Compared to the tens of thousands of lives claimed by recent natural disasters in the country, the 39 casualties sustained in China's high speed train crash must have felt like a small incident to the officials at the Ministry of Railways, especially given that train accidents routinely prove much more deadly.
However, that was in a world before the microblog.
The Ministry's decision to bury the wreckage on site reflected the priority of the authority: to return to normal service as soon as possible, and not to dwell on the cause and consequences of the incident. However, what was initially branded a 'local' incident created a social media frenzy and quickly grew momentum before eventually drawing Premier Wen to the scene. Given the surge in public outrage at the Ministry's handling of the crash, the Premier was forced to declare a thorough investigation and compensate victim's families.
Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, played an as yet unprecedented role in exposing the government response to the tragedy with the kind of transparency and speed that officials proved too inexperienced to handle.
Unlike blog posts and forums, Chinese internet police have to now omitted microblog posts from their stringent censorship, both due to the posts' short life span on net, and to the sheer volumes of content that require monitoring. This 'oversight' meant that near real-time messages calling for help at the crash site, and also video footage of the clean-up operation, were amongst the material shared simultaneously across the country.
Remarkably, the government was left completely wrong-footed and perceived as out-of-touch when over 2 million posts relating to the topic were posted within two hours of the accident.
During the week that followed, more posts questioning the handling of the situation flooded the internet, inspiring even the mainstream media to take an openly critical line. Surprisingly, this included CCTV and People's Daily, traditionally the principle government mouthpieces. And, all of this despite an official gag order preventing media from reporting on the story.
When magazines were ordered to remove the incident from their covers, journalists again went online to publish their articles, apparently undeterred by the pressure from the state. This was certainly a rare occurrence in a country that regards the ability to suppress popular discontent as vital to social stability, especially through its extensive control over media.
What this episode underlines is that, in the era of social media, news reporting is no longer the exclusive preserve of a select few. On the contrary, more and more mainstream media is drawing its reports from the net, using this medium as a litmus test of popular opinion.
In the business world, the most forward-thinking political and corporate leaders have long understood that finding an effective strategy for handling social media is a top priority in managing the reputation of their governments, countries and companies.
However, it is not until relatively recently that the full potential social media holds for destabilising power has come into view. For example, Facebook kicked-off the Arab Spring, while microbloggers have given voice to millions of Chinese who have otherwise been silenced in the name of preserving the country's unity and stability.
I believe that what we are witnessing is nothing less than a popular revolution being brought about by social media. The unpredictability that this will continue to bring to the global social, political and economic order makes it a mega trend of crucial importance not only for reputation management professionals to observe, but also to understand, in order to give best counsel to clients.