The Harbin water crisis

A couple of days ago, in response to a link I posted to his roundup of articles on the Harbin water crisis ESWN put this comment up on my site:

As you are the PR expert, how would you have managed the situation? Would you have own up to the benzene problem way up front? Alternately, how would you handle the ‘clean-up’ afterwards? This is a serious matter because they were clearly way, way out of their depth in terms of what they believe that they could get away with.

Well it’s always flattering to be considered a “PR expert”, although it’s probably closer to the truth to say I play a PR expert on TV. But the Chinese government’s response to the Harbin crisis has been a case study in bad PR management, and, with ESWN’s prodding, I’d like to explain why.

But first the disclaimers: I am not a crisis specialist. We have hard-core people in my company who do that sort of thing. However, I’ve been doing PR for a while and there are some generally applicable rules of crisis PR that most of us in the industry know. Also, I am basing my analysis on China’s English language press coverage and on foreign press coverage. My Chinese isn’t good enough to get past headlines most of the time, so I can’t comb through Chinese-language press in any depth. Finally, I was not directly involved in this event and, therefore, do not have full information. Bear all of that in mind.

With that out of the way, let’s have some fun.

The Event and Coverage
There are some basic facts that should be reviewed first, along with the history of the press coverage. The explosion in Jilin first happened on Sunday, November 13th. While there was some agonizing about the immediate casualties and the potential for major toxic events posed by shoddy chemical plant construction, there was no hint that this event had resulted in a severe toxic release.

A China Daily report from November 14, the day after the explosion, said this:

The local government has kept monitoring the air and water quality in the area, and further investigation into the blast is being made.

So from nearly immediately after the explosion, representations were being made that the potential toxic fallout from the explosion was being monitored.

A China Daily search for Jilin + Explosion, which I will use as an inexact proxy for press coverage as it should catch most articles, yields zero results from November 15 through November 22, when the announcement of Harbin’s water cutoff was made. A Xinhua search turns up a similar gap over those dates, except for one story from November 16, which carries the following headline:

Chemical plant blasts releases no toxic substances [sic]

The headline is based on an assertion by the Jilin provincial government that there is no problem with air quality. The story makes no mention of water. With the benefit of hindsight, this omission looks suspicious.

So that’s a one-week gap –at least in English press– when there are no newsworthy public announcements about the potential aftermath of a chemical plant explosion next to a major river that flows through densely populated urban areas and into a neighboring country, except for a patently incorrect or deceptive one.

On November 22, the announcement of the interruption of Harbin’s water supply is made. Initial reports specifically deny any link between the shut off and the Jilin explosion, as is clear from this China Daily article, the first in English language press to report on the stoppage. The article implausibly cites “maintenance and repair” as the official reasons for a previously unannounced stoppage. Although there is vague mention of the Jilin explosions in official statements cited in the article, any connection is vociferously denied by the authorities:

The common refrain was that the explosion at Jilin city of neighbouring Jilin Province on the upper reaches of Songhua River may have caused a leakage of poisonous substances into the river as it is only a few hundred metres away from the plant. Harbin is located at the middle reaches of the river.

But an official with the Harbin municipal government, who did not want to be named, dismissed the assumption as “just a rumour.”

Harbin Water Supply Company refused to comment but sources at the municipal environment bureau said that there was nothing abnormal with the quality of water in the river.

In corroboration, Jilin said that the local environment bureau found that the water quality was barely affected after the blast.

In the absence of hard information, rumors flew through Harbin, stoking public anxiety and leading to a run on stores, as reported in that same article. As reported in foreign press, there was a large, voluntary evacuation of the city. Wells had to be dug quickly in Harbin and massive amounts of water shipped in rapidly.

Only on the next day was there a Xinhua report confirming that the explosion had polluted the river. Interestingly, the admission is made by a central government agency, the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). This article makes several interesting statements:

“After the explosion at the Jilin Petrochemical Company under China National Petroleum Corporation, our observation showed pollutants containing benzene had flown into the Songhua River and caused water pollution,” said an official with SEPA.

Benzene is a substance harmful to human health.

The official said upon receiving the report, the administration immediately sent experts to Heilongjiang Province to assist local pollution-control efforts. Quality of the river water is under close observation for 24 hours every day.

The Jilin and Heilongjiang provincial governments have activated their contingency programs for environmental incidents, and have taken measures to ensure the safety of potable water, said the official.

He said Jilin had quickly blocked entry of the pollutants into the river and discharged water from a reservoir to dilute pollutants in the river. It also organized environmental, water conservancy and chemical experts to discuss pollution control plans, and beefed up monitoring work.

Most interesting is the assertion that Jilin had “quickly blocked entry of the pollutants into the river and discharged water from a reservoir to dilute pollutants in the river”. This suggests that the Jilin government knew exactly what was going on. Bear that in mind for later.

