Product Safety and Social Media in China
Berenice Voets, senior associate director and Matt Brady, online strategist

Consumer product safety issues have come to the fore in the Middle Kingdom in recent months, with social media fanning the flames. Increasingly aware of their consumer rights and sensing opportunities, concerned Chinese citizens have not been afraid to take their fight online.

Case studies abound. In July 2011, for example, a Guangdong netizen photographed boxes of soybean milk powder outside a local branch of KFC using his iPhone. The image was uploaded by the smartphone owner to popular microblogging platform Sina Weibo, where it was forwarded thousands of times, prompting many negative comments. Eyeing the photograph, netizens were aggrieved that KFC soybean milk was not freshly ground. The complaint snowballed, finding its way into BBS (Bulletin Board System) sites and mainstream media.

Social media is also empowering international NGOs to extend their advocacy efforts to China, a country where such initiatives were previously restricted due to the tenuous legal existence of such organizations in the country. Adidas and other international sports brands were recently in the Chinese social media spotlight when Greenpeace released a survey indicating that toxic chemicals were contained in several of their products. Reported by mainstream media in August, the story caught the attention of netizens, who forwarded the news multiple times on Sina Weibo. Greenpeace also launched an online campaign in which Weibo users were invited to send Adidas-wearing friends a postcard alerting them to the use of hazardous substances.

Sizzling Social Media

The rise of Chinese social media has been nothing short of meteoric. The searing popularity of sites such as Sina Weibo, which saw an incredible rise in users of 60 to 200 million in just half a year, has heightened the risk of crisis for companies.

Chinese consumers not only feel empowered by social media to vent freely about products and services, but are motivated by what they read online. Consider these recent statistics:

  • 88 percent of China's middle class are using social media - and they believe what they read.
  • According to the Chinese Consumer Report 2010 by Roland Berger Strategy Consultants, 58 percent of internet users are influenced by reviews, compared with just 19 percent in the United States.

There are no signs of this growth abating. A new army of netizen-consumers is expected to surface in rural China by the end of 2012; previously reliant on government-censored news, they will now be interacting with digital content through handsets.

This has China's government worried, too. The resolution issued at the end of the Chinese Communist Party 6th Plenum of the 17th Central Committee in October emphasized the need to strengthen China's information-control infrastructure to manage the growing flow of information on social media.

Mitigation Measures

With China's internet and mobile internet population continuing to grow (at a rate of one-third every six months) it would be prudent for foreign enterprises to anticipate - and prepare for - the worst in social media sooner rather than later. In words that still ring true today, legendary Chinese military general Sun Tzu (孙武) once wisely articulated, "The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy's not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him."

There are three measures that enterprises should consider adopting to mitigate problems further down the line.


Like Sun Tzu's troops, enterprises ought to scan the horizon to detect not only impending threats but also opportunities. In online terms, this includes listening to relevant conversations in social media, unearthing pertinent issues and identifying online leaders with influence over peer opinion. Rather than a one-time activity, social media monitoring ought to be a routine affair through which knowledge of the consumer's dispositions can be readily obtained. It may also serve as an important adjunct to regulatory and traditional media monitoring.


The second measure is engagement, or relationship-building. Social media monitoring can help identify online elites who could become supportive. Through joining hands with such allies in peacetime, companies may enlist their support and participation as third parties when product safety concerns emerge online.

Crisis Preparedness

The third measure is crisis preparedness, in case the worst were to happen. While the enterprise may know the "enemy" by closely monitoring issues and detractors online, it's never a bad idea to have a social media crisis plan in place and ensure readiness through running internal drills and simulations.



>> CEO Corner
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>> Observations from APEC 2011
>> Foreign Direct Investment - A Tool to Greater Prosperity
>> Product Safety and Social Media in China
>> 2012: A year of opportunity for the Mexico–U.S. relationship?
>> The European Commission's New Strategy for Corporate Social Responsibility
>> EU-China Trade Relations


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