Celebrities and public figures are on the central stage. And they can face some controversy or backlash from time to time. If you want to maintain a positive public image worldwide and clean a controversy around your personal branding online here are personal branding crisis management tactics explained step-by-step.
This guide is focusing on China. You may wonder: why China? Because we are talking about a country of 1.4 billion people where the information is spread in seconds. If you can control your reputation in China, you can control it anywhere. Hence, this advice can also match any country, just the tools will be different.
This is a complete guide to help you clean controversy and manage PR crisis online.
Let’s dive right in!
Crisis Management Fundamentals
In this chapter, I’ll answer the question “What is crisis management?“.
I’ll also show you why having a crisis management process is important to be ready when any controversy occurs. If you should only remember one lesson here: care is better than cure.
What is Crisis Management?
Crisis management is the system of actions taken to solve a crisis and enable the organization to minimize the damage of unexpected events. In the majority of cases, crisis management requires taking fast decisions. For personal branding, the decisions must be taken carefully compared with organizations since the personal life and intimacy of the public figure can be at stake. Vigilance is essential.
Why is Crisis Management so Important?
To understand this, you’ll need to recall how politicians, athletes, and public figures were handling their personal branding in the early years.
Back in the day, any controversy or bad buzz was solved before the word could spread. We could nip in the bud any rumor and controversy. Why? Because the internal was not there. It’s as easy as this.
The development of the digital ecosystem enabled information to spread faster than ever. While it enabled worldwide knowledge and transparent information, it also enabled rumors, fake news, and bad buzz to travel globally in a minute. Especially in China, where 1.06 billion people are connected to the internet. For any public figure, it gives an even bigger sense of emergency.
You may wonder:
How to handle personal branding crisis management?
How to do so in China when you have no visibility or don’t speak the language?
I’ll explain everything in the next chapter. Keep reading!
How to Handle Crisis Management in China
Before getting in the details of how to handle personal branding crisis management in China, it’s important to know that a crisis should never be handled alone. If you face a personal branding crisis, you need to build a team of experts around you to answer it the best way possible and stop the fire.
When you handle a crisis alone, you take the risk to have a very subjective opinion of what is going on and provide a very subjective response to this crisis.
No matter the country, when you have your Superhero Team, you’re ready to implement the following.
Audit of the Persona
Recognized public figures should handle regular audits.
What is a personal branding audit? It is the analysis and survey of your reputation (online and offline) to know what people think and say about you, both positive and negative. You can assess the key aspects of your public image and understand what makes people like you or what is a sensitive topic around your persona.
For instance, a while ago I worked with the fragrance brand Gisada to lead an ambassador audit. Their worldwide ambassador, Jeremy Meeks, is a sex symbol appreciated for both his appearance and public redemption. In China, he remains a former prisoner in a country where convicts can’t be idolized. A preliminary audit helped avoid any bad buzz.
Analysis of Risks
Then, your second step is to analyze the risks of this crisis.
What are all the scenarios your person could face in China?
According to this crisis management plan, having a specific vision of these occurrences will enable you to guide your planning. The more you understand what could happen, the more you can prepare for any scenario. Specifically, the risks of the personal branding crisis management in China are:
- Having a lasting negative reputation in the country
- Losing contracts and deals with brands and companies in China
- Being removed from any conference, public ceremony, or business related to China
- Being banned from traveling or entering to China
Your third step is to prepare a concrete action plan for each scenario.
How do you respond to the various scenarios mentioned earlier?
Who do you assign to each task and responsibility?
One tip, the best tool to use here is an all-hazard approach.
In their emergency management article, AlertMedia explained how public figures and companies could have been better prepared to face the Covid-19 global pandemic with an all-hazard approach. Nobody could have planned for a global pandemic. It’s the same for public figures: you can’t figure out the great disaster that will affect your reputation and personal brand. But you can prepare a comprehensive emergency framework taking into account all the potential emergencies and disasters that could occur.
The next step is one that you don’t want to miss: internal communication.
A majority of celebrities, influencers, or public figures will tend to react promptly to a PR crisis without even synchronizing with their team internally. This is the worst move to make. And this is often when the crisis escalates.
