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Didi Chuxing (Didi) is the largest online service of private passenger transportation in China – the number of its users exceeds 450 million people in more than 400 cities of the country. Approximately 25 million trips are performed by the company’s drivers per day. The identified company was repeatedly criticized for the lack of concern for the safety of customers. For example, the service does not screen those drivers who have a criminal record. This paper will discuss two recent issues when customers were killed by Didi’s drivers and the way the company responded to them in the media.
Analyzing Communications Regarding the Critical Issue
In order to understand how Didi communicates in the media, it is essential to identify the target crisis. In May, 2015, a 21-year-old stewardess of Lucky Air was killed by the Didi taxi driver when she returned from the airport after her shift was over (Dai 2018a). According to the investigation, there were more than 20 wounds on her body, and the girl was sexually assaulted. The second resonant murder occurred in August, when a 20-year-old girl used Hitch, the online taxi service application (Dai 2018b). After a while, the frightened girl sent a message “save” and no longer contacted. Police managed to catch a 27-year-old driver who confessed to the rape and murder of the girl.
The mentioned incidents provoked a flurry of criticism from the public in relation to Didi, which calls for punishing the company for murders committed by the drivers of the service. The largest online taxi service in China, Didi, announced that since August 27, it has suspended the service DiDi Hitch across the country (Dai 2018a). In connection with the incident, Didi wants to inform the public that it is removing this service, as the taxi service statement states (Dai 2018a).
While providing such a statement, the company publicly apologizes and promises to initiate the measures to significantly improve security and safety measures. This sincere statement shows Didi’s commitment to its customers and services. Instead of suppressing the public’s panic or redirecting people’s attention to some other service or news, Didi strives to ensure that further taxi trips would be safer.
Determining Public Relations Functions
When a crisis occurs unexpectedly, there is often no time for the identification of all people who need to be informed, what happened, how it happened, and what will be done. In this situation, the main role is played by PR managers (Neville & Menguc 2006). Pressure from the interested parties can strengthen the crisis and destroy the reputation of the organization, while it depends on how well the organization meets the expectations of different audiences during the crisis (Frandsen & Johansen 2016). Therefore, it is recommended to carefully distinguish between actual and potential interest groups.
The relationships between the mentioned stakeholders and Didi seem to be rather tense since the former believe that such incidents might be prevented if the company paid more attention to its drivers. In this regard, it is possible to suggest that the organization wants to clarify its position to the incidents and the overall perception of the situation by the public, which corresponds to the game theory (Murphy 1991). Speaking more precisely, it is possible to identify the links between these stakeholders and note that the Chinese government as well as the victims’ families act as definitive stakeholders (see Diagram 2 for details). At the same time, social and international media may be regarded as dependent stakeholders, affecting the public’s opinion yet depending on Didi’s approach to communications.
Analyzing Didi’s communications by using the linkage model, one should emphasize the enabling role of stockholders – the company’s partners, board of directors, and state legislators. Bryson (2004) states that the proper identification of stakeholders and relations between them may clarify the problems and highlight the ways to resolve them. According to the above theory, the role of the state cannot be overestimated since the critical situation is associated with the policies existing in taxi service and partially with the criminal record of drivers.
In other words, it is evident that some legal response should be provided to eliminate the occurrence of similar cases in the future. Among the functional linkages of Didi’s stakeholders, there are employees and customers as the key users and providers of the taxi service (see Diagram 1). The actors that spread news and also shape the opinion of the public are the media and special interest groups that may be represented by initiative groups.
- – Chinese government,
- – press, Didi’s drivers,
- – public’s support to victims,
- – Chinese government,
- – none,
- – victims and their families, potential customers, social and international media,
- – Chinese government, victims’ families.
The analysis of Didi’s communications activity with regard to the identified issue demonstrates the application of the situational crisis communication theory (SCCT). Coombs, the author of SCCT, specifies three key qualities that should be applied in crisis communication: be fast, consistent, and open (Ki & Nekmat 2014). Thus, crisis communication can be defined as actions aimed at controlling information and avoiding reputational damage to an organization when an unexpected event creates a threat to the image of the company.
Didi’s experts in the field of crisis communication express their responsibility for forecasting potential crises and creating action plans in case of a crisis in order to minimize damage and ensure a quick recovery. Therefore, one may claim that crisis communication of Didi is a process of restoring public’s trust.
The language of Didi’s communication is clear and respectful towards customers. Consistent with Ice (1991) who discusses the rhetoric of post-crisis communication, one may apply the systems theory. According to the latter, public relations area needs a systematic monitoring of both internal and external relationships. In this connection, the fact that Didi’s messages in the media reflect only its attitude towards customers and no attention to drivers may be noted.
Speaking of Didi’s communication in the media in terms of agenda setting, framing, and priming, one may note a professional approach to making stakeholders feel the company’s responsibility. In order to ensure proper agenda setting, Didi calls for paying attention to the details of the incidents, focusing on the fact that one of drivers used his father’s photo to enter the application. The company clarifies that Liu was not registered in the application.
