some “real” publications out there, and a lot of journalists who are anxious to report real news and who feel far more frustrated than we do that the government won’t let them.

So maybe stories like this one, that flip the rock over so we can see the bugs scurrying away, will help keep up the pressure to reform. But the process will be glacial, and there will be kicking and screaming every inch along the way. Whoever controls the mouthpiece to the people controls the country. It’s in this area that Hu Jintao has been most disappointing, especially after the hope he generated in the wake of the SARS scandal of 2003, and I don’t expect to see real reform of the media for years to come.

The Chinese have no choice but to be kept in the dark, with only the Internet and word of mouth to challenge what they see on CCTV. But I sometimes think we in the West – especially in the corporate world – are willfully ignorant that this is how the Chinese media work, and continue to convince ourselves that working with China Daily is like working with the NY Times. It’s not.

A final word about Sanlu: Anyone who sees anything in this saga worthy of praise, as some sort of proof of the effectiveness of China’s self-correcting system that protects its people and illustrates the nation’s ability to pinpoint and manage crises is simply living on another planet. There are so many levels of rottenness in this story it’s impossible to know where to begin. The deception occurred at every level and there are no heroes except those the government sought to keep silent.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 5 Comments

Interesting post! I would like to make one slight qualification, if I may:

“another of the dirty little secrets of doing PR here: it’s not very hard, at least not for the domestic media.”

It’s not hard if for the domestic media if you are working for a domestic company that is willing to pay “sweeteners”. If you work for a multinational that refuses to bribe local journos it can be like pushing shit uphill. I am often amused by my colleague’s profanities every time he hears a new arbitrary amount of money requested by a journo. haha.

September 29, 2008 @ 5:46 pm | Comment

Rhys, no domestic company could afford multinational PR consulting i they can’t pay for the red envelopes. So that’s a given. It’s also easy to do PR for the MNCs because nearly all (from what I’ve heard) play the game; they go along with it, but kind of self-hypnotize themselves into thinking they’re not really paying a bribe and that all the principles of real public relations – which truly is an art, or at least can be when it’s carried out well and ethically – still apply. The fact that they are getting pay for play is skirted over, brushed under the table, the elephant in the corner of the room no one wants to acknowledge.

To the credit of some MNCs, I know of at least two or three companies that have refused to play the game and will not give the gift or hong bao. Whether this is trend remains to be seen.

This whole topic of the gifts and money was a sub-topic; the main point of this post is that the Chinese media have nearly no credibility at all (I know, not a newsflash for most of us) and tolerate shenanigans that would be outrageous and inconceivable in the West – the kinds of things that, when bloggers and other reporters get their hands on them because huge crises, such as Jason Blair, resulting in the resignations of the NYT’s editor in chief and his top lieutenant. In China mischief like Miao Wanfu’s is business as usual.

September 29, 2008 @ 6:07 pm | Comment

Sorry, OT. Looks like Blogspot has had the block put back on, at least in Shenzhen. Just within the last few minutes.

September 29, 2008 @ 6:12 pm | Comment

Sam, blogspot is accessible here at the moment. But you never know with the nanny; whichever way the wind blows her skirts.

September 29, 2008 @ 6:29 pm | Comment

[...] in August. Stories don’t come any more bizarre than this one. Not even in China. (I thought the post immediately below won today’s prize for bizarre, but this one runs [...]

September 29, 2008 @ 6:46 pm | Pingback

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