Leaked documents from within TikTok give insight into both the real-world and digital messaging of the company, as it faced pressure for its ties to its parent company ByteDance.
Both on social media and in real life, TikTok employees were taught to deflect and downplay any comments about its parent company to maintain a positive outlook on the app as it soared in popularity.
ByteDance’s social media guidelines show how the company asks employees to interact online, while a briefing for staff from a marketing event suggests ways to avoid difficult in-person questions about the company.
Last month, Gizmodo reported the content of two key documents that form part of TikTok PR’s responses to media inquiries.
But two further files, obtained by the Daily Dot, highlight how TikTok’s parent company ByteDance advises its all its staff to act on social media and at real-life events where they may encounter media.
The 700-word ByteDance Social Media Guidelines document instructs employees about “being a responsible ByteDance ambassador online.”
The documents are distributed to employees and set out the rules that ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, expects all its staff to adhere to. ByteDance is based out of China and has long faced concerns and inquires about whether it shares data from U.S. users of TikTok with the Chinese government, prompting some efforts to ban it.
The document hints at the scrutiny that the company is under from Republican senators and international politicians, warning that “it is important to remember that working for a company in the public eye means that … creative expression comes with responsibility.”
A similar sense of responsibility pervades the offline docs too, with staff told to be aware they’re always under the microscope.
Staff are advised to “think before you post,” on the internet and are asked to “consider what it would be like if a major media outlet quoted your post, attributing it to you as an employee of ByteDance.”
Workers are warned to “keep confidential information confidential,” advising staff that what they may think of as an innocuous post in public could “be used by a wide range of audiences—even media or competitors.”
The guidelines appear not always to be always followed: on the day that TikTok’s PR messaging was published—which highlighted the importance of downplaying links to China, parent company ByteDance, and mentions of artificial intelligence in TikTok—one Thailand-based staff member posted a picture on LinkedIn of cupcakes adorned with the TikTok and ByteDance logos.
Employees are also given advice on what to and not to post on social media:
Examples of what employees should not post include: “In a meeting today, I heard that ByteDance is looking to invest in XYZ company. Exciting news!” and “Something that keeps us up at night at ByteDance is XYZ (safety or regulatory concern).”
Whereas examples of what to post are laudatory phrases such as: “Check out our company’s culture in action at XYZ event” and “I am so excited about the recent in-app campaign we launched with XYZ company!“
The messaging echoes similar advice that recommends how TikTok employees should act offline.
A document created ahead of TikTok’s appearance at the 2019 Cannes Lions marketing conference, where TikTok’s marketing director in the United States interviewed two content creators about the popularity of the app, highlights the perils of being too open in public.
The document shows TikTok’s communications team was keen to control any messaging that took place at the event.
In a document titled “Comms Guidelines for TikTok @ Cannes,” and flagged “INTERNAL ONLY,” staff was told: “Whether you’re on a scheduled media interview, at the CLX booth, or drinking rosé with coworkers wearing TikTok T-shirts, you’re always a company representative.”
Employees were advised to be on their best behavior. “Anyone here could be a journalist. Do not say anything in public we wouldn’t want in headlines.”
To help, staff were given “‘avoidance’ phrases for any topic you should not answer,” which included: “I’m not actually the best person to talk to about that,” and “That’s not my area of expertise, but I can have someone follow up with you!“
If they were asked about other ByteDance brands or products, they were encouraged to take the questioner’s contact information, then say: “I’m here with TikTok, but happy to point you in the direction for more info.“
Topics to avoid included any mention of company, app or usage statistics, as well as plans for the future around monetization—the latter of which was only permissible to talk about in sideline meetings with clients at the conference.
Staff was also encouraged to avoid talking about “security details,” “legal matters,” and “rumors around future brands or platforms.” If asked, employees were encouraged to bat away inquiries by saying: “I’m not aware of anything of that nature because I am here for TikTok.”
Staff was told not to disclose details about user demographics, but instead to reply: “TikTok is fun and entertaining for people of all ages.”
In response to a hypothetical question of “I heard its [sic] a Chinese company…,” employees were advised to say “TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is based in Beijing,” indicating that messaging to downplay the connection to ByteDance was strengthened between 2019 and 2021. “TikTok is a global platform, available in over 150 markets excluding mainland China,” representatives were further advised to say.
If asked about TikTok’s settlement of the largest-ever fine by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA) in February 2019, staff were advised to respond: “I’m here to talk about how brands can be successful on TikTok, I can have someone follow up with you on that.”
A TikTok spokesperson did not respond to a request to comment for this story.
However, a public relations employee at a competing big tech company told the Daily Dot that such documents were standard.
“Every big company gives guidelines for using social media and speaking on behalf of the company,” they said. “The trick is to be flexible enough to cover all bases and not force people to repeat pre-approved phases, whilst also prescriptive enough to protect employees from making errors.”
But despite the efforts over the years to downplay it, TikTok’s ties to ByteDance and concerns over sharing with China have only faced increased scrutiny.