As a former PR practitioner in China, I’ve heard stories of unethical, underhanded and illegal activities carried out by certain Chinese PR companies many times. A common complaint I heard was the agencies slandering their client’s competition and artfully spreading the attacks on search engines and blogs and portals. But that said, I worked with a few Chinese PR agencies and found them to be incredibly hard-working, industrious, talented and ethical. I never worked (to my knowledge) with agencies in China that dealt in the “black arts” of PR though I heard their stories and have no doubt they’re true.
And now we have documentation. Thanks to commenter t_co for bringing to my attention this intriguing article on just how China’s “black” PR industry operates. This summer the government waged a widespread crackdown, arresting hundreds of practitioners of Internet deletion and shutting down a number of companies that sold clients on their ability to scrub away material on the Internet that they believed harmed their reputations.
Almost everyone knows about the public relations industry, but fewer people know about what in China is referred to as Black PR, the underground internet industry that has evolved with the spread of web 2.0 through China. Black PR firms provide client companies with both post deletion services to help them escape negative news stories, and some also provide placement for soft ads and hit pieces attacking competitors. The top black PR firms can offer these services even for stories posted to China’s most popular news portals.
Getting posts deleted is an exercise in sleaze. One of the original and worst perpetrators was a PR company, now closed down, called Yage Times. Its founder, Gu Dengda, now awaiting trial for bribery and other charges, used to work at Baidu, where he developed a business on the side helping companies scrub posts from Baidu’s search engine and portals. Gu figured out how to game the system at Baidu and began to make serious money. As an accompanying article in Caixin notes,
Gu’s knowledge of Baidu’s website-user rules worked to his advantage. He knew, for example, that the search engine’s around-the-clock complaint department would work with website technicians to quickly remove any posts about which they received a Baidu-user complaint. At that time, blog posts, comments and other data could be scrubbed based entirely on a single complaint.
Moreover, Gu knew how to make direct contact with website administrators and their colleagues. This skill – coupled with his ability to grease palms and cultivate good relations with website staffers – proved to be the key to his business success.
Gu started by charging 800 to 1,000 yuan per deleted post while still employed at Baidu. He would start working his magic after finding an image-conscious customer who wanted something scrubbed from the Internet. He would then file complaints with Baidu about relevant postings, and watch the Web until they disappeared.
Blocking keywords on Baidu requires high-level connections, but Gu did it, probably by bribing Internet management officials outside of the company. It is to the government’s credit that they have cracked down hard on this activity, but it reveals an Internet management system rife with corruption.
Yage is gone, but I suspect there are many other “black” PR companies still in operation. Yage used to boast openly on its website of its ability to block keywords on Baidu. Now, companies that offer such services will probably go underground.
If you want to get a negative article scrubbed from the web, or post fake bad news about your competitors, you still have plenty of options. And while it’s increasingly well-understood that such services are illegal — a Baidu search for “delete posts” now displays a special warning reminding users these services aren’t legal, for example — it’s not likely that much will change if black PR companies can make literally millions in profit, and internet management officials and police are all also onboard the money train.
No way to stop it until the corruption is dug up by its roots. I suggest no one hold their breath.
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.