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Every time before starting work through the service for safety reasons, drivers should do selfies (Lu, Geng & Wang 2015). Due to the fact that during that day, there were failures in the face recognition system, Liu managed to log in through his father’s account. In addition, earlier, the account was marked by the complaints of harassment, but it is not clear to whom they were addressed. However, the complaints were not processed, and the drivers continued to work.
The media primes the context for the situation discussion by declaring that Hitch service will be blocked across the country for a thorough check. However, it should be stressed that media reporting is not aggressive even though posts may be found not only in Chinese magazines but also in the worldwide press. For example, Bloomberg presents the news for emphasizing that Didi apologizes and vows to ensure safety for the future Hitch service trips (China’s Didi apologizes and vows changes after passenger killing 2018). The mentioned approach to priming provides the basis for framing that, in this case, significantly affects the perception of people and the formation of the public opinion.
According to the theory elaborated by Zoch and Molleda (2006), agenda-building process is largely affected by the way the media reports a company’s news. Indeed, in the given case, agenda is established not only by Didi’s PR managers but also the media sources and the society in general. While setting the baseline for further reports, Didi makes stakeholders focus on frank confession, as it is suggested by McCombs and Shaw (1972). The latter is, probably, the best possible decision to keep them loyal to the company.
The accelerating pace of life, growing competition, and the influence of social networks create favorable prerequisites for the spread of the organizational crisis (Utz, Schultz & Glocka 2013). The public’s negative perception of the given crisis is related to the fact that any crisis is considered by the participants and stakeholders through stereotyped characteristics of the culprit-victim system, which expresses the dichotomy of acceptance and rejection of the situation (Marra1998). In this case, there is the structure of thinking associated with stereotypes that simplify the perception of reality (Frandsen & Johansen 2016). For example, bankers were called the culprits of the world economic crisis in 2008 since they invested in unsecured mortgage papers, which ultimately caused the collapse of the entire financial system.
Accordingly, the company notes that for more than three years of the existence of the service, it has been used by millions of customers. The taxi service admitted that the security issue was a huge challenge for it, and sincerely accepted criticism from relevant departments and the public (Kim, Ni & Sha 2008). The company promised to reconsider the process of hiring drivers and helps the police in the search for a suspect. This shows that the company strives to ensure transparency of its actions regarding the crisis, which allows for assuming that public relations are rather important for Didi.
Considering Legal Issues
The legal issue associated with Didi-related incidents is the regulation requiring that taxi drivers had no criminal record. For example, if a potential taxi driver has been sentenced for some criminal action, he or she cannot be hired. The key challenge is that should people give a second chance to such persons or not (Dearden 2018). Even though a crime was committed in the past, it is possible that a person realized his or her mistakes. On the other hand, these persons may be dangerous to passengers who are often trip alone in a locked car. In other words, the identified legal issue is also closely intertwined with the ethical questions. The materials found in the media contain little information regarding this issue, while it is still evident from the wider research.
The materials presented in the media in terms of Didi’s communications are user-friendly and accessible. One may note that the articles are available in different languages, which allow people from different countries to be aware of the situation and also contribute to the discussion. More to the point, the company’s official website also offers news and related articles to allow stakeholders to track the development of the crisis and its consequences.
Based on the above analysis, one may formulate several recommendations for Didi’s communications. The following distinguishing features of corporate periodicals can be distinguished: the communicative strategy of the company should comprehensively affect the content and the concept of publication, integrating priority of corporate interests and strategic tasks (McCombs, Shaw & Weaver 2013). In addition, the corporate content should merge with other communication tools used by the company such as the corporate portal, social networks, advertising, and image materials in the media.
The interests of the company need to be integrated into the original, relevant, and unique content of materials that are not inferior to those of others presented in the media (Frandsen & Johansen 2016). In other words, only an integrated approach can ensure the effectiveness of corporate communications by promoting trust based on awareness and long-term relations between companies and its target audiences.
Along with the recommendations regarding Didi’s communication, it seems important to pay attention to the very process of hiring and managing taxi drivers. The evidence shows that drivers should provide a package of documents, including a driver’s license, a passport, car documents, valid insurance, and a certificate of criminal record. In addition to the basic conditions such as compliance with traffic rules, communication regulations should be created and explained to drivers in detail. Grappi and Romani (2015) develop the theoretical framework that declares the mediating role of customers’ perception, which makes it evident that Didi’s should strive to acquire their sympathy.
For example, a driver should understand that he or she cannot save a customer’s phone and call him or her after a trip. During the trip, it should be unacceptable to use non-normative vocabulary, and a driver’s behavior should be as correct and polite as possible. In achieving the suggested recommendations, Didi’s communications department should provide educational sessions for all drivers to ensure that they will behave appropriately and eliminate similar cases in their work.
To conclude, this paper revealed that Didi’s communications approach is rather focused and comprehensive. With regard to the crisis, the company responds in a responsible way and vows to improve the situation with passengers’ safety. The messages presented by the company in the media are user-friendly and detailed. It was recommended to integrate the corporate goals and stakeholders’ interests, which will allow creating a more effective crisis management.
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