“Modern Public Relations coming to the mainland of China can be describes as long overdue.”
-- Chunhui He and Jing Xie (China Media Research, 5 , 2009, Thirty Years Development of Public Relations in China Mainland)
PR in China began as a copy of foreign models and lacked a local focus. Up until a few short decades ago, activities mainly pertained to gaining media coverage for a product or company and local businesses relied on personal relationships with journalists as part of their communication strategy. However, the booming national economy has begun to see value in other practices such as crisis management, investor relations and corporate citizenship.
China’s virtually impervious emergence from the 2008 global economic crisis and reliance on sustainable development has warranted its ability to host monumental global events for the first time in history. The 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 Shanghai World Expo have exposed China to the world – and vice versa – while serving as drivers for growth. The PR industry, along with many others, has maximized media output as result of increased global attention and optimized new business opportunities. Many foreigners are flocking to China in hopes of capitalizing on their next big idea, but have realized that things work quite differently on this side of the world.
China is like an old dog that is conflicted between its daily routine and learning new tricks. It wants to impress the world with its great accomplishments and rehearsed performances, but shies away from a scrutinous eye and reverts to old habits in avoidance of time-consuming procedures and regulation.
There is no possible way for me to single-handedly tell you everything to become a great and successful PR practitioner in China, but you can continue reading down the page for a brief overview.
China is considered one of the fastest emerging global markets, with public relations activity most prevalent in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou – not to mention the many second-tier cities quickly closing the gap. Beijing is the centre for public affairs, government relations and corporate reputation management, while Shanghai and Guangzhou lead in consumer marketing. Shanghai and Shenzhen also contain China’s two stock exchanges (SSE and SZSE), making them best equipped for financial relations.
As major metropolitan areas strive to refine the PR industry in China, agencies are now following their clients inland in pursuit of growth spurts from second-tier cities. International and domestic PR firms currently share the market, but are gradually developing their respective sector specialties. MNCs currently focus on PR support for consumer goods, while investment and financial PR are trusted to domestic firms.
Some expatriates living in China are blinded to the communist effects on the country as they remain connected to their homeland and slip through the cracks of government control. However, businesses in this country must operate under strict guidelines and keep government relations at top of mind if they aim to succeed, particularly within industries connected to the media.
In the 2011 China Business Review, Gregory Giligan writes:
Many foreign companies separate their PR and government affairs functions in China as they would in their home markets, but PRC government control of the media requires companies to treat PR as they would treat government relations.
Knowing which media outlet is influenced by which precise mix of government authorities and commercial contribution to market forces is more art than science, however. It is thus quite possible for a foreign or domestic company's perfectly legal commercial objectives to run afoul of a social or political interest or a more politically connected competitor's interests.
Top executives must understand the Chinese government structure, its relevant authorities, and its scope and limitations of functions, policies, regulations, legislative mechanisms and procedures at all levels. Working with relevant government agencies can simplify this process; however, companies should be familiar with China's legislative procedures and governmental organization, communication channels and communication methods within their respective industries.
Practitioners must be aware of media regulation by the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Government has tight control over major media outlets and requires them to report important political events, creating a need for sophisticated government relations. Well-developed media messaging typically highlights contributions to the local economy and community, while acknowledging local partners.
Until recently, relationships with journalists have depended on "guanxi" rather than having a good story to tell. As a result, companies are still focused on the number of journalists attending their events rather than the resulting coverage. The concept of targeting media according to a company’s stakeholder demographics is also very new to Chinese companies. This, coupled with numerous daily press briefings in some cities, has encouraged consultants to get creative with “trimmings” and assign themes to briefings in attempt to attract as many journalists as possible.
Ethical boundaries are not clearly defined. PR agencies issue journalists a transportation allowance to cover the cost of attending interviews and media events as standard practice. However, increasing competition in the Chinese media and a more western approach to finding good stories provides hope that the transportation fee will eventually fade out of practice.
According to 2011 statistics released by Associated Press in Beijing,
China boasts 450 million online users and counting.
A majority of these netizens spend their time accessing or updating blogs, reading and writing messages on bulletin board sites (BBS) and are fans of local social networking sites like Kaixin, Qzone and Renren. Other Chinese companies that have capitalized on the ever-growing internet population include China’s search engines: Baidu, Sina and Sohu, search portals like Tencent, the eBay equivelant: Taobao, YouTube sisters: Youku and Tudou, and instant messaging providers like QQ.
