PR crisis
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How (Not) to Handle a PR Crisis in Chinese

A language guide to how Chinese celebrities and companies handle public relations crises...and often make them worse

A rat’s head found in cafeteria food might have seemed like the biggest public relations scandal that a college might ever face…but somehow, the administration of the Jiangxi Industry Polytechnic College managed to make a disgusting situation worse.

On June 3, two days after a student shared a video of finding a suspiciously rat-head-like object in his food in the cafeteria, the college came out with a public statement claiming that the video’s “反映内容与事实不符 (fǎnyìng nèiróng yǔ shìshí bùfú, content does not correspond to facts)” and that the buck-toothed, bewhiskered object was in fact a piece of duck’s neck, a relatively normal food item eaten in parts of China.

When netizens refused to buy the explanation, the school and, later, the local authorities doubled down on the denial, until finally an investigation by higher-up officials revealed it was indeed a rat’s head—surprising no one, but shaking almost everyone’s confidence in food safety, as well as the public accountability of Chinese institutions.

Netizens dubbed the college’s public relations strategy in this crisis as “指鼠为鸭 (zhǐshǔwéiyā, calling a rat duck),” a nod to the idiom 指鹿为马 (zhǐlùwéimǎ) derived from an ancient story in which a powerful chancellor claimed that a deer gifted to Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor, was actually a horse. Other officials, fearful of the chancellor’s influence, all agreed with the obvious lie.

Deliberately confusing right and wrong is but one strategy that companies, institutions, and celebrities adopt to manage public relations crises, some of which pay off better than others.

Playing victim

One way to make a denial of a scandal even more effective is to play the victim, hoping to make the public believe that it’s you, not the people you supposedly wronged, who deserve their sympathy.

One example is Cai Xukun, one of China’s top singers and actors, who recently denied the allegation that he forced a woman he’d impregnated to get an abortion. Cai’s PR team would like the public to believe that the scandal is no more than rumor-mongering:

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How (Not) to Handle a PR Crisis in Chinese is a story from our issue, “Small Town Saga.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


author Siyi Chu (褚司怡)

Siyi is the former Culture Editor at The World of Chinese. She writes about arts, culture, and society, and is ever-curious about the minds, hearts, and souls inside all of these spheres. She is now a freelance writer with additional work experience in independent filmmaking and the field of education.

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