Over the last few weeks, one cannot scroll through the news without coming across headlines about TikTok. As relations between China and the US and India worsens, the popular app’s media narrative has quickly shifted from it being a rare use of China’s soft power to it threatening national security and user privacy. What went wrong?
Experts told Jing Daily that TikTok’s PR problems have been simmering from the beginning. Western media has been pointing out its lack of user privacy protection ever since its $10 billion acquisition of the short-video platform Musical.ly in December of 2017 — a milestone in Bytedance’s global expansion plan.
As the overseas version of Douyin, TikTok became present in 154 countries and regions during its peak, eventually owning 800 million monthly active users. But now, the platform has been pulled into geopolitical disputes after leaving the Hong Kong market, getting banned in India and being forced to sell in the US (Microsoft and Walmart team, Oracle, Twitter, and Google’s parent company are contenders), and the reason always points back to the issue of user data security.
Luo Yangyan, the regional account director of UK-based digital agency Crowd, stated, “Many big, multinational companies have had data leak scandals, but why do only Chinese companies get the tag of ‘government-controlled?’ That is objectively unfair, and this perception cannot be changed in a short time.” Admittedly, PR is just one business function, but for a Chinese business that’s usually seen through a lens of stereotypes, PR may be as crucial. To try to help other Chinese businesses and brands, Jing Daily has taken a look at the PR pitfalls TikTok could have avoided.
Luo remembered seeing TikTok ads everywhere in train stations and on television since early last year. This February, shortly after TikTok was fined $5.7 million by the US Federal Trade Commission for illegally collecting children's personal information, Luo’s British colleagues brought the news topic to an internal roundtable of about 15 people, wanting the team to consider if it was, in fact, ethical to work with TikTok.
“As one of the two Chinese at that discussion, I had a feeling my colleagues may not understand the product very well,” Luo said to Jing Daily. “Technology can be a double-edged sword, and it all depends on how you use it” She brought up a campaign that Douyin (TikTok’s Chinese version) launched in China on May 18, 2018, which is International Museum Day. As such, the campaign’s images featured Chinese cultural relics coming to life at a disco party., and it found a lot of interest from Chinese teenagers wanting to connect with their heritage, she said.
Luo said that the museum-related promotion was something positive TikTok could’ve used in its defense, “but I didn’t see any direct response from TikTok’s statement and felt that they were passive with their PR strategy,” Luo said. She added that before entering an unfamiliar market, a company should do market and user research to find out what concerns the market and local target audience.
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Before TikTok entered the UK, its fellow social app Instagram had been bashed after 14-year-old Molly Russell committed suicide, and her family discovered that she had been ‘suggested’ Instagram posts about self-harm and suicide. Two weeks later, at the beginning of February, Instagram and Facebook responded with policy changes. Because of this incident, Luo said that “TikTok should have predicted that they may face similar issues.”
Although governance of user privacy and children’s internet safety vary worldwide, public opinion from one English-speaking Western country can easily carry over to another. Just two months after TikTok was fined in the US, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office proposed relevant guidelines last April to improve child internet safety, including limits to how children’s data is collected, used, and shared by social media companies. Last July, the UK started investigating how TikTok was handling the personal data of its young users.
To Jiang Zhixuan, a consulting sales manager who helps Chinese companies build overseas communication platforms, TikTok and its parent company, Bytedance, didn’t put in the proper effort to separate the two brands. “Bytedance and TikTok should represent different value orientations,” Jiang said. “But there is no clear boundary between the two, which blurred public perceptions of their brand images.”
This confusion sometimes has a rippling effect when things go wrong, he added. “When one side has a problem, the other would experience an uncontrollable impact.” In comparison, he cited how the super-app WeChat and its parent company, Tencent, have clear distinctions from the overseas public, and even when WeChat has some issues, though, they are rarely blamed on Tencent.
Asked about when a company should start thinking about drawing the line, Jiang said most suggest that companies with international expansions plan to separate entities as they are created. “But from the perspective of the corporation, the first step is always to prove that they can be profitable overseas, can run their core business smoothly, and can then invest in branding,” he said.
Jeffery Towson, a former Professor at Peking University, said that TikTok’s biggest mistake was not having a face for the company, which was damaging, especially given the nature of the platform. “By definition, they are a media company,” he said. “If you're a big popular media company in any country, you are going to be culturally and politically significant.”
Its plan was, he added, “to be a significant media platform in the politics and the culture of country upon country. But the CEO is going to be silent, and no one will know who he is. That is not going to work whether or not it’s a Chinese company.” Towson, who also hosts a podcast called Jeff’s Asia Tech Class, continued, stating, “You should be doing the opposite. You should be getting out front 24/7 doing interviews.”
Towson is referring to Zhang Yiming, founder and CEO of Bytedance, which already boasted 60,000 employees by April of 2012. He has built the AI-driven content platform Toutiao and the short-video platform Xigua Video, among other popular products. Described as “low-key” by the Chinese media, Zhang has only made rare and calculated international media appearances for Bytedance and TikTok.
In a recent, exclusive interview with Reuters, after the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US started probing into TikTok’s business practices, Zhang discussed his global ambitions but declined to comment on questions about the investigation and IPO plans. Two months after the interview was published, Bytedance announced that Kevin Mayer, Disney's former head of streaming, would become TikTok’s CEO (Mayer had since announced to quit the company last Wednesday).
But Towson didn’t think this was an effective move. “I don’t think [Mayer] helps the PR case at all,” he said. “I think everyone looks to Beijing for that because they know who the real boss is.”