Certification program aims to assist policymakers and reduce malpractice
China is set to officially recognize the profession of public opinion analysts, a move insiders say will help policymakers better understand and engage with society.
The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security plans to issue its first batch of certificates for public opinion analysts in mid-December.
On Sept 5, the ministry's China Employment Training Technical Instruction Center and people.com.cn, a news portal run by People's Daily, jointly launched a training and testing program for the profession.
"We have received a lot of inquiries since the launch," said Gu Wenjie, a spokesman for the program at people.com.cn.
Trainees will take classes on eight courses, including theory, analysis methods and crisis intervention in the first four and a half days. After the training program and written and online exams, qualified trainees will receive a certificate within 60 days.
"The first batch of certificates will be issued in mid-December," he said.
Gu, who has been working as a public opinion analyst since 2007, said he and his colleagues monitor all domestic websites, forums, blogs, micro blogs and other social media platforms every day.
After finding out about a client's requirements, Gu said special software will be activated to capture relevant online information and then use statistical techniques to analyze this and write an analysis report.
Feng Jingshan, deputy Party chief of Kashgar, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, said the government has viewed the Internet as an important channel to understand public concerns.
"We need people to do real-time analysis on public sentiment online. It is an effective way to communicate with the public, to get informed about their reflections about the government's management and to adjust our policies accordingly," Feng said, adding that high-ranking Party and government officials in Kashgar receive a briefing once a week on online public opinion from secretaries or publicity departments.
He said the local government improved its policies to regulate the use of electric bikes on the road by adopting suggestions from citizens collected online.
"E-bikes are a common transportation option for people in Kashgar, but the increasing numbers of such vehicles mean they have become a major threat to traffic safety, so we introduced new regulations such as exclusive e-bike lanes and banning them on certain road sections," he said.
After realizing that the public expected a certain period of time to adapt to the new regulations, the local government set up a three-month trial implementation with fines introduced after the period, he said.
"Later, we received a very good response from our residents," he added.
"Field studies and using the Internet to understand public opinion are both important channels to engage with the public, the two cannot replace each other," Gu at people.com.cn said.
The first training class will start in Beijing on Oct 14, according to a news release. Enrollment costs 7,800 yuan ($1,270), which covers tuition and exam fees.
Weng Zhihao, a 23-year-old college student from Beijing who majored in journalism, said he is interested in signing up for the training course, believing the certificate will make him more competitive in the job market.
Shan Xuegang, deputy secretary-general of the public opinion analysis office at people.com.cn, said analyzing public sentiment requires professional skills as analysts need to identify, synthesize, and analyze trends, threats and opportunities among mega-information, providing reference for users, especially government leaders to make decisions.
However, given that public sentiment studies have not been included in the formal education system, most people who are doing the work simply rely on their experience and self-study, therefore, the quality of their analysis cannot meet user expectation, he said.
Zhang Quanling, an anchor for China Central Television, wrote on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-like service, that she realized many government officials do not know how to access the Internet, while public opinion analysis reports provided by their subordinates are simply scattered information copied from the Internet, after she gave lectures on media relations and public opinion.
Gu said the introduction of formal training and certificates in the field will help to reduce malpractice and increase professionalism.
Steven Dong, deputy secretary-general of the China Public Relations Association, said the work of public opinion analysts is becoming increasingly important in the era of information explosion.
"Sometimes big data creates more trouble than convenience for many people. It requires skills to pick up useful information from the mass of junk information," he said. "Online public opinion analysis provides a new channel for the government to understand public mood quickly although it is not flawless."
When asked about whether the new information profession will turn out to be online censors for the government, Yu Guoming, director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Renmin University of China, said: "It's just like a kitchen knife. You can use it to chop food but some people use it to hurt others. The profession itself can be neutral."