In our global PR series*, today’s interview shows that PR in the Middle Kingdom is still an adventurous task, especially given that the role of media still differs from the one in other markets. Do you want to learn more about the No. 1 Internet nation worldwide? Just read what Kelvin Chen, Executive Associate at EASTWEST Public Relations, tells you about the challenges of PR in China.
* The series is based on phone or face-to-face interviews and written input, therefore please excuse language mistakes which might reflect foreign language influences.
1. What is the latest trend (change) in PR you have identified in your region?
Kelvin Chen: One major trend is the strong interest in CSR-related topics and environmental issues from the media as well as from the general public. As people really pay attention to the activities of foreign companies in these fields, this has changed priorities for their communication strategy. Referring to environmental protection and standards is especially important for those companies who are manufacturing in China. As to the social activities, simply handing over a cheque will not be enough any more to create any media attention. The involvement into social welfare has to be sustainable and ongoing to support the company’s image – the positive side effect is that this will provide opportunities for continuous information to the media and the public.
Another trend is certainly the increasing importance of social media. As the number of internet users has exceeded 400 Million, China is now the No. 1 internet nation worldwide. You can find internet cafes virtually in any place you could imagine – even in tiny villages in the countryside.
But there’s a catch, so to speak. International companies absolutely need to be able to not only speak the local language, but clearly understand the local culture and cater to its dynamic. This is how you do international public relations with great impact.
2. How does your agency react / handle / embrace this?
Kelvin Chen: Our PR strategy starts with content creation such as hosting monthly round tables on social media, and demonstrating thought leadership in social media.
Meanwhile, we understand that the bewildering array of formats, tools and platforms related to social media create a complicated barrier to simply getting noticed online, and even more so when it comes to doing so in China. We thought that we might be able to illuminate the way a little.
Inspired by the work of Brian Solis and Jess Thomas on the conversation prism, ‘the art of listening, learning and sharing,’ EASTWEST dedicated some time to map out each of the social media tools and platforms available in China, using the original prism as the framework. Clients can use the prism to determine the best distribution strategy to effect the best possible level of audience engagement. The conversation prism should help understand where best to listen, learn and share in China. (See the prism on home page of www.eastwestpr.com)
3. Can you give a recent example from a project?
Kelvin Chen: Foreign companies doing business in China want to take advantage of the huge popularity of Chinese social media to increase their online visibility and improve brand awareness. Avnet Technology Solutions has chosen EASTWEST PR to help gain visibility on Chinese social media networks. EASTWEST PR produces, translates, publishes and promotes Avnet’s vidcasts on Chinese networks. You can go to the article Avnet TS gets visibility on Chinese video networks to watch the video and learn more.
4. Are there PR practices in which you think your region differs from PR in other part of the world?
Kelvin Chen: In my experience the difference is one of timeframe and expectation. PR in the USA and Europe has been practiced since the 1950’s and companies understand the time that is required to build an understanding of an organization over time. They also respect the editorial integrity of the media. In China where the PR industry is less than a decade old and there is a practice of paying for coverage, to which EASTWEST does not adhere, public relations services are seen as tactical and the expectation is that it will generate a direct result immediately. In a country where the pace of growth is so fast the concept of long term value is sacrificed at the altar of superficial quality.
Also, the role of media – and as a consequence, also of PR – is certainly still different from the one in western countries. Media in China are still censored, and people are well aware of this. Still, communication channels like TV reach the overwhelming majority of people in China. For example, CCTV, the major state television broadcaster in China, reaches about 95% of the Chinese population with its 19 channels. And also radio programs have become increasingly popular, especially given the growing number of people who are driving their own car (and spend a lot of time in traffic jams).
Altogether, the media market in China has developed dynamically during the last 10 years; there are now approximately 2.200 newspapers and over 7.000 magazines to choose from. The financial situation for a great number of them has become a bit tight, though, since the government has cut the subsidies many of them used to receive. That of course creates a lot of pressure, and they are eager to sell ads wherever possible. Since PR and advertisement are often mixed, companies who are communicating to the media are often urged to place ads.
Besides classic PR, online PR and blogger relations have become a lot more important for PR executives here in China. Bloggers should be contacted carefully – as some of them write about critical issues, they might not like to be contacted directly. As the official media are still under tight government control, social networks like Renren, Kaixin, and Douban, blogs and microblogging services like Sina Microblogging are used for informal communication and for exchange on personal topics. Information on companies and products plays a less dominant role than in the west. Still, social media are a valuable communication channel – if you do some extensive research on the social media scene, get familiar to the special interest of those bloggers who are relevant for you and contact them carefully, you may well gain their attention and thus reach their readers.
