Bribes, Blockades and Blackmail: Inside China’s ‘Black PR’ Industry

Bo Xilai

Bo XilaiWe all know that public relations can get a little…insane at times. Bad behavior, lawsuits, internal leaks…we’ve got it all, right? Sure we do–but when it comes to crazy we can’t even compete with China. A “shocking expose” first reported by the People’s Republic’s Caixin magazine and translated by the Tech in Asia blog reveals a seedy PR underworld in which firms earn millions every year on the strength of bribery and blackmail–all committed in the name of media relations and reputation management.

The primary players in this sordid saga are two firms called Yage Times and XinXun Media. What did these firms do, exactly? They specialized in getting negative news stories about clients removed from prominent websites–but it all goes much deeper than that.

Not only would these companies bribe site runners to delete “unflattering” posts–they also paid their friends in IT to have related search terms blocked on Baidu, the Chinese equivalent of Google. Imagine entering “Beyoncé lip sync” or “Burger King horse meat” into your browser and coming up with a big fat nothing and you’ll get the general idea.

The firms all started performing this shady version of CRM a few years ago after realizing that “it didn’t require much work or technical skill”–and that they could charge clients up to $1,500 to remove a single post and ten times that amount to prevent web users from searching for them on Baidu. Such activities happen to be illegal under Chinese law–anyone searching for “delete posts” on Baidu now receives a message warning of the practice’s illicit nature. But this all came as a surprise to the firms’ employees who spoke to Caixin. At one point they publicly advertised their legendary search-blocking abilities.

Still, most of these operations remained secret. So how did the firms attract clients? They searched for negative stories about local politicians, CEOs and law-enforcement officials, then proactively contacted them with offers they couldn’t refuse. If the firm couldn’t find clients, they used their media contacts to post inflammatory stories themselves and then charged the targets exorbitant fees to have them removed. We don’t know the Chinese word for “blackmail”, but it certainly applies here! These weren’t just low-level bureaucrats, either: the firms’ client lists included top brands like China Mobile and Pizza Hut.

The two companies in question were raided by police and shut down this summer, but plenty of similar shakedown artists still ply their trade in Beijing and beyond. Stories like this one are almost always deleted by Chinese authorities, who know a thing or two about message control. But they remain–in English, at least–as testimony to the many strange and illegal dealings that make up the dark side of China’s public relations industry.

We would call it a fascinating ethics scandal, but it’s much more than that.