Thursday, February 24, 2011

Lay of the Land

 Party Persuasion & Refining the Roster to Achieve ROI

Image courtesy of Phillip Chiu
One of the first exclusive events I attended in Shanghai was on behalf of a global leader in material manufacturing for luxury cars such as Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati. High net-worth individuals were invited for free cocktails and a private viewing – I attended as a plus-one, of course :)

While approaching the venue I was briefed on who and what to expect. Most guests weren’t meeting for the first time, nor would it be the last. They congregated in small groups, shook hands with one another, exchanged business cards and made small talk while observing new faces in the crowd.

As the wine continued flowing, I was introduced to more and more PR practitioners and three thoughts ran through my mind: Either, 1) I’m entering a highly saturated professional field with loads of competition; 2) this event must have been advertised through a local PR network; or 3) PR in China envelopes far more practices than I imagined.

None of my assumptions were correct. The industry is not oversaturated with pros, but rather lacking quality professionals to fulfil a growing demand for PR services; there definitely wasn’t any advertising for the event through a local PR network, since most of them lack members and value; and China’s PR industry has only recently gained recognition for service outside of media relations and marketing-type roles. In a country where 93% of the population lives outside of first-tier cities (according to 2011 stats by Matt McDougall) it’s easy to see how the concept of public relations could be beyond the scope of those who aren’t directly connected to a business environment. Still, most people at the event were local Shanghainese, with the exception of a few from Hong Kong and Beijing. These people knew what they were talking about. However, although they claimed to be in the industry, not one of them mentioned a current client or project.

A few glasses of wine encouraged personal storytelling and whether Mr. Ma was really born into Chinese nobility and had a girlfriend in every European country or not, I was definitely indulging the possibility for everyone’s amusement. It wasn’t until the next day that my companion, who accompanied me to the event, started pulling business cards out of his pockets and reference-checking them via Google. I wasn’t sure why he was doing this, but he assured me that I’d soon see the purpose. Sure enough, the second business card had listed a placeholder web address as the company website. He held up the card and said, “This is how you distinguish the fakers from the makers,” and tossed the card in the trash.

A business card represents a miniature portfolio that is indicative of a person’s identity and business potential; and that day, we discovered six “faker” cards among the stack received from the event. There are obvious signs to look for when analyzing business cards – for example, card design, listed services, inactive email addresses and virtual offices. If people cannot adequately brand themselves, why would a client expect their services to be any different?

I was instantly curious as to why people would attempt to fake a profession and indulged any chance to make a connection to the idea [to be further explored in the next blog post].
Maybe the self-proclaimed PR people at the event were masking a less respected profession. It had become fairly obvious at this point that most of them weren’t in public relations. Deductive reasoning led me to conclude that the self-branding phenomenon was result of both misinformed and misleading individuals who simply decided that public relations sounds better than party host and chose to identify themselves using the former of the two. This sort of behaviour is not unique to our profession either. I’ve heard multiple stories of people being caught faking it before reaching an opportunity to begin making it, so to speak. I guess these are the lengths that people have resorted to in such a heavily populated and competitive work environment.

Getting back to the story, the same crowd of so-called elites gathered again a few weeks later for a diamond viewing; after that was a club opening; and after that… well, you get the point. Any day of the week, these people show up at ‘exclusive’ events to sniff out those with actual credentials and try to make a name for themselves. The funny part is that less people with credentials turn out each time and all that’s left is a bunch of aspiring billionaires with empty bank accounts, sipping on free cocktails, competing in persuasion.

When not entirely consumed by work, a reputable businessperson might occasionally consider attending this sort of event. However, I found that this luxury car interior affair was missing a few quintessential elements to achieve its original purpose… particularly strategic planning and measurable results.

Behind the scenes of the gathering, was an Italian car interior company that hired an Italian boutique event company to promote its services to high-net-worth individuals. The Italian boutique event company then hired a third party contractor with access to a list of such individuals in our particular city. In the end, the hosting company bit the costs of free flow wine, continuous horderve circulation, a ritzy venue, staffing and other miscellaneous expenditures on top of all the planning fees. I don’t recall encountering anyone from the automotive sector who may have been interested in becoming an affiliate or could promote the brand name to individuals looking for custom interior. Nor do I recall anyone showing interest in the company brochures that were still neatly arranged on the table when I left.

With all this in mind, I’m left wondering how to effectively manage such an event. Was it the guest list that lacked a strategic focus? Should there have been more brand promotion or structure to the event? How do you avoid inviting the fakers instead of the makers?