5. Can you describe common mistakes foreign companies make?
Kelvin Chen: The Number one mistake is of course not to invest at all into PR and Marketing in China. Brand loyalty has by far not developed to the same extend as in many other countries – and all the brands of the world are trying to conquer the biggest market worldwide at the same time. Consumers are confronted with a real cacophony of messages 24 hours a day – and unless your product is a global brand already that Chinese consumers are longing for, you better make yourself heard.
Of course this goes especially for the consumer sector – companies from the B2B sector can be a lot more selective with regard to their communication channels.
In any case, there are quite a number of rules to follow when you enter the Chinese market, and that starts with your company and brand name already. It may well be a longer process to select a Chinese name for your company and brand, which should be supported by a professional agency. The investment is definitely worth it, because a strange Chinese name can kill your reputation right from the start. Just to give you an example: In May, I attended a brainstorming workshop organized by Bank of Montreal to find a new Chinese name for the bank. The bank’s Chinese name is pronounced as Meng Hang, which is very similar to the Chinese word ‘cheating bank’. The name for your company and brand should have a positive meaning in Chinese language, and this definitely needs local expertise. This is where the appeal of international public relations comes in – you roll a campaign in multiple countries at the same time while addressing each market in its own language, careful to the local cultural sensibilities.
Then of course “saving face” is an important principle of communication in China – talking straight is a lot more delicate here in China than elsewhere, and directly criticizing someone is certainly a “no-no”. At the same time, foreign companies should know how to react to criticism towards them – justified or not. Foreign companies are observed closely here in China, and that includes the media, and there are always cases of black mailing: journalists threatening to publish some bad news on the company. Never react in panic – informing the media in an adequate and correct way, staying in contact with them and updating them regularly will not keep all the damage away from you, but will reduce it significantly. As you might imagine, crisis communication is one of the services that is most requested from foreign companies.
6. What do clients from other markets need to keep in mind when they plan to do PR in your region?
Kelvin Chen: Working with an experienced PR agency that offers state-of-the-art know-how as well as an excellent contact network is a prerequisite for successful PR work in China. The agency should be well connected not only to the media, but also to local authorities, industry experts and relevant key opinion leaders.
PR business is still a people’s business here in China. Therefore establishing a good personal relationship with the journalists is paramount – sending out press releases by email to someone you don’t know simply won’t work. Press meetings including lunch or dinner would be adequate to introduce your company to selected journalists as a first step. Topics focusing on China and your company’s activities in China are preferred. Regarding the media distribution list, you should always consider that as a consequence of frequent job changes among journalists, this list would have to be updated regularly.
When you start your PR activities you should carefully think about the messages you want to communicate. CSR has developed as a major issue here in China, and your company’s stakeholders, including the general public, will always be interested in the impact of your company’s activities on China. That includes local investment, your HR policy, social activities as well as environmental standards. The main question will always be: “What are you doing for China, and how will your stakeholders, your clients and the general public benefit from your activities in China?”
Having said previously, that Chinese media are still under control of government authorities, I still have to stress that they are undergoing rapid changes. Many Chinese journalists – in spite of the restrictions of the media – are keen on writing good stories and expect real news when they attend press events. One thing has not changed though – they still expect the “hong bao”, the envelope with their travel allowance. This envelope should contain about 300-400 RMB for print and about 1.500 RMB for TV journalists. The “hong bao” should be handed over together with the press material. The reason for this is very simple: journalists used to get very low salaries, and really needed the money to pay for transportation. Nowadays the job perspectives for journalists have improved, but the “hong bao” is still appreciated.
Next week our PR series will visit Germany, where many company speakers experience a cultural shock when first confronted with often feared „brutally honest“ German editors and can only be re-animated with some well loved German beer.
Kelvin Chen is Executive Associate of EASTWEST Public Relations, an Asia’s leading independent PR agency since 1995. Kelvin works with B2B companies in Beijing to provide services to local, multinational and international clients.
Established in Singapore in 1995, EASTWEST offers clients proactive marketing support services based on the guiding principles of Creativity in thinking, Respect in relationships, and Integrity in business. The Agency focuses on key verticals: Business-to-Business, Consumer Technology, and Healthcare. EASTWEST is a privately held company and works with multinationals and SMEs to deliver local and regional campaigns. The Agency has built CONNECT, a proprietary knowledge management platform that enables faster time-to-market with news and delivers greater effectiveness and efficiency in getting clients noticed. With offices in Singapore and Beijing, EASTWEST is a Brodeur|PLEON Worldwide partner, and a member of the IPRN network. For more information, please visit www.eastwestpr.com