As Milton Herman shared in this article, the key to internal communication is alignment. The management of emergency and PR crises must start with internal communication. You need to share efficiently the task and responsibility but also synchronize on who says what and what time. If a miscommunication arises, it can settle like a failed soufflé.
Our advice is to work with a team that already handled a crisis together.
This step is the most common and obvious one.
What is external communication in personal branding crisis management? It is the moment when you communicate with the public and external stakeholders.
As you can see, it is one step of crisis management. It’s not the only step.
For external communication, it is important to come up with a concrete plan of what will be your message, to whom you will deliver it, at what time, and in which order. Some public figures will decide to go with one unique message and share a PR to all magazines, reporters, journalists, and media. But you need to prioritize and organize.
- What is the message I want to share with the public?
- What tone of voice do I want to use to share this message?
- What channel or media is the best to share this message or this specific angle?
- When should I release this message?
- Is there any external event that could affect the visibility of my message?
With all these questions in mind, you can share your external communication and get the ball rolling.
Then, you can move to your final step: how are you perceived by the public now?
After such a big crisis management, a celebrity or public figure will always go with their intuition.
“I felt the campaign worked great” or “I felt people didn’t believe it and it made the situation worst”.
How can you be sure about this?
The final step is among the most important ones: having a reviewing process. This process can be both qualitative (how are you perceived right now?) and quantitative (what is the % evolution of your negative comments between N-1 and N?). You can analyze the direct performance and results of your personal branding crisis management campaign and gather learnings for your next crisis management process.
There is many data to use for personal reputation online:
- Share of Voice
- Personal Sentiment
- Share of Search
- Comments Count
Now that you know how to organize your personal branding crisis management campaign, let’s jump to how to handle it on social media.
How to Manage Crisis with Social Media?
With social media, an opinion can spread in seconds.
In China, there is a specific app ecosystem composed of WeChat, Weibo, Xiaohongshu, Douyin, and many more.
Even if you clean your personal reputation on Instagram or Facebook, it may continue on Chinese social media.
Identify the Main Source
Before picking a social media, it’s important to know where the bad buzz or PR crisis comes from. On which media people are talking negatively about you? What are they saying exactly?
The best way to get a direct impression on the main source of the controversy or crisis is to check Baidu.
What is Baidu? It is the top search engine in China, accounting for 60% market share on all platforms in 2023. When you you search for your name, you will find all the top results including, magazines, social media, forums, and blogs mentioning your name. You can get pretty fast an overall vision of your current reputation in China. You can know whether the majority of impression about your persona is mainly positive or negative.
When you see a social media coming back on the top searches, you know this is the social media you must prioritize to clean your negative reputation and solve the crisis.
Otherwise, you can leverage each social media with specific leverage. Let’s discover how!
Official Message on Weibo
It is used as a more official social media when you want to share a message.
The majority of public figures such as politicians, athletes, celebrities, business leaders, or influencers will always share an official letter on their Weibo official account when they want to de-escalate a crisis. They will share a professional message with their own signature.
This is the best strategy to implement in China when you want to make the message more official and more solemn.
Example: The celebrity and top live streamer Viya shared a signed letter after she was sued for tax evasion. She was fined $210M USD for tax evasion since she didn’t declare the majority of her paid collaborations with brands. It was a big bad buzz in China, and the celebrity de-escalated the crisis by sharing an open letter to apologize.
Voice on Xiaohongshu
You can share your official message like on Weibo or you can use your voice to share your message more authentically.
An interesting function to use for personal branding crisis management is the “Voice Live” function.
On Xiaohongshu, you can create private groups with your most active followers. You can create 25 to 50 rooms with up to 100 people per room and share private messages… and even voice messages. From our perspective, this tool is the best way to de-escalate a crisis by directly talking with your biggest fans in authentic voice messages and getting their feedback on how they perceived the scandal. You can make direct apologies and ask for their personal feeling.
A new way to create a more personal bond with your community.
Live Streaming on Douyin
Both apps are owned by ByteDance but whether you are based in Europe or in China, you don’t have access to the same version of the app. Hence the importance to have a crisis management process for both the West and China.
