With a public relations scandal looming if not already roiling for China on June 12, 2007, Li Dongsheng, the Vice Minister for the State Administration for Industry and Commerce in China, told reporters in China that China had developed “very good, very complete methods” to regulate product safety.
“We can guarantee food safety,” Vice Minister Li Dongsheng concluded. China demonstrated, by that statement and many similar denials and public announcements, that it “didn’t get it”. China doesn’t know what almost every experienced American movie star, politician and prominent sports figure know: as soon as a scandal breaks - come clean.
Noted public relations and crisis management professional Jonathan Bernstein wrote in an article written for Bernstein Communications, “the role of public relations … is to help stabilise that environment by developing messages and public relations strategy which results in prompt, honest, informative and concerned communication with all important audiences - internal and external”.
Today, after months of further developments in the scandal, the official China news agency Xinhua quoted the deputy head of the State Food and Drug Administration, Hui Lusheng, as saying, “At present, the food safety situation has improved, yet is still serious”.
“Since last year reports of ‘red-yolk duck eggs’ and so on have often caused wide concern in society about food safety, and warned us that our country is in a period of high risk,” Hui said, referring to a contaminated egg scare.
“Dealing with and preventing food safety risks is a long-term, arduous and complicated project, which needs society to work together and comprehensive prevention,” she added.
Why does China “not get it”? Why, when a crisis or scandal breaks, does China at first issue a denial and only reverse course once the mess is a firestorm?
First, China does not have a fully free and open media. During many scandals, China gets away without telling the truth or suffering consequences. But once the international media digs in its teeth, China generally suffers public and world wide embarrassment.
The second reason many believe that China generally denies the truth to escape responsibility and public scorn is more complicated, cultural and deeply rooted in the communist system.
Because China and other communist countries have no free and open elections, the communist party and its officials stay in power using a system of coercion, force and putting down public unhappiness.
In other words, public confidence in the government is not widespread. Many times public confidence in communist governments is based upon lies, loyalty to the government in exchange for jobs and other rewards, or other questionable bases of loyalty.
China has another problem: with 1.3 billion people and an immense land mass, seemingly small problems are often found to be huge.
In last spring’s tainted pet food scandal, China at first denied any wrongdoing.
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