Then the inevitable consequences began to unfold. Public erosion of trust in government was one casualty, as reported by the Financial Times:

“I am fleeing,” said Pang Shijun, a 50-year-old man among the crowds at the central railway station. He said his wife had already left the night before to go to the nearby city of Jixi. “I just do not trust the government to provide true information on this.”

Whoops. More from Reuters:

“It’s worrying, because it may not have a strong smell or colour, so you can’t tell when it’s gone,” said Hong Shan, a retired official exercising beside the river. “It’s up to the government to keep us informed. We can’t tell ourselves.”

Commentators in Beijing and further afield condemned the “lies” told before the authorities revealed what had really happened. A paper in Harbin itself tried to play down the crisis.

And, of course, there were recriminations. CNPC and the Jilin provincial government have emerged as the principle villains for running the plant and covering up the benzene release, respectively. Here the New York Times reports:

“We will be very clear about who’s responsible,” said Zhang Lijun, deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, at a news conference in Beijing. “It is the chemical plant of the C.N.P.C. in Jilin Province,” he said, referring to China National Petroleum.

Mr. Zhang said the investigation would consider whether there was any criminal liability for the spill.

PetroChina Company, a subsidiary of the state-owned China National Petroleum listed in New York and Hong Kong, is responsible for the company’s domestic petrochemical production, the China National Petroleum Web site says. China National Petroleum holds 90 percent of PetroChina’s shares.

The official New China News Agency reported that China National Petroleum had apologized. The company “deeply regrets” the spill and will take responsibility for handling the consequences, the deputy general manager, Zeng Yukang, was quoted as saying. The vice governor of Jilin Province, Jiao Zhengzhong, also apologized to the people of Harbin, The Beijing News reported Thursday.

Zhang Lijun is no champion of transparency, as we’ll see later. Even the China Dailyweighed in, with an editorial yesterday condemning the actions of the Jilin government. They noticed the same thing I did; that the Jilin government has essentially admitted that it knew all along that there was a problem:

A spokesman from the State Environmental Protection Administration said yesterday at a news conference that Jilin Province and Jilin Petrochemical Corporation had adopted timely measures to stop the toxic spill from being discharged into the river immediately after the explosion.

This shows that the corporation knew very clearly about the contamination and its possible result but still wanted to keep the secret to itself.

Leaders from the Jilin provincial government and Daqing Petroleum Administration apologized for the contamination of river water and for the inconvenience and losses the pollution has inflicted on Harbin’s residents. But they never apologized for the hiding of truth.

We do not know what is behind the cover-up. It might be because they were afraid that they would have to pay money for the losses the pollution has incurred in Harbin, and it might be because they were afraid of losing face.

But the fact is they have brought shame on themselves by covering up the truth.

So there is the chronology. Now the fun bit.

Where They Went Wrong
No matter how much you prepare and plan, shit happens. That the Jilin chemical plant exploded and released tons of benzene was bad. It could have been incompetence or it could have been plain bad luck. But the actions of CNPC and the Jilin and Harbin governments after the disaster have tarred them with the stink of incompetence and untrustworthiness regardless of the reasons for the original disaster. They were caught in an enormous lie, and that makes everything else they have to say about the disaster untrustworthy. And people will remember.

Without having been in the boardroom, it is hard to say why the decision to cover up the disaster was made. It may be that Chinese doesn’t provide and incentive for openness about these sorts of things; this is an area where I don’t have enough information to make an informed judgment. Certainly neither the Chinese government nor Chinese business has a great reputation for transparency. The explosion would already be subjecting the plant to scrutiny for safety and operational standards. Perhaps a toxic release would have brought a different level of scrutiny, say from central government as opposed to malleable provincial authorities. And perhaps that level of scrutiny would have turned up some unpleasant truths surrounding CNPC, the plant and the Jilin government.

All of this is complete speculation. But, of course, that is kind of speculation a cover-up provokes, and why cover-ups are almost always bad PR decisions. I use the phrase “spin doctor” in gentle self-mockery in the subtitle of my blog. Perhaps that’s a mistake, because it perpetuates a myth about PR, which is that it is all about twisting the truth about these kinds of situations. It’s a shame people see PR that way, because a surprising amount of the time, our advice in crises is to be completely honest. And when lives are at stake there is simply no other choice.

Lives were at stake in this case. The moment CNPC and the Jilin government knew they had a chemical release on their hands they should have first informed the central government (which, scarily, perhaps they did) in order to motivate the appropriate support, and then informed the public. Harbin isn’t the only city along the Songhua river, and every other town along the same way deserved to know what was flowing past their riverbanks.

How much benzene was released? What are the potential effects? How long will it take to reach key population centers, and how diluted will it be at each stage? What will need to be done to protect those population centers? What help is being offered?