The key behind the de-escalation of a crisis or a controversy is to get an authentic interaction with the public. If you want to make your message clear, personal, and not transformed by journalists or reporters, the best way to keep your intention intact is to make live streaming. You can explain the story in details and give your own version without being limited by a number of words or minutes.
When you do so, you don’t look like a public PR professional but like a real human being sharing his/her own story.
Vlog on Bilibili
A majority of public figures like politicians or celebrities will not include Bilibili in their PR strategy.
But they should.
The communication on Bilibili is much more authentic and directly targeted to Gen Z. Especially if your personal branding crisis is directly affecting your reputation among Chinese youngsters, it is better to leverage Bilibili than any other platform. On Bilibili, 72% of users have below 34 years old.
If you want to directly reach out to them, your best strategy will be to work on a vlog with a Bilibili influencer. Why? Because the most viral content there is vlog, and it could enable to share your message in a more authentic and natural way. There is no script, and it will be a real interaction with the influencer to share your message to his audience.
Now that you have shared your message on social media, you can go with traditional crisis management.
Tradition has it that Public Relations is the most efficient.
How to Bring a Positive Image with Public Relations?
Public Relations (or PR) is the most commonly used for crisis management.
When you are a public figure you automatically have a PR team, ready for promotion (and for bad buzz).
For any crisis, here is how to handle your Public Relations.
1. Prepare a Press Release
A press release is your main communication tool.
This is the starting point of your external communication when you will clarify the message you want to spread. It will enable you to have a single, clear, and organized message. All your arguments will surround your main message and must be wisely chosen to avoid having a press release going in all directions.
In “The 5 Mistakes Press Release Writers Make”, Sarah Sherik shared the main mistakes that often come back. Among them, we can quote a lack of focus and unnatural writing. Remember that your press release is the continuation of your personal branding and your person above all. Write it in your style, not in the style of an objective company sharing a news.
The key once again is authenticity.
2. Get Featured in Magazines
Once your press release is ready, you need to get featured in magazines.
What Chinese magazines are the best for personal branding?
- Tencent News: A common news media in China with the largest exposure. It is ideal for politicians, business leaders, and celebrities.
- Vogue China: The Chinese version of the fashion magazine Vogue. It is ideal for ambassadors, stylists, artistic directors, and celebrities.
- Milk China: A specialized magazine in kids and babies-related topics. It is ideal for public figures with crises related to family, and business leaders for kidswear brands.
- Trends Health: A specialized magazine in wellness topics. It is ideal for athletes, wellness influencers, and crises related to mental or physical health.
- Sohu: A common news media in China with large exposure and ranking on local search engines. It is ideal for politicians, business leaders, artists, and celebrities.
If you want to get featured in this magazine, it is recommended to work with a local agency.
3. Partner with Key Opinion Leaders
If you are familiar with Public Relations, you know it doesn’t only include Press but also KOLs.
Yes, Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) are part of a Public Relation strategy for public figures.
When you have to handle a personal branding crisis, the support of another public figure can help you to clean up a controversy faster. If this persona shares the same values as you, it can be a good way to have a positive interaction, share your message in good faith, and de-escalate the crisis among your core community.
For this, you will need to identify:
- What is the public figure’s background?
- What is his/her core community audience?
- Would he/she support your message in a public appearance?
If you feel that you may not find the right person in China, you can work closely with an Influencer Agency like ECHO.
4. Clean Baidu Search Results
We talked about it a little earlier, and here it comes again.
Baidu is always the key to your online reputation in China, no matter if it is positive or negative.
As Kaitlin Zhang put it in an article for the China Britain Business Council, Baidu is a matter of professional credibility. In other words, this is the only frame through which people can see you. And you want this frame to be positive.
For this, you will have to monitor and clean the search results linked to your name online. You will also have to look into the related Chinese nicknames and Chinese surnames given to your persona. For instance, the fitness trainer and influencer Pamela Reif was given several names online in China such as:
- Pa Sister or ‘帕姐’ in Chinese
- Human AI or ‘人形AI ‘
- Devil Pamela or ‘魔鬼帕梅拉’ (in reference to her intense sweaty workouts)
Cleaning requires detailed and precise work to go over all the short-tail and long-tail keywords.
Your personal branding is often much more spread than what you expect.
How to Face Controversy with Blogs and Forums?
