Fake photo fallout: Chinese officials embrace social media to explain mixup

One of the worst doctored photographs in Internet history? That's the emerging verdict on a clumsily altered photo of bureacrats in the sleepy county of Huili, in southwest China's Sichuan province. In an ill-fated PR stunt, the trio of area government officials are shown appearing to float over the surface of a road, casting nary a shadow in a bid to promote a local road construction project.

"The saga began on Monday when Huili's website published a picture showing, according to the accompanying story, three local officials inspecting a newly completed road construction project this month," the Guardian's Peter Walker reports.

Calls soon began flooding the county's offices, which quickly issued an apology and removed the image.

And like government bureaucrats the world over, Huili county officials were quick to blame the mix-up on journalists--or in this case, a photographer. "The explanation was almost as curious as the picture itself: as other photos showed, the three men did visit the road in question, but an unnamed photographer decided his original pictures were not suitably impressive and decided to stitch two together," Walker writes. You can see the undoctored photos below.

Still, other China watchers noted the Chinese officials were quick to apologize for the incident and embrace social media as they sought to undo the damage and explain what had happened.

"What also surprised me is the government response. Huili County set up a Sina Weibo account today, apologized and responded with what happened," China Internet Watch's Rocky Fu writes, referring to a popular Chinese Facebook-type social networking site.

So for all the furor surrounding the clumsy PR overture, it does at least appear that the Chinese government has mastered the first lesson in PR crisis management: Get out ahead of the problem, 'fess up and move on.

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