BEIJING/SHANGHAI, March 15 (Reuters) - Chinese and foreign firms are steeling themselves ahead of the country's annual consumer day TV show, which uncovers corporate bad behavior and has a history of rattling major global brands in the world's No. 2 economy.
Last year, the state-run China Central Television (CCTV) show - known as "315" in reference to global consumer rights day on March 15 - turned its spotlight on U.S. sports brand Nike Inc for misleading advertising.
While the two-hour evening show, an eclectic mix of undercover reports and song-and-dance, has lost some bite as younger viewers shift away from traditional TV to online shows, companies and PR firms are not letting their guard down.
"We have to take precautionary measures in advance and be on high alert," said Guan Huizhu, Shanghai director of public relations firm Allison & Partners.
And of late, Beijing has grown increasingly bold at grilling firms not just over issues of quality and safety, but also behavior that it sees as clashing with the ruling Party's socialist values.
In the last few months, Marriott International has been forced to apologize for referring to Taiwan and Tibet as countries while Daimler's Mercedes-Benz also landed in hot water for quoting the Dalai Lama in an Instagram post.
"Consumers have the right under the law to be respected," said Chen Yinjiang, deputy secretary general of China Consumer Protection Law Society.
Companies are, however, becoming more savvy at deflecting criticism with public relations teams set up in advance to respond if they are targeted on the show.
"It's definitely tougher now to do this show. Many firms start taking precautionary measures half a year in advance," said a person close to the show who declined to be identified as he was not permitted to speak to the media.
The person added CCTV reporting teams would start undercover investigations around October and the process was very secretive to avoid the names of targets being leaked.
"Everybody has to sign a non-disclosure agreement once they join the show," he said.
CCTV did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Many companies will also roll out goodwill gestures like free giveaways around the day to soften any blow, just in case they are named and shamed.
"All eyes are now focused on how the companies that are called out, especially the big ones, will respond," said Guan.
(Reporting by Pei Li in Beijing and Adam Jourdan in Shanghai; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)