SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Chinese and global firms steeled themselves on Wednesday ahead of the country's annual consumer rights day TV show, an evening gala from China's state broadcaster that can have brands and their corporate PR teams scurrying to take evasive action.
Similar to CBS network's "60 Minutes" in the United States, the China Central Television (CCTV) show known as "315" in reference to global consumer rights day on March 15, has previously named and shamed firms from Apple Inc to Volkswagen AG.
The two-hour gala - a mix of undercover reports and song-and-dance - can hit a firm's reputation if singled out for bad corporate behaviour. Apple was forced into a rare apology in 2013 after criticism on the show of its after-sales service.
"The days that a big company would be completely caught with its pants down are largely past," said James Feldkamp, Shanghai-based CEO of independent China consumer watchdog Mingjian.
"Pretty much all the big corporations have their PR machines ready to jump into action because they've seen what happens when companies are not prepared."
The day itself often sees a flurry of goodwill gestures by firms - from free apple pies to give-away iPads - to help soften any blow from being named and shamed. It has also ballooned beyond the CCTV show with smaller events around the country.
South Korean businesses, especially, may fear being singled out this year amid pressure from Beijing on companies in apparent retaliation for the deployment in South Korea of the THAAD anti-missile system. China sees the system's powerful radar as a threat to its security.
"The period around 315 is certainly when everyone's bow strings get a bit more tense," said Wei Wei, Shanghai-based marketing manager at communications firm MSLGroup China.
She said the firm would monitor the show for clients, create reports to lay out the impact if a sector was targeted, or prepare an emergency response if a client was snagged.
"If our client is really named on 315 then we have to take immediate action, you can't wait," she said. "The golden period for crisis response is the first three days, and you have to come up with a very clear response."
The programme has lost some of its bite in recent years, with some viewers jumping to defend targeted companies and younger audiences simply switching channels. Chatter online about the event has dipped sharply since 2014, according to a Reuters analysis of posts on China's Sina Weibo.
Last year's show criticised local food delivery apps, fake online sales and dodgy false teeth, but didn't take aim at any major international firms.
Chinese shoppers Reuters spoke to said they weren't likely to stay up to watch the show, but would check the next day who was targeted. Some sectors were more sensitive than others.
"What I pay attention to is food safety. After all, what you eat has a direct affect on your health," said Maple Zhu, a 27-year-old media professional in Shanghai.
"But the impact on consumers is usually short-lived, after a little while most people just forget."
Reporting by Adam Jourdan and Jackie Cai; Editing by Ian Geoghegan