In a disturbing development that could give pause to all international PRs, today AdAge and Edelman confirmed the safe return of Steven Cao, CEO of Edelman China, who had been “missing” for approximately ten weeks. Angela Doland, who covers the Asia beat for AdAge, first noted Cao’s absence in July, noting that he had stopped reporting to work.
The frightening part: the reason Cao didn’t report seems to have had something to do with the Chinese government’s case against former news anchor/agency founder Rui Chenggang, who was arrested this summer and currently awaits trial on unspecified charges.
Rui and Cao have been business partners in the past, and unnamed sources told AdAge in July that Cao was “cooperating with authorities” in their investigation. Rui and Cao co-founded Pegasus Communications, which Edelman acquired in 2007.
The underlying issue supposedly involves “corruption” occurring at state broadcaster CCTV while Rui worked there. Pegasus represented CCTV after the Edelman acquisition, and Rui retained his share in the company — so for a period he was both working for and representing the channel while simultaneously owning a share in its PR AOR. The most recent reports on his case claim that the state will seek the death penalty for charges of “selling information about Chinese leaders to Western media.” The head of the channel and Chenggang’s former boss has also been accused of accepting bribes.
The China Times, which claims to provide “uncensored news on China and Taiwan,” does imply that Rui played some role in facilitating the 2012 Bloomberg and New York Times reports on the vast wealth controlled by the families of China’s political elite but provides no evidence.
The story recalls reports about “black PR” practices in which firms (allegedly) use Chinese social media influencers to spread gossip while bribing journalists for positive coverage and/or working with them to extort business leaders.
While details remain unclear and the AdAge piece’s very headline notes that “questions abound,” the most important fact is that Cao is now safely back with his family.