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.
Caixin, a well-regarded Chinese magazine, recently released a long feature expose on Black PR firms and the industry, but in a sad twist of irony, the story was quickly deleted from the magazine’s website. Luckily, the article has been preserved on the New York Times Chinese site (hat tip to Sinocism for spotting both these links).
Caixin often posts official English translations of its feature articles, but as no translation is available yet, we’re providing a brief summary. The article centers around two public relations companies, Xinxun Media and Yage Times, which until July of 2012 both occupied swanky offices in the high-rent Sanlitun Soho office complex. In July, though, their offices were raided by a swarm of police, and the employees were all detained and questioned.
The ensuing investigation found that the companies, especially Yage, were involved in black PR practices like deleting posts and articles from news portals for clients. This, it turns out, is a highly profitable business; in 2011 alone Yage Times made over 50 million RMB ($7.9 million) in profit according to one executive. And no wonder; according to the Caixin report getting a post deleted could cost from 1,000 to more than 10,000 RMB ($150-$1500 or more), and getting a search keyword blocked costs more than 100,000 RMB ($16,000). Insiders told Caixin that Yage was one of the top black PR firms in the country.
The men behind Yage started deleting posts for money in the mid-2000s as they saw an increasing demand for the service and noticed that it didn’t require much work or technical skill. At the time, it was possible to get a post deleted from Baidu’s Tieba BBS service for free simply by reporting it to the complaints staff at Baidu, but most people didn’t know this, so there was money to be made. Now, though, Caixin says the business is much more complex and carefully orchestrated. Deleting a post generally entails bribing either a management-level worker at the web portal you want to delete the article from or bribing a government or police official who can then send a deletion order to the web portal. In the case of Yage’s post deletion services, the police investigation has already led to ten arrests and more than sixty additional people are under investigation, including police officers in Beijing’s internet management office.
Charging money to delete posts is illegal — this came as a surprise to many of Xinxun and Yage’s employees, according to the Caixin article — but some black PR firms employ even darker tactics. In a pinch, some firms have been known to create fake government stamps and use them to send faux-official takedown notices to get articles pulled from the web. Another tactic is a more classic form of blackmail: the PR firm uses its connections or bribery to place a negative article online, then approaches the company that’s the subject of the article and offers to have it removed — for a high fee, of course.
Yage’s client list apparently includes very high profile companies including China Mobile, Pizza Hut, and Hengda Real Estate among many others.
Corporate entities aren’t the only people making use of black PR firms to delete negative stories, though. According to Caixin’s report — and this is probably why it was deleted — government officials are also willing to pay to get embarrassing posts about themselves and their administrations deleted. Yage Times, for example, made more than sixty percent of its profits from “government officials in second- and third-tier cities, including many police station chiefs and county leaders.” Often, upon seeing negative stories about political leaders, Yage employees would seek out and contact them proactively to arrange for post deletions.
Of course, the quickest way to eliminate a negative story is simply to block the relevant keywords altogether. This is a technique the government uses to restrict sensitive political information, but it’s also employed by black PR firms like Yage. Although Baidu insiders told Caixin this would be impossible to do at all but the highest levels, at one time Yage publicly offered keyword blocking services. Yage workers told Caixin this required using “higher-level powers outside the website,” and that it was very expensive. In other words, they bribed internet management officials, who would then order Baidu (or other search sites) to block the keywords in question. Because that required high-level political connections, it would run clients hundreds of thousands or even millions of RMB (hundreds of thousands of dollars). Some of those “high level” officials are apparently now implicated in the Yage investigation, which is ongoing.
But perhaps more concerning than what happened at Yage is the knowledge that there are still numerous other black PR firms in China, operating more or less as they have for the past few years. 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.
Believe it or not, the Caixin story goes much deeper even than this, and it’s very much worth a read. We’ll be sure to post a link to the official English translation if one becomes available.
UPDATE 2/19: An official English version of the story (though it’s not exactly a translation) is now available on Caixin’s site.