The COVID-19 pandemic quickly became a global disaster that impacted almost all Chinese and U.S. companies and presented them with new relationship management challenges. The heightened public emotions during the pandemic added more uncertainties to organization-public relationships and were likely to change companies’ relationship cultivation strategies. Companies could not afford to risk losing the relationships they had with their publics as societies were reshaped. Thus, the global pandemic provided a meaningful context for research to explore the relationship cultivation strategies that companies used on social media.

The goal of this research was to explore relationship cultivation and social media strategies that Chinese and U.S. companies used to maintain relationships with their stakeholders during the COVID-19 pandemic. A content analysis of Weibo and Twitter posts from Fortune 500 companies in China and the U.S., respectively, was conducted to examine the effects of their relational efforts on stakeholder engagement.

Results showed that relationship cultivation strategies and social media functions can effectively increase stakeholder engagement for both China and the U.S. companies, but in different ways. Although both Chinese and U.S. companies most frequently adopted the strategy of openness, that strategy was only effective at increasing public engagement on social media for U.S. companies. The most effective strategy for Chinese companies was to provide access to their publics by adding corporate contact information and responding to their publics’ questions and concerns. Chinese social media users also showed higher levels of engagement and more positive emotions in their responses than their U.S. counterparts. Chinese companies’ messages focused more on disaster-related social media functions that provided help or assistance and expressed emotions, which significantly raised their publics’ emotional engagement in a positive way. In the U.S., those same functions of social media did not predict the publics’ engagement.

A content analysis was conducted on social media posts made by 30 Chinese Fortune 500 companies and 30 U.S. Fortune 500 companies with active social media accounts. The sample included 756 Weibo posts (China) and 645 Tweets (U.S.) containing COVID-19 related keywords (e.g. covid, 新冠) taken during each country’s initial pandemic adjustment phase (Jan. through April 2020 for China and March through November 2020 for the U.S.). Top comments, as rated by the platforms algorithms, were also collected.

Relationship cultivation strategies were measured across six factors, including access, positivity, openness, sharing of tasks, networking, and assurances, with 16 indicators (Ki & Hon, 2008). Nine types of disaster-related social media functions (Houston et al., 2015) were identified (e.g., signal and detect a threat, raise awareness, express emotions, etc.). Public engagement was measured on three levels including cognitive, emotional, and behavioral engagement (Chen, 2018). Cognitive engagement was gauged by seven types of response purpose (e.g., help/information seeking, informative reply, conflict/complaint/criticism, etc.), while emotional engagement was measured by twelve types of emotions (e.g., anger, sadness, happiness/satisfaction, etc.). Finally, behavioral engagement was measured by the number of likes, shares, and comments of each post.

Key findings:

  • Chinese companies were more engaged in posting COVID-19 related messages.
  • Chinese social media users showed more positive emotions towards companies’ COVID-19 related posts.
  • Companies in both countries adopted the relationship cultivation strategy of openness most frequently.
  • However, openness didn’t work very well for Chinese companies. Rather, access was more effective in that it significantly influenced all three levels of engagement.
  • In the U.S. sample, openness was effective at raising the number of likes, shares, and comments. However, only assurances triggered positive emotions in stakeholder responses.
  • In terms of disaster-related social media functions, messages that provided help or assistance and expressed emotions significantly raised the Chinese publics’ emotional engagement in a positive way.
  • However, none of the disaster-related social media functions had a measurable impact in the U.S.

Implications for Practice
This study provides strategic guidance on how companies might sustain quality relationships with their stakeholders during widespread economic disruptions. Specifically, the findings suggest that companies should take note of how social media users in China and in the U.S. react differently to COVID-19-related content in order to tailor their strategies to their own cultural settings. If organizations enter a pandemic equipped with these strategies for maintaining and strengthening their relationships, it might help them return to economic viability more quickly post-pandemic.

For practitioners, it appears there may be a public relations knowledge gap between the two countries used in this comparison. For example, nearly all of the U.S. posts utilized the openness strategy, indicating that U.S. companies were keenly aware of which strategies were most effective with their publics. In contrast, Chinese companies received the highest engagement levels when they made themselves accessible, yet only one-third of their posts used that strategy. Both Chinese and U.S. companies used the openness strategy most often, despite it returning much lower engagement levels than accessibility in China. The takeaway is that applying what may be Western-based public relations strategies might not be an effective approach for Chinese practitioners, who likely need to develop their own relationship maintenance strategies; strategies that rely on accessibility because that approach showed higher engagement levels than openness.


Huang, Q.S., Lynn, B.J., Dong, C., Ni, S. (2021, March 3-6). Relationship Cultivation via Social Media During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Cross-cultural Comparison between China and the U.S.  [Paper presentation]. International Public Relations Research Conference, Virtual conference.

Qiongyao Huang is a phd candidate in the School of Communication at Hong Kong Baptist University. She holds an of M.A. in Advertising and a B.A. in International Communication, both at Communication University of China. She is also a teaching staff in the department of public relations at Nanchang University in China. Her research focuses on strategic organizational communication, public relations, organization-public relationship management, and computer-mediated communications, especially from a cross-cultural perspective.

Benjamin J. Lynn is a doctoral student fellow from the University of Florida who studies live remote sports productions from an organizational perspective. His work is aimed at articulating the underlying communication structures found in live remote sports broadcasts and exploring the decision-making processes that occur within the industry. His research draws on media management scholarship, internal/external organizational communication, leadership, interpersonal, and nonverbal communication.