Nobody said media-whoring would be easy

If you follow the Internet in China, you may have heard of a young man who goes by the online name “Zola” (or “Zuola” to be perfectly correct). He has been billed as “China’s first citizen journalist“. Zola first attracted widespread attention when he blogged from the site of Chongqing’s famous (and now demolished) nail house in late March. He also popped up at the recent demonstrations opposing construction of a chemical plant in Xiamen.

It all fit the model of the crusading online journalist/blogger quite nicely. Fame, fortune and –who knows?– perhaps even hot chicks beckoned. Then Zola decided he was going to take a crack at Google, and his fortunes took a turn for the worse.

In what seems to be a move taken from the Michael Moore playbook, Zola showed up at Google’s Haidian R&D office in Beijing armed with a video camera and confronted a security guard and then a receptionist about a customer service problem. The gist of his complaint appears to be that he was victimized by click fraud and then, in resolving that, shortchanged about seventy bucks he claims he was owed by Google. Neither the bemused security guard nor the Google receptionist was much help. The security guard palmed Zola off onto the receptionist (possibly the best move he made that week) and the receptionist alternated between futile attempts to steer Zola into Google’s normal online customer service channels and sullen silence.

Zola posted a ten-minute video of the confrontation on YouKu, which Bingfeng kindly posted a link to. It’s in Chinese, but a rough English transcript can be found on Reading China.

If Zola was expecting to be lauded for putting a burr up Google’s ass, he was, as we used to say in college, on crack (I was going to say “in high school” but I went to high school before the crack epidemic). He was instead pretty ruthlessly savaged in comments to his blog and on the YouKu video. The situation appears to have been aggravated by a bout of petulance over lack of public appreciation for his efforts in the Xiamen PX incident and an admirably honest but image- tarnishing confession that, really, he’s just in it to get famous.

China blogger and commenter-at-large Feng37 was helpful enough to send me a rough translation he did of some of the harsh criticism being launched in Zola’s direction. Here are three consecutive beauties in Chinese and English from Zola’s Bullog blog:

4 支持
[匿名] 火星 @ 2007-6-19 16:24:49
你直言不讳求名求钱,足够坦诚。但你动机如此纯粹,作为公民记者,不免让人对你的职业操守和诚信额度担心。

you’re straight up about wanting fame and money, that’s honest enough. But if your motives are so pure, as a citizen reporter, people can’t help worry about your professionalism, personal integrity and honesty.

[匿名] emlary @ 2007-6-19 23:08:47
网上那么多骂你的人,看来你离出名不远了,不知道你对客服是怎么理解的,不过看来在你之前已经有很多人去过google公司了,对于一点小事就睚眦必报,你觉得真的有这个必要吗?
So many people cursing you out on the internet, it looks as though you’re not too far away from getting famous. I don’t know what your understanding of customer service is, but it looks as though many people have been to Google before you…do you really think it’s necessary to get revenge and report on something to small and irrelevant?

[匿名] 给你一个警告 @ 2007-6-19 23:21:34
你太SB了,小子北京不是你想进就进的更不是你想出就出的
You stupid little cunt, Beijing isn’t a place you can just walk into when you feel like it and leave when you want.

And it gets worse. It’s hard being a celebrity, isn’t it?

As Feng37 pointed out, Bullog does not allow blog owners to delete comments (an interesting and debatably worthy policy). His new blog, http://www.alouz.com/, does allow that, and I am told he’s been making use of that function to purge the unfavorable comments.

In our communications about this issue, Feng37 asked me what advice “a PR 高手” (flattering, if perhaps a tad exaggerated) such as myself would give to Zola at this stage. I am sucker for this kind of challenge, so as much as I hate to be the john to Zola’s media whoring I am going make some suggestions. This is free advice and it’s worth every penny Zola has paid for it.

1) It’s not about you

You were in a good situation when you were covering the Chongqing nailhouse story. You had a sympathetic subject colorfully personified in Wu Ping, a relatively clear villain in the sinister developers, and a nicely unfolding drama that encapsulated a serious issue facing China. The Xiamen PX case had much the same drama and similar social relevance. Then you followed up these two immense dramas by going to Google to complain about seventy bucks they owe you. Spot the inconsistency.

By making yourself the focus of what was a comparatively trivial complaint, you also made yourself look petty and unsympathetic. People are generally not interested in sympathizing with the observer, but with the subject. If you wanted to complain about Google’s customer service, you should have found someone else trapped in their Kafkaesque customer service maze and gone to bat for that person. It’s OK for you be manipulative, that’s part of the art form, so pick someone as tragic and photogenic as you can find. A cancer-stricken orphan with a website, for instance. But you need to channel someone else’s misery, not your own. That enables you to remain comfortably heroic.

2) Pick your villains carefully and don’t humanize them any more than you have to

Google could make a good villain, heaven knows. In the space of three years they have gone from the plucky little startup everyone was rooting for to sprawling, secretive and vaguely sinister monolith that could be the next Microsoft assuming Microsoft knew every little thing about you right down to what kind of p*rn gets you off. But not everyone hates Google. They still have a lot of fans even here in China. Furthermore, it is possible to make a naturally unsympathetic entity (and Google has definitely become that) sympathetic by personifying it in a way that undermines your crusade. In this case, Google was personified by the receptionist who was clearly totally unable to resolve your situation no matter how much you harangued her. In the end I felt sorrier for her than I did for you (although this whole episode revealed some issues for Google China as well — more on that later). The lesson is to go after people who represent power or who are actual gatekeepers for power (like, gulp, their PR people). Next time pick on Kaifu Lee.