If you want to turn off a controversy or change your personal image from negative to positive, you need the support of local blogs and forums.
The question is:
How can you leverage blogs and forums to change positively your personal branding and public image in China?
Read this chapter to find out.
1. Control your Response
As Predstige Group said in their article dedicated to personal branding, “you cannot control everything that people say about you, but you can control how you respond to what they say”.
This is the best advice you could get when you start online reputation on blogs and forums.
The best control tool is to let go. You won’t be to control what people have to say about you online. You have to put your energy where you can actually create an impact, which is your response to those criticisms. And your response must be open, positive, and empathetic.
You don’t stop a crisis by pouring oil on the fire.
The best example is what Stefano Gabbana did in China. Back in 2018, the co-founder of Dolce & Gabbana had derogatory remarks against Chinese people while trying to de-escalate the ad controversy. The fire went worst. This case study is a very complete one to understand how to avoid such a crisis. It’s analyzed in Chapter 6, read on if you want to get the details.
2. Get Interviews on Authority Blogs
Once you know how to control you response, you can start with blogs.
The best blogs in China for personal branding are mainly available on specific blogging sites. You can go with personal bloggers (on WeChat, Bilibili, or Weibo) or you can go with large blogging sites. If you have small image control, you can go with personal bloggers. If the crisis reached a wide exposure, we recommend to go with large blogging sites to answer the controversy.
The most recommended blogs for personal branding in China are:
- Sina Blog. This is the most popular blogging site in China, owned by Sina Weibo, and targeting the general public to share the latest information and opinions.
- Baidu Baijia. This blogging site is popular among reporters, journalists, and columnists interested in political economy, social issues, and current affairs.
- Consensus Website. A specialized blogging site owned by Li De Consensus Media Group, and focusing on the areas of international affairs, governance, diplomacy, security, history, ideology, and culture.
- Beida Law Info. A blog dedicated to law info must be favored when your crisis concerns a legal case, with a more academic and professional understanding of current cases.
- CaiXin Blog. A blog dedicated to finance and business content must be favored by public figures and business leaders to communicate on a crisis linked to their personal finance or business development.
And the list goes on depending on your specific personal branding and the crisis to handle.
3. Clean Negative Comments on Forums
After blogs automatically comes the forums.
Especially in China, forums are still widely used by local netizens to talk and share ideas about a specific topic.
And this topic can be you.
When you monitor your personal branding search results on Baidu, you can see the forums pop up in the first rankings. Yes, Baidu is promoting the organic and authentic conversations in the search queries. If you have a discussion on forums around your persona (latest concert if you are an artist, latest outfit if you are an influencer, bad buzz, etc.), this discussion will be visible by anyone. And by anyone, I mean everyone.
Your first step is to monitor the top discussions mentioning your name.
Then, you can prepare your answer in Chinese and use your official account with small accounts to answer these discussions.
You can share your message by combining an official and authentic approach.
4. Leverage Zhihu QA
Zhihu is the top questions and answers (QA) platform in China.
And this is the best tool for personal branding and crisis management.
The questions and answers of Zhihu can be used to answer your current crisis. The main mistake that most personal figures do when a crisis arises is to hide. But what if you address the difficulties right away? What if you step in the light to handle your personal branding crisis management?
At ECHO, we recommend to get a “reality check” by knowing exactly what people say about the crisis. And by addressing their questions, thoughts, opinions, and views directly through an open forum like Zhihu. Once again, you can control how you respond to what they say. You can be at the helm of the vessel and generate your own questions and answers, controlling the organic interactions under your post.
The best way to solve a crisis is to be in control of your own story, in China and in the West.
New Case Studies in China
Now let’s go over some personal branding crisis management case studies that happened recently in China.
A great way to see the direct application of what we mentioned earlier in this article.
What worked and what didn’t, by empiric demonstration.
Politics, The Justin Trudeau Incident
The Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, faced a little backlash during the G20.
Xi Jinping talked to Justin Trudeau after the conference to mention his disappointment. “Everything we’ve discussed has been leaked to the papers and that is not appropriate” said the translator of Xi Jinping to Justin Trudeau.