The Internet has undoubtedly become a mainstream medium for people to access and share all kinds of information. Online media consumption has significantly increased despite developments in television, radio and print – with advancements in smart phone technology further enabling accessibility. These statistics have propelled companies to develop consumer- centric business models with an increasing online presence, incorporating Chinese consumer media channels of choice.
Although most Chinese people use social media platforms while exploring the internet, Thomas Crampton – Asia-Pacific director of 360 Digital Influence for Ogilvy – states that their top priority is connecting with other Chinese people; however, a recent study found that 55% of Chinese netizens had initiated or participated in online discussions about companies. Crampton states,
“Understanding social media is no longer a luxury for companies operating in China—it is an imperative.”
Companies that are leery of engaging in social media can still make use of its ability to predict consumer driven crisis by monitoring public opinion. Another less risky way to engage is by conducting consumer research through social media channels. Viral communications are fuelling word-of-mouth marketing and have shaped an increasingly active and engaged community around the world. Common interest groups in China’s online networks have organized both positive and negative actions offline – however it’s typically the angry netizens that call to action. Engaging in popularized local social media platforms demonstrates a proactive commitment to your company’s well-being.
The 2008 PR Industry Overview by David Zhao, Managing Director of Hill & Knowlton Shanghai, explains that new services and products are continuously being developed to help PR practitioners access and make use of new media; “however, brand-building in China requires more ‘harmony’ with the state than most places,” says Zhao.
In December 2010, the Journal of International Consumer Marketing by the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong published an article titled “The Green Purchase Behavior of Hong Kong Young Consumers: The Role of Peer Influence, Local Environmental Involvement, and Concrete Environmental Knowledge”. The school surveyed 6,010 adolescent consumers and discovered six factors that influence green purchasing behaviour in Hong Kong. Their findings are identified in the following diagram:
Many Chinese companies have already clued-in to this trend and altered their mission and vision statements accordingly. The shift boasts well for local PR firms as they now have additional support for pitching services related to corporate social responsibility.
Not only is CSR good for the planet and selling products, it’s also good for publicity. With the Chinese government acting as the ultimate corporation, they too are publicizing efforts of cleaning up China’s image and ecosystem across mainstream media outlets. Businesses have realized the power of publicly addressing social and environmental concerns and gauge the success of their new strategies through resulting media coverage.
Weber Shandwick released Challenges of PR in China in 2004, stating that the average PR consultant was between the ages of 25 and 27, which posed a problem when attempting to operate on a peer-to-peer level with CEOs. Universities like Donghua, Fudan, Zhongshan and the Communication University of China are equipping the next generation of PR professionals with formal education, yet still deploying youthful candidates. More senior PR practitioners have been imported and added to the payroll since companies began realizing the importance of our craft. However, these rare commodities are compelled to show face during pitches and client meetings in addition to their overall strategizing and management duties, which can be an overwhelming workload.
Although generalised information on public relations in China is available, it is important to remember that mainland China is not a single market. China is comprised of 31 provinces and autonomous regions across a vast territory, each with its own economic characteristics, development levels and culture. As a result, the focus and approach of PR activities must be tailored to local interests. Recent statistics by CEO of SinoTech, Dr. Matt McDougall, say that “1.2 billion people live outside China’s first tier cities”; that’s an astounding 93% of China’s core consuming population. Thus GoupM’s Project Deep Dive (PDD) examined 30 Chinese cities to collect an understanding of lower-tier markets, much like Proctor & Gamble’s $2-A-Day project that aims to reach low-income Chinese consumers.
Misconceptions of the public relations industry raises cause to brand the profession through upholding quality and ethical practice in a breadth of services. Much is yet to be done in shaping the image of public relations in China. Ethical boundaries are not yet clearly established in the corporate world, but standards are slowly being set by professional associations, international players and recognition through award ceremonies.
Taking a step in the right direction, the Shanghai Public Relations Association officially became a member of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management in late 2010. The Chairman of SPRA noted that China’s public relations industry has developed rapidly in recent years and the organization hopes to cooperate with other international associations. Although the SPRA was the first official public relations association in China (established in 1986), it only accounted a mere 300 members as of December 2010 in a city of over 18 million.
For additional information, I recommend reading Culture and Chinese public relations: A multi-method "inside out" approach, by Ai Zhang, Hongmei Shen and Hua Jiang from the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland. However, public relations – much like marketing – is constantly evolving. The only way to keep up with the industry is to remain actively involved and informed.