3) Grow a thick skin

As they say, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. If you’ve already confessed that your motive is fame then you better be prepared for the reality that just because people know who you are doesn’t necessarily mean they will like you. And the more you appear to be shamelessly self promoting, the more people will naturally lean toward disdain. Think Furong Jiejie, who never seemed to realize that the joke was on her and ended up being famous (briefly) and unintentionally tragic and embarassing. You don’t want your fame to be of the car-wreck variety.

But even if you are at your best, people will criticize you for any of a number of reasons. Suck it up, dude, and show some confidence. Soak up the criticism and, indeed, revel in it. The price of being a lone crusader is being lone crusader. Show some spine and treat the unbelievers as gnats unworthy of swatting. And remember your basic blogging etiquette: Don’t delete comments or posts if it can be avoided. Consider the fact that controversy on your websites will attract readers and that perhaps you should be cultivating it.

4) Never forget that the Internet is the lowest rung of celebrity

American radio star Howard Stern once said that radio was the lowest rung of the celebrity ladder (and as someone who used to work in radio, I empathize). Fortunately for him, the Internet has finally given him someone to look down upon. Audiences are fickle and celebrity is volatile and often short-lived. That’s especially true of Internet celebrity, which lends itself to transient, “flavor of the moment” fads and freakshows (see Furong Jiejie, above). Durable Internet celebrity is surpassingly rare. We’re all disposable on the Internet. Sucks, doesn’t it? In 1968 a smart man named Andy Warhol said, “In the future everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” He may have envisioning an Internet-powered world like the one we live in today. Or he may simply have been on dope. It was 1968, after all. But the essential truth of the statement remains. It is important, therefore, not to let Internet celebrity go to your head. Whatever else, don’t act like a movie star until you actually become one.

5) If you’re going to make it about you, consider the value of irony

OK, so maybe you’re going to ignore that first piece of advice and make it about you. There is a way it can be done. I note that the front page of your new website has a picture of you gazing into a mirror while wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with–a picture of you. I desperately hope this is meant to be a gentle bit of self-satire. Because if it’s not self-satire then you really are headed for same lonely, post-Warholian purgatory currently inhabited by William Hung (look him up).

If you are willing to mock yourself, then you can ignore most of the rules above. But you then need to recognize that your mission has changed from citizen journalist to comic entertainer. Not everyone has the fortitude to make a career out of irony or self-ridicule, and my guess is that’s not what you want. So think it over carefully because this route will take 100 percent commitment, and it will be hard to mix with the kind of stories that got you notoriety in the first place.

Reflect upon Mr. Moore

I mentioned crusading film-maker Michael Moore on purpose. In crafting this advice, I considered quite a bit what makes Mr. Moore successful. He seems to be in the mold to which you aspire (metaphorically speaking — I don’t think you’ll ever be that big). Michael Moore is an utterly polarizing artist, but whether you love him or hate him he is undeniably a hit. Moore injects himself into his stories, but he is never the subject, only a conduit or engaged observer of someone else’s plight. He chooses his villains wisely (from an American perspective), knowing that his choices will generate controversy that will attract attention. And he is teflon-coated when it comes to criticism. Millions of people hate him. But millions also love him and he is world famous.

So that’s my advice. It is offered constructively. I think China benefits from having citizen journalists, and I encourage you to keep at it and get world famous. Don’t take the media-whore comment too seriously. You’ve already confessed. And, after all, many of us in the blogging and PR biz are media- whores ourselves. We can all whore together. That is what the Internet is all about, isn’t it?

That doesn’t sound like PR advice…

Readers may be thinking to themselves that the above is more advice on Zola’s craft than his PR. But for a media celebrity –even an aspiring one– the two are often related. The persona is the PR. The answer to Zola’s public perception problem doesn’t lie in anything he can say or write, but in how he defines his public persona. Looked at another way, we PR people are often accused of crafting slick, empty words to rescue people or companies from bad situations. Sometimes that’s true. But PR at its best is helping a client to find a genuine, constructive solution to a problem and then communicating the solution. This is especially true in crisis situations, and I think it’s safe to say that Zola has had something of a little crisis. Therefore I have proposed what I think is a solution

Bonus advice for Google China:

Despite the fact that Zola’s Google stunt went wrong, Google doesn’t get a free pass from Imagethief. A basic rule of PR is that in this day and age everyone is a public representative of your company. This is doubly true of a company like Google that is famous, controversial, and the subject of much discussion in China. That secretary was sitting in a Google lobby and wearing a Google T-shirt. How is it that she (and for that matter the security guard) wasn’t briefed on what to do when a journalist came to the front desk? And in the era of blogging and the Internet, anyone waving a camera around in the lobby, even if they are raising a customer service complaint, needs to be treated like a journalist. Especially by the world’s biggest Internet company, which happens to own a huge blogging engine and world’s biggest video-sharing website. Connect the dots, people.

In fact, a good policy might be to assume anyone who comes into the lobby is a journalist until conclusively proven otherwise.

So give the poor girl at the front desk some clear guidance on what to do in that situation, and a simple escalation path she can follow when she is dealing with someone with a camera. That doesn’t mean escalating to security or the police, unless the story you want going public is “How I was roughed up by Google”. Have someone on call who is media trained, savvy and knows enough about customer service to answer questions on the record. Who knows? You might find that these kinds of situations can be turned into PR opportunities.

Hey, nice shirt!

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