At this moment, Justin Trudeau doesn’t control his response and directly answers Xi Jinping that it is “a matter of mutual respect”. And this is when crisis management doesn’t de-escalate the crisis but re-escalates it. The interaction ended up with a col hand shake and all the Global Press talked about “a childish behaviour” and “a hypocritical answer” from Justin Trudeau.
What can we lean from it?
The lack of time and the will to answer in the emergency poured oil on the fire.
Justin Trudeau shared his own response without internal alignment and external communication plan.
Celebrities, The Gigi Hadid Rejection
The American supermodel hurt Chinese people’s feelings before a Victoria’s Secret show. She faced a backlash after holding a Buddha-shaped cookie and squinting her eyes while laughing on a viral video shared on the internet. This video traveled from the West to China. And her visa application to attend a VS show in Shanghai was allegedly rejected.
After the news, she immediately shared on Twitter “I’m so bummed I won’t be able to make it to China this year. Love my VS family…”. And no excuse to the Chinese people for the offense.
After a few days, she deleted the video and posted an official apology letter on Weibo.
And the answers where split between people who were forgiving her, and those who didn’t.
What can we learn from it?
- Behavior. There are behaviors that are sensitive for Chinese people, and these differences must be respected
- Tactic. Sharing an apology letter on Weibo is always the most efficient to answer a personal branding crisis
- Communication. Communication is the key, if you want to have a community in China you need to respect this community and apologize on their network before worrying that you would not attend a fashion show on Western networks
Athletes, Eileen Gu Unpatriotic Farewell
The star snowboarder changed her nationality to participate in Beijing Winter Olympic Games. Born American, she abandoned her American nationality to get Chinese nationality. For some people, she became a symbol and role for Chinese young women to fight for their dream. Some people called her an “opportunist” who competes for China only for money.
After the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, she came back to the US.
From China – Chinese citizens called her “unpatriotic” and “seeing China only as a travel destination to post pictures and get brands partnerships” with no intention to really set in China.
From the US – American citizens called her “ungrateful” and “turning her back against the country that raised her” without taking her role seriously by criticizing the Uyghurs controversy in China.
What can we learn from it?
Eileen Gu made a strong decision (changing nationality) without following up with a communication plan.
The content plan posted on Weibo and Douyin was inconsistent with Chinese expectations, since she kept posting videos about how happy she is living in the US.
Same on Instagram, where she posted much more pictures and copies saying “Thank you China for the unforgettable few months & for the endless love” while only Americans are visiting her Instagram.
The lack of PR support when she told a reporter “When I’m in China, I’m Chinese. When I’m in the U.S., I’m American”.
Business, The Dolce & Gabbana Controversy
The fashion house Dolce & Gabbana released a controversial ad in China. A Chinese women, always smiling naively, with a man voice in the background, was trying to eat pizza, pasta, and cannoli with chopsticks. Yes, she was trying to eat a huge cannoli with small chopsticks, seen as sexist, stereotyped, and racist for all Chinese netizens.
But the bad buzz is not at its acme yet.
On the day after, 18K comments on Weibo were asking to “Boycott Dolce” criticizing the brand ad.
The Instagram account received tons of complaints from Chinese netizens, and Dolce & Gabbana deleted the post. But the co-founder of the house Stefano Gabbana decided to take his phone to answer personally to one message with this sentence: “If it was by my will I never canceled the post (…) I will say that the country of shit is China”.
After that, Stefano Gabbana and D&G hold an official press conference saying his account has been hacked.
What can we learn from it?
Always control your response.
The ad was outrageous for Chinese people as it was conducting a cliché that Chinese people only eat with chopsticks and would try to eat anything with it, even pizza and pasta.
The lack of internal communication to bring a common answer to this PR crisis and have everyone sharing their own thoughts and messages, like Stefano Gabbana answering straight to messages before claiming a hacked account.
The absence of apologies and a communication plan dedicated to China.
No matter the exposure of your person or the size of your business, you can always be at the center of a personal branding crisis.
The only thing is to prepare – prevention is better than cure.
That’s it for our guide on personal branding crisis management in China.
What is the most successful tip that you already knew and what is a new one that you learned today? If you have your own tips and recommendations, this is also your moment to share.
Either way, let us know by leaving a short comment below.