Baidu's PR head has a PR problem after workaholic social media posts

Praising 996 culture is so Jack Ma 2019

Updated The vice president and public relations head of Chinese search engine giant Baidu stirred up controversy this week by promoting workaholic behaviors on a personal social media account.

The videos, which appeared on the Chinese version of TikTok called Douyin, have since been taken down. However, according to state-sponsored media, the videos were quite egregious.

Comments and opinions reportedly provided by Jing Qu included:

  • she had no obligation to know if employees are crying
  • unsatisfied employees should simply resign
  • public relations professionals should expect to not have weekends off
  • public relations professionals should also respond to phone calls 24 hours a day
  • threats of retaliation to those who complain, including claims she had the ability to make former employees unhirable
  • she herself was so involved in work that she did not know which grade her son was in
  • she is not the mother of her subordinates

OK, here at The Reg, we will give her the last one.

The veep's videos predictably sparked backlash.

Some netizens called her "out of touch," "condescending," "unprofessional," and "exploitative." Others questioned her ability to lead Baidu's public relations department, given she seemingly placed herself in a PR crisis.

With the backlash mounting, Li eventually took to the tool that got her in trouble in the first place (social media) to apologize.

"Before posting the short videos, I didn't seek the company's opinion in advance, which doesn't comply with the relevant procedures and doesn't represent the company's position. I clarify and apologize. There were many inappropriate and unsuitable points in the videos, which led to misunderstandings about the company's values and corporate culture, causing serious harm," wrote Qu on her WeChat moments in Chinese.

She said she has read the criticism and found many comments "very pertinent." The PR chief conceded she was hasty in posting content and vowed to improve.

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The Reg contacted Baidu to confirm reports that Qu is still employed at the company and will update should a substantial reply materialize. In theory it should, since it is now known the PR team is expected to work 24/7.

The whole thing stinks of a PR strategy gone wrong. A trend recently emerged for Chinese execs to win public favor through their own social media accounts.

It's been pointed out that Qu's account had hundreds of thousands of followers even though it was brand new, sparking speculation it had been purchased, not organically grown authentically out of a hobby or for fun.

Media outlets also reported Qu ordered her subordinates to follow suit and create personal accounts on platforms such as Douyin, WeChat Channels, Red or Xiaohongshu, which would be tracked, monitored, and used to gauge performance. Those unhappy with the directive to make short videos should change departments, and videos should reflect matters related to Baidu, ordered the PR chief.

Chinese tech companies have a reputation for poor work-life balance, so much that the nation's courts stepped in in 2021. Beijing now requires caps on overtime and compensation for extra hours worked.

But changing regulations is one thing; changing culture is another. Many a Chinese tech exec has advocated for workaholic behavior, although rarely a female one.

Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma famously advocated for 996 culture, the unhealthy habit of working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week. Ma may have called the arrangement a "blessing," but there are clear signs workers, particularly younger ones, disagree, and are not willing to conform to the requirement disguised as a suggestion.

Dr Catherine Wu, a professor of organizational behavior, told The Register that in her opinion it was "hard to believe that this is happening by accident or that it's an individual issue. The fact that she is the head of PR is not a coincidence either."

She added: "Rather I would tend to think that her action happened in response to direct or indirect pressure from the organization. An organization is a system, so when people refuse to pick up calls late at night or travel and customers complain, it causes delays and further stress for other departments in the company. It's a vicious cycle and I could see why the PR team could become involved.

"Although it can seem disproportionate or unreasonable, this response could also be a strategy to communicate indirectly with existing and prospective employees, as if to say 'if you are not ready for the job, don't apply'."

Dr Wu specializes in cultural intelligence and global leadership at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

Women account for only 19 percent of executives in China compared to an average of 25 percent in leading countries, according to a 2023 study from management consulting company Bain & Company.

The consultancy reported that confidently expressing opinions and having a clear career ambition were two core drivers for women who do actually make it to the top.

The study did not offer any insight for future execs on how to recover from a PR nightmare. ®

Updated to add on May 9

After causing a PR kerfuffle, Jing Qu appears to be out of a job herself, according to Chinese state media.

"I have carefully read all the opinions and comments from various platforms, and many criticisms are very pertinent. I deeply reflect on and humbly accept them,” Qu added on her personal social media account.

"There were many inappropriate and unsuitable points made in the videos, which led to misunderstandings about the company’s values and culture, causing serious harm.”

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