I’m interested in hearing comments and possibly collecting links to similar events that were successful.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

'Tis the Season

Chinese New Year: A Time for Networking

Although the official government holidays for the Chinese Lunar New Year extend from February 3rd - 8th, yesterday was the last day for celebrations. Festivities took place across the globe including a red and gold light display on New York’s Empire State Building, a Chinese parade that marched the streets of Copenhagen and incense burning at a Chinatown temple in Jakarta. Most Chinese people view the Spring Festival as a time to unite with family for hearty meals and tasty drinks. They ignite fireworks, distribute lucky money and wish for happiness, prosperity and health in the year to come. Yet, there is another set of practices taking place across the dinner table during this festive time in the business realm.

The end of a year marks a time of reflection. Hundreds of millions of Chinese migrant workers are called home to report on their pursuits and hope to bring news that their efforts have not been in vain. This year, He Puxian – an aspiring singer from Hubei – wrote a song titled “Afraid to go home for the New Year”. Although his parents are encouraging and supportive, the lyrics in the song express his shame and fear of going home with nothing to show for his efforts. This desperation is evident in Shanghai as a large percentage of our 18 million residents come from other Chinese cities and possess a work drive incomparable to some of the most ambitious people I have met in America. To anyone attempting to create a legacy, Chinese New Year is a time for business.

While reflecting on achievements of the passing year, Chinese New Year presents an occasion to show gratitude for successful business relationships and to seek new potential opportunities. This typically occurs while feasting on elaborate meals at fancy restaurants. At one particular dinner I attended, our host broke the seal off a single-malt whiskey that he had aged for 35 years. It was kept on the shelf for so many years that the cork had eroded into the liquor. I made a short toast to our host to demonstrate my gratitude and explain how privileged I felt that he shared this special treat with us. By the end of the night, the four of us had cleared about 10 dishes of food ranging from salmon sashimi to Peking duck and a beautifully prepared nian gao (new year rice cake shaped like a fish and fried in egg), along with three bottles of red wine and the one bottle of whiskey. Of course, there is no such thing as splitting the bill in China, so our host quietly handled the payment.

Source: nathangray
It’s amazing to watch the networking process that occurs during these dinner events; it’s so meticulously played out that I consider it a form of art. Another dinner that I attended on the eve of New Year’s Day had more guests than the previously mentioned occasion and was held at a private clubhouse. The guests attentively listened to introductions that spanned throughout the evening without showing anything more than an inquisitive friendly interest. Casually, friends would make conversation of their professional accomplishments to the group, which slowly revealed character and capabilities of the individuals. Work-related details, professional networks and resources were further discussed one-on-one with interested individuals to determine potential for mutually beneficial ventures.

Underlying intentions of the conversation were not revealed that evening and business cards were not exchanged; however, those who saw potential to share resources for business will obtain contacts through the host. Everything happened so discretely that the business aspect was hardly evident. After all, these people are all friends – friends that know how to maximize their friendship. Towards the end of the night, the host announced that the owner of the clubhouse and surrounding apartments was erecting a new building and looking for residents. It turned out that the dinner had more purpose than I suspected. Although most people at the table weren’t looking for a new apartment, I can bet that after eating a luscious meal and enjoying good company on that special occasion, they will recommend the new apartments to anyone they meet in the housing market.

The initial undertakings of a new year are said to determine what is to follow. Some will celebrate in the name of health, longevity, family and prosperity. Others will create strategic objectives to help them achieve the overall goal of a prosperous new year and build business relationships as early as possible. Thus, to the business-minded people of this country, Chinese New Year is the best time of year for networking.

For more great info on how to engage at these sort of events, check out “The Subtle Art of the Chinese Banquet” and “’Gan Bei’: Business and ritualistic drinking in China” by Nathan H. Gray, Founder of Nathan Gray Consulting for international business and cross cultural management solutions. He is also currently Secretary of the Australian Asian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Vice Chair of the Australian Indonesian Business Council SA branch.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Not Feeling the Love: Valentine's Day Marks the End of China’s Ad in Times Square

On the international day of love, China’s national branding advertisement / reputation management effort in Times Square ceases. The promotional videos screened 300 times per day, from January 17 to February 14, reminding passers-by of China’s greatness and accomplishment a total of 8,400 times. The ads coincided with a visit from China’s President, Hu Jintao, who reportedly went to discuss matters of currency value and market access. However, lying on the backburner were topics like military threats, internet controls, trade deficit, intellectual property rights and human rights.
Image Source

Of course, the advertisements portrayed a much prettier picture of China – glorifying national celebrities, artists and entrepreneurs. But the strategy didn’t seem to produce the desired effect and received more criticism than compliments by both Chinese and Americans. So where did the ad go wrong?

The following text is a compilation of views and opinions that were published throughout the duration of China’s Times Square ad campaign (and an old book, which I also found relevant).

Vice Chairman of the China Advertising Association of Commerce, Jin Dinghai, told reporters that the video could help reduce prejudices and misunderstandings that some western countries hold against China. However, the masses have spoken that the video wasn’t enough. In fact, Loretta Chao of the Wall Street Journal’s China Realtime Report says the video actually did more harm than good. She supports her argument with the words of David Wolf, CEO of Wolf Group Asia (strategic communications consultancy), “by flaunting material accomplishments, China is effectively giving American’s "the finger".”

Hong Kong journalist and commentator, Frank Ching notes that “China’s image has taken a beating in recent months, with its tough talk to the United States and Japan, its defense of North Korea and its attacks on the Norwegian Nobel Committee for honoring imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo. Meanwhile, pressure on the Chinese government both from within the country and abroad has increased.”

Some Sina Weibo users responded to the national ad with pride, but many others dismissed the message as typical propaganda. In a country where mainstream media outlets are often criticized for excessive government influence, many people have become cynical. 

Chinese netizens also pointed out that the US pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo portrayed a happy and rewarding life in America without featuring any celebrities or elites. Meanwhile, Peyton Craighill of the Washington Post writes, “The possible reason why the US cares so little about promoting itself is that it needs no promotional clips to project its image. After all, products labeled ‘made-in-US’ are valued highly across the world.” Peyton continues, “Though China's comprehensive national power has risen rapidly, the influence of ‘made-in-China’ products has not grown in proportion to its exports.”

The 2006 book, Branding China: The Ultimate Challenge in Reputation Management? by Theresa Loo and Gary Davies, focused on the importance of reputation management as China “goes global” in order to shape its national brand and enhance the competitiveness of its economy and products.  They identified the nation’s complexity, contradictions and enormity as challenges for brand coherence, which are even more evident today as China continues to rapidly develop. 

Yu Shanshan of Beijing Today says, “It’s also important to remember that China is different from the United States in that it won’t allow privately run public relations agencies to get involved in national image promotion. Such work is instead usually planned by universities, research institutes and government agencies, all organizations that aren’t typically profit-driven and which use only funds provided by the government. As a result, efficiency tends to be low, and the promotional campaigns are usually relatively unsophisticated.”

The exact figures relaying the cost of China’s ambitious ad in the heart of New York City’s theatre district and Midtown Manhattan tourist spectacle are left to the imagination. Yet, regardless of its effectiveness, the ad definitely drew some attention.

Expat PR Neworks in China

Question: Has anyone discovered an active network for expats in China’s public relations industry?

I wanted to join a local community or association for PR professionals in China, but my searches came up empty. There are a few organizations, such as the Shanghai Public Relations Association (SPRA) and China International Public Relations Association (CIPRA). However, neither one of them promotes an English-speaking community. I also contacted the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) in Beijing, but no one ever wrote me back. My efforts to contact the International Public Relations Association (IPRA), which claims to have a China chapter, were also neglected. I’m in need of some comradery!


The Shanghai PR Association is slowly releasing English content through the Global Alliance website, but the info doesn't seem so concrete. They boast a "biennial awards program has been held five times since 2001" and a "biennial International Public Relations Forum has been held six times since 2001". At least they list contact information from the Global Alliance Chair at Ketchum and an info line in Italy.

Here's a link to the update.

That Was Easy

If there were ever a time that I wish I had a Staples Easy Button on my desk, now would be one of those moments.

Creating a blog on this site required less than five clicks of the mouse and I’ve been developing my own site for months. Therefore, until my site is ready for the world, this will serve as a great cubical wall/refrigerator door/forehead, where I would typically place my sticky-notes. Of course, Twitter is for the real sticky-note-sized notes and Blogger is for slightly larger notes that would otherwise be filed away in some distant folder on my computer with a file name containing far too many backslashes.

Why freshPRC?

Well, I like to think that I bring a fresh perspective of PR (public relations) to the PRC (Peoples Republic of China). The name was an easy fit for me. If all goes to plan, this space will be used to document and share my industry-related discoveries and hopefully get some feedback, suggestions and conversation going about how to conduct effective PR in China.

Everything that I post represents my own thoughts and opinions, which are result of four years in a bachelor of communications degree program focusing on public relations, two years of field experience in a cross-range of industries spanning half-way around the globe, continuous research and media monitoring regarding public relations in China, and roughly one year of living and traveling in China with my companion: the youngest MBA lecturer at East China University of Science and Technology with a background in Chinese literature, financial services, luxury marketing and brand management.

If you happen to stumble across this blog and find something of interest, please comment or contact me. I’d like to get to know more people in this industry.