How firms are using 'black PR' to tear down their rivals

So-called black public relations has taken off on the mainland as companies hire online teams to look good by smearing their rivals

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 January, 2014, 9:56am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 January, 2014, 4:25am

What’s in a name? A fortune, if you can trash it.

Public relations in a digital world is increasingly as much about demolishing a brand as about building it, as shown in a recent spat between e-commerce giant Alibaba and social networking major Tencent.

The mudslinging between two of China’s most prominent internet companies has brought into focus the rising phenomenon on the mainland of what has come to be known as “black PR” – online campaigns run by public relations companies maligning their clients’ rivals.

Trouble erupted when Tencent’s PR team complained on the company’s Weibo account that Alibaba’s PR department had planted negative articles in the media to tarnish Tencent’s image.

As evidence, Tencent posted screenshots of internal Alibaba e-mails that carried the draft of anti-Tencent stories. The images on Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter, show drafts of news articles about the supposed instability of the management team at WeChat – Tencent’s mobile instant messaging product – that were attributed to “an employee who has just left Tencent”.

These drafts were apparently sent to various mainland websites and carried by them.

Alibaba fired back on Weibo, charging Tencent with running a similar smear campaign against Alibaba.

Noticeably, neither of the companies bothered to deny the smear campaigns, testimony to how widespread – and acceptable – the practice of “black PR” has become on the mainland.

Li Zhi, chief analyst at Analysys International, said PR firms on the mainland “universally” use “internet tools” to help clients.

“From the government down to small companies, everybody is using internet tools,” Li said.

She said the unfortunate fallout is the profusion of fake information used to attack rivals, which in turn has spawned an industry based on paying websites to take down unfavourable news.

“There are loads of so-called online PR firms that are involved in this racket,” she said.

Wang Shouhe, founder and chief executive of Huayi PR, a Beijing-headquartered firm that focuses on internet tools to promote brands, said “online PR firms” make extensive use of chatrooms, QQ messaging groups and news portals for smear campaigns.

Many online PR firms are trying to make a fast buck through unsavoury means
Wang Shouhe, Huayi PR

“Companies specialising in online PR have mushroomed since 2010,” said Wang, who launched Huayi PR in 2005.

He estimates there are about 30,000 companies in China that deliver promotional content online, offering digital advertising and brand-building for clients.

“But 80 to 90 per cent of these firms are small-scale, with fewer than 10 people and annual revenue of 2-3 million yuan,” Wang said.

In the past three years, the number of online PR companies has multiplied tenfold, he estimates.

“The reason is simple, there’s money in it,” he said. “Online advertising and promotion are new concepts for many clients. They don’t really understand much about the internet, but as online marketing is so cheap, it doesn’t hurt to give it a shot.”

But the industry has quickly gained notoriety, Wang said.

“Many online PR firms are trying to make a fast buck through unsavoury means,” he said. “The competition is tough – as a result, some of the firms adopt dirty tricks to satisfy clients.”

That is why the war of words between Tencent and Alibaba hardly surprised Wang.

“This is normal practice, in my view,” he said.

The two companies have of late tried to muscle into each other’s turf as the online industry moves towards more mobile platforms.

“It shows just how intense the competition is getting,” said Ricky Lai, a research analyst at Guotai Junan International.

Wang said he sees no early end to the practice of “black PR”, because the wider social environment would have to improve to stop such unlawful practices.

“It would require well-designed laws and regulations, conscientious enterprises and moral citizens,” he said.

“China still has a long way to go in those areas.”