Communicating in a crisis when the problem is in China

We’ve all seen the ‘Great Fire Wall of China’ joke and it’s one that is likely to be cracked for quite a while…
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By Edward Ion

We’ve all seen the ‘Great Fire Wall of China’ joke and it’s one that is likely to be cracked for quite a while.

China is a country with a very different set of rules and norms to the rest of the world when it comes to social media and the internet.

But for shipowners in China and for those whose ships are trading in China’s waters, the joke is less amusing: dealing with online and broadcast media in the People’s Republic is challenging and at times can be totally frustrating.

This reality was brought home to me in a very real sense a couple of years ago when I was on holiday in Beijing with my family. The hotel we stayed in had CNN on the TV (unlike the BBC, CNN is not banned in China).

We sat down one evening to watch the news and the American station started to broadcast an item on the umbrella protests in Hong Kong which were taking place at the time.

Immediately our TV screen went blank: the Chinese censors had pulled the plug on CNN’s report. The screen remained dark until the report ended whereupon we had CNN back again.

My teenage daughters, so used to having instant and full access to any broadcast/ social media refused to believe what they had just seen was censorship.

It took me some time to convince them that censorship does indeed exist and that the Chinese state has total control over social and broadcast media.

This reality raises many potential issues for international shipping companies and indeed all foreign entities working and doing business in China.

However, it would be wrong to think that today’s China is stuck in the middle ages when it comes to modern technology and media and in particular, social media. In truth many media observers believe that China actually leads the way globally in terms of digital media transformation.

Few outside China realise the world’s most popular messaging app per head of population is China’s WeChat app.

It is estimated that about 65% of China’s 1.5bn people use WeChat. That may be because WhatsApp, the world’s most used messaging app, is banned in China!

China does social media in a big way and it has developed to such an extent that it is far more integrated into people’s lives than in other parts of the world.

Via what are essentially social media apps, Chinese consumers can pay for virtually anything online, do their banking online, buy insurance, stocks, futures and options online – all through social media apps.

But global brands such as YouTube, Google, the BBC, the New York Times, Twitter and Facebook are all banned.

While this is not an insurmountable problem for the shipping industry, it is important for companies to understand that China does social media differently.

Navigate Response works with Chinese companies assisting them with their social media policies, ensuring that seafarers and shore staff using Chinese social media platforms are aware of the need for caution and common sense in good times and in times of crisis.

It does not matter if that careless comment is on WhatsApp or on WeChat, the effect of the thoughtless spread of information has the same effect.

In our regular visits to Beijing and other shipping centres in China we see the shipping industry is increasingly alert to the use of social media.

They realise it cannot be fully controlled. But with planning, protocols and education, social media need not be a hindrance in a difficult situation for a company, an executive or a vessel.

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