No doubt people would have panicked anyway, just as they did in Harbin. But after the supermarket shelves emptied out, there still would have been several days in which to prepare alternative water supplies and take other protective measures before the taps had to be turned off in Harbin. And the Jilin provincial government and CNPC, a major government-owned corporation (and, to a lesser extent, the Harbin and Heilongjiang governments), would not have squandered whatever trust people had in them.

Now, I am applying western PR standards to China, which has a completely different tradition of openness and public communication than developed, western countries. As ESWN pointed out in his comment, the Jilin authorities were clearly way out of their depth in dealing with the crisis and in evaluating what they could get away with. That’s true. And it is a serious problem that the Chinese government needs to solve if it wants development to continue smoothly.

Government is a Brand, Whether You Like it or Not
Let’s think of the Chinese government as a brand. This is an oversimplification, but the comparison holds true in many ways. Like all brands, government, in this case Chinese Government (new and improved!), possesses or seeks certain attributes that it believes will help it in the execution of its business. Competence, compassion, pragmatism, security, and so on. For most governments, trust is an essential attribute. The job of governing is easier when people trust what the government tells them and trust that the government will provide essential services and intervene in times of stress or disaster.

To see how erosion of trust can affect a government badly, look at the current US administration, which has two trust serious issues right now. First, many people saw Katrina as a huge abrogation of trust, and it severely damaged government credibility at municipal, state and federal levels by undermining the compact that the government will help to mitigate severe crisis. Second, a majority of the US public now believes that it was misled about the reasons for launching the war in Iraq. That is eroding public support and making it much harder for the administration to prosecute its plans in Iraq.

With regards to China, the foreign knee-jerk reaction is to say, “The Chinese government is authoritarian! Why should they give a damn about trust?” But I would wager that most Chinese people trust their government on a fundamental level, or at least want to trust it, and that the Chinese central government places a fairly high priority on maintaining that trust. You can see aspects of this in many of the initiatives the CCP is prioritizing right now. Programs to control corruption and help the rural poor to climb out of miserable poverties are all part of building and maintaining trust. Even propaganda is designed to foster trust in the government. Power may flow from the barrel of a gun, but it is significantly easier to hold onto that power and exercise it effectively when people trust you. The Chinese government is executing several simultaneous, tricky balancing acts. I think they realize that their jobs will be much easier the more people trust them. Unfortunately, they seem unable to break their bad, Stalinist habits.

Credibility engenders trust, and goes hand-in-hand with it. And credibility is a really serious issue for the Chinese government. Just today, the Chinese government was busyrefuting a report in New Scientist that bird flu deaths in China total over 300. (The Horse’s Mouth blogged the Boxun report that also covered this a couple of days ago – it’s blocked in China.) But people will continue to be suspicious of Chinese government protestations because the track record is bad. If the Chinese government expects to maintain credibility and trust it has to come up with the goods. Statements like this,reported in today’s FT in a good story on Chinese media reaction to the disaster, will not help:

“There are many ways to release information. Making it public is one way and only informing the local governments and enterprises along the route of the contamination is another,” said Zhang Lijun, a vice-director of the State Environmental Protection Agency.

The South China Morning Post summed up the Chinese government’s credibility gap (via Howard French’s “A Glimpse of the World”) blog:

The way in which the affair has been handled raises fresh concerns about the willingness of mainland officials to disclose bad news.

The PR aphorism is that trust is easy to lose and, once lost, fiendishly hard to regain. That’s why we so often counsel honesty and direct action in crisis situations. So here is Imagethief’s free PR advice to the Chinese government: what works in a closed, Stalinist state does not fly in a modern, open economy. There is no having it both ways. CNPC is a publicly listed company traded in Hong Kong and New York and need to behave like one, even with regards to its operations in China.  The expectations upon you are changing. That is the inevitable price of success, development and integration with the rest of the world. If you expect to continue that success, you will have to learn how you want to communicate around these kinds of events. In the long run, whatever you it is you think you are achieving by trying to hide your disasters, missteps and calamities, you are almost certainly achieving the exact opposite. Honesty in times of crisis can build your credibility. Infinite successful cover-ups add nothing to it. Every failed cover-up destroys it that much more.

You can only get caught in so many lies before people stop listening.

Update: Two good roundups of foreign press articles from the Peking Duck, here andhere.

Also, tough luck if you live in the small villages along the Songhua, as reported by the New York Times here.

Update 2: This, in particular, is  a good story to read. From the Washington Post’s Philip Pan, it discusses how local journalists broke the coverup story. That’s Chinese media doing its job well. What will be telling is how the Chinese government –especially the central government– reacts. If it is used as an excuse to crack down further on the ability of media to report such things, or if the journalists responsible are punished, it will be a very bad sign indeed.

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