I’ve always wanted to use the words “naughty” and “dairy” in the same sentence. But more on that some other time.
I put a link to Gady Epstein’s excellent post on the recent dairy industry PR meltdown in my own earlier post on the topic, but it’s worth coming back to at more length (and not just because I’m referenced in it). Gady’s post is one of the very best discussions of the dark side of PR in China in any source, and anyone interested in the topic should give it a careful read.
Gady remarks a bit on the possible origins of the scheme to undermine competitors through black PR, including referring indirectly to a comment in my own post where I said I felt it a bit too conspiratorial (actually, I said “Snidely Whiplash”, but if you didn’t grow up watching cartoons in the ’70s*, I meant “conspiratorial”) to suppose that the plot had originated at the highest levels of Mengniu management. On that point, Gady writes:
BossePR has worked with Mengniu’s most senior executives for years, people above An up to the very top. Do you conduct black-bag special ops at the behest of a division head if it is against the wishes or previous inclinations of more senior managers?
I suppose it depends how explicit those wishes or previous inclinations are.
Bear in mind that this is all speculation and conjecture. I think that it is plausible that a plan to discredit rivals was hatched or at least discussed at the very top of Mengniu. It would be dumb of said management, but it is plausible. However, I also think that it is entirely likely that top management involvement, if any, could have been more indirect. I would have little trouble believing either a sort of Thomas Becket, “will no one rid me of this turbulent dairy priest?” situation, or a win-at-any-cost culture tolerant of sketchy behavior in the pursuit of business goals.
In any of the above situations, top management would still deserve a good share of the blame. In practice, it seems more likely that a bunch of mid-level types and agency people will get their heads rolled, with the damage stopping a comfortable distance from the executive suites.
There is nothing particularly Chinese about discrediting rivals. It is a time honored PR tactic often referred to by the antiseptic term “depositioning”, which makes it seem vaguely professional and like you’re not engaging in some kind of wicked skullduggery. In fact, your skullduggery may be someone else’s hard-nosed marketing. Witness the technology industry’s time honored tactic of dispensing FUD –fear, uncertainty and doubt– about rivals. The trick is to employ some subtlety and to not to cross the magic line separating FUD from, oh, libel. Plus, the self-infatuation of many technology executives means the source of FUD is often –though not always– clear. If Steve Jobs is trashing Android, well, he’s pretty clearly talking his book, as it were.
What is particularly Chinese about this case is that it involves a complex skein of intertwined ethical problems across multiple industries. If you have a media that easily falls into bed with big companies and an ethical environment that tolerates PR firms willing to sock puppet for cash and a public primed to believe the worst of scandal-plagued industries, well then you have a recipe for trouble.
It’s great that Chinese media blew the lid off this, but there are plenty more lurking scandals where this one came from.
Speaking of Gady and dairy, looks like I’ll be back on Sinica this week, with Gady pinch-hosting for traveling Kaiser, as we discuss PR in China as well as some other interesting stuff.
*Snidely Whiplash was the villain from the Dudley Do-Right cartoons. He was played by Alfred Molina in the 1999 Brendan Fraser clunker, but I’ll always remember him like this: