Monday, March 7, 2011

PR Girls in China

What's in a Name?

In my last post (Lay of the Land), I talked about meeting people at an event who claimed to be public relations practitioners, but were actually nothing of the sort. I examined the situation in terms of hosting events and inviting the right people. However, this post will explore the Chinese linguistic and cultural associations with titles.

After living in China for a while, I’ve found that it’s common to assign respectable titles to individuals in lesser professions to ingratiate someone with respect before requesting a service or to avoid sounding condescending.

For example, let’s look at nuances of the Chinese term “Xiao Jie”. When preceded by someone’s last name, such as “Wang Xiao Jie”, the expression translates as “Miss Wang”.  When interacting with service people in a store or restaurant, many people shout “Xiao Jie” to get the attention of a female clerk or server, but the term is also understood as a name for prostitutes and can be offensive in many situations.

Cultural implications are rooted in most misunderstandings I encounter in this country, so it would only make sense for them to reappear in this self-branding phenomenon. Confirming my theory, I stumbled upon some evidence that the title “public relations” has been misinterpreted throughout the industry’s early years in China.

During my Chinese language lessons, I was rehearsing business terminology and learned that “gong guan” (公关) is the condensed term for “gong gong guan xi” (公共关系) meaning public relations, much like the English term PR. I figured the shorter version would be better for casual conversation, but my instructor said that it could circumstantially portray the wrong message.

Apparently hotels used to make large print advertisements to recruit sexually experienced “gong guan” girls to tend to customers that conduct business over drinks at their in-house KTV. But why call them PR girls? I assumed that someone had misinterpreted guest entertainment as an act of investor relations.

Chunhui He and Jing Xie from Zhejiang University noted this concept in the 2009 issue of China Media Research in an article titled, Thirty Years’ Development of Public Relations in China Mainland. They state:

Beijing built public relations departments in succession, especially in the industry of hotel and restaurant. The hotels such as White Swan Hotel, China Hotel in Guangzhou, Great Wall Hotel in Beijing used public relations as a function of management and established public relations departments to build the model of China's public relations in the early 80's. The TV series “PR Girls,” based on examples of female PR employees in Guangzhou, was very popular then, and introduced the concept of PR to the ordinary Chinese people. But it caused some misunderstanding about the role of women in public relations at the same time.

I wasn’t sure exactly how “PR Girls” conducted themselves in the TV series, but I had a feeling something scandalous is what kept the show entertaining. To further indulge my curiosity, I found a description of the show on the Asia Torrents website. After reading the R-rated synopsis you’ll understand why I didn’t attempt to watch the debauchery.

WARNING – If you thought the movie “Thank You for Smoking” left a bad taste in the mouths of PR critics, I’ve just discovered something far, far, far, worse.

The website states:

Image Source
This episodic film follows the lives of several bargirls, including Baby (Grace Lam Nga-sze), who is determined to make her fortune by age 25 and will do anything for money, Matilda (Sherming Yiu Lok-yi), who had an encounter with a well-endowed gweilo soccer player that left her repulsed by sex, Kwan (Angela Tong Ying-ying), who is up to her ears in debt, and their mamasan Julia (Liz Kong Hei-man) who, starting to tire of the girls' foibles and the uncouth customers, longs for the predictability and security of marriage.

I originally thought Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones character trumped all derogatory female public relations impersonations – a nymphomaniac narcissist that runs her own public relations company – what could possibly portray our profession in a worse manner? Cue my discovery of PR Girls. According to China Media Research journal, this is the show that introduced the concept of PR to the ordinary Chinese person… AIYA!

Television has never been kind to our profession. Yet, the negative perceptions are what create the need to keep publishing factual information and setting ethical and professional standards.

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