By PRBI | April 5, 2021
China, Japan, South Korea and other Asian countries are so close, and yet so far apart: in the same neighborhood geographically, but when it comes to culture, including journalism and the media, the differences are vast. And don’t even try to compare PR in Asia with PR in the West. To oversee international PR programs that include Chinese, Japanese, South Korean or other Asian components, you really must hire a local agency to help navigate unfamiliar waters.
The Peoples Republic of China (PRC), the world’s biggest market, is more crucial than ever to international trade. PR and marketing professionals in the Americas, Europe and elsewhere will likely, at some point in their careers, need to find help in China to build a good corporate reputation or boost sales of a product. Yet China’s marketing and communications environment is very complex. Here’s an overview of what you need to know to work successfully with a PR firm in China.
About the Chinese media
To start with, the Chinese are impressive media mavens. China boasts the biggest newspaper circulation in the world: 114.5 million papers sold each day. However, the increasing amount of ad revenue drained away by digital media has put financial pressure on traditional media in China, as is the case worldwide. (See our analysis below of social media’s place in public relations in China.) There is also a vast audience for online news.
Most Chinese media are PRC- or Communist Party of China (CPC)-controlled. The government has strict guidelines for Chinese media on how they should report stories. Independent media do exist, but they, also, are required to obey government guidelines. According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in the United States, the Chinese government has one of the world’s most restrictive media censorship programs, using monitoring systems and firewalls*, shutting down websites and publications, and sending journalists and bloggers to jail if they break the rules.
Chinese media outlets are highly competitive. Stories must be locally relevant to appeal to local journalists, as is true in most places. Financial news is concentrated in Shanghai, and Beijing is the political news capital. But other than that, and unlike some countries, no one city in China serves as its media capital. There are many huge cities, each with its own media outlets. (Six Chinese cities have populations over ten million, as of 2020, and a dozen more have between five and ten million.)
The difficult financial situation that traditional media in China are experiencing translates into lower pay for journalists, which wasn’t high to begin with, and more pressure on them to produce content quickly. It also means that news releases may be used as content at times by busy journalists.
Western PR professionals should be aware of the need to communicate with Chinese journalists in their own language. “Communicating with the media in their local dialect is the best approach to break through the language barrier,” wrote Amanda Foley in a blog post about PR in Asia. “…It’s easier for local media to understand product messages… when they hear them in their own language…In China, most people speak Mandarin and write in simplified Chinese. In Taiwan, people speak Mandarin, but with a different tone than China, and write in traditional Chinese. In Hong Kong, Mandarin and Cantonese are spoken in parallel, writing with traditional Chinese. It’s very complicated for foreign companies, and most benefit from a professional PR agency to act as a go-between.” Foley is co-founder and managing partner of Kiterocket, an American PR and marketing agency with offices in Phoenix, Seattle and San Francisco, and a satellite office in Shanghai.
Even when Chinese journalists are proficient in English, it takes them more time to read and respond to English than Chinese, time they usually don’t have.
American journalists tend to shun press conferences, except for earthshaking news (such as updates on severe crises). Press conferences are not held as often in Europe as they were years ago, either. But in China, journalists do attend press conferences, and companies use them to make all kinds of corporate and product announcements. These events are an example of differences in ethics, since Chinese journalists expect organizations holding press conferences to pay them what are called “transportation fees” to attend.
Says Bingjiefu Hu, a Chinese public relations professional, in a 2019 article on Medium, “China’s media landscape has a dark underbelly.” Hu notes that press conference transportation fees given to journalists range from $100-300. There are government regulations that limit the amount of these fees. However, to circumvent the rules, press conference organizers sometimes give journalists expensive gifts, such as smart phones, jewelry, or luxurious trips. Hu submits that payments to journalists to cover (or kill) stories are common in China. One noteworthy point: he says taking bribes is less prevalent among trade media journalists, whose coverage can be quite beneficial.
There are two significant consequences of bribery in Chinese journalism that Western public relations professionals should understand. First, Chinese companies that open branches overseas may not be aware they cannot pay journalists to report what they want or stifle stories they don’t want. A Chinese executive who is newly posted in a Western country may be shocked and offended by the probing questions journalists ask. Public relations people outside China need to educate Chinese clients about how journalism works in their countries.
Secondly, because payments to the media for content are commonplace in China, Chinese executives have difficulty understanding the difference between PR and advertising. Patience and education about Western media are necessary components of a PR agency’s services to a Chinese company operating internationally.
Social media’s outsized role in China
According to Statista, China is the world’s largest social network market, with almost 927 million users. It is also the world’s largest e-commerce market. The Chinese are hugely engaged in social media, using it more on mobile phones than PCs, as is true elsewhere in Asia. The way Chinese use social media is pretty much the same as people worldwide. There are two big differences. First, they use only domestic networks. All the international networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Quora, Tumblr and Medium, to name just a few, are kept behind a government firewall, dubbed, “The Great Firewall.” The most popular domestic platforms include WeChat, China’s number one social media network; Weibo; Baidu Tieba; Xiaohongshu; and Douyin (the Chinese name for TikTok).
“The social media ecosystem in China is quite different than in the West,” says Joe Pan, head of studio at Forkast.news, a digital media platform in Hong Kong that covers blockchain and emerging tech as they impact business, the economy, and politics. Pan is a marketing and communications executive who has worked in the US, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The second big difference in social media in China is the way influencers are used. Pan explains that the term “KOL” (Key Opinion Leader) is used in China for social media influencers, who have huge numbers of followers, in some cases many millions. Chinese KOLs may be sports, entertainment, or other “offline celebrities,” or individuals who have made themselves celebrities through their activities on social media. The numbers of followers these influencers have, and their power, are exponentially larger in China than elsewhere. They are not compensated the same way as influencers in the West, with fees to represent a product or company. “In China, the compensation of KOLs has moved beyond payment for endorsing products or companies,” states Pan. “They actually sell products on live chats – any and every kind of product, and they keep a share of the revenues from their sales.”
Pan cites a couple of examples to explain the influence KOLs have. A man with millions of followers sold lipstick by trying it on, on live social media chats, bringing in revenues of US $2 million a day. Chinese KOLs in business-to-consumer industries such as fashion tend to be in their 20s, he says. He adds, “People who are attractive and have good presentation skills make a lot of money as KOLs.”
Pan relates another story about Swiss watch marketing in China. A Swiss watch company was a big sponsor of equestrian events, including famous British races attended by Queen Elizabeth. The Chinese marketing team arranged for top KOLs to travel to England to the race, all expenses paid. The Queen’s carriage led a procession at the race, but the second carriage was filled with Chinese KOLs. Pan says this marketing event took place about 10 years ago, and if it were taking place today, the KOLs would be live selling while in their carriage at the race.
“When it comes to making a product announcement in China, social media KOLs are just as important, or more important in some cases, than journalists,” Pan says.
How the government affects public relations in China
Public relations in China for foreign companies must take into consideration the complicated environment, which intertwines different systems of business, government, and media, seasoned with Chinese culture. Since many companies and the major news outlets in the PRC are government-owned or controlled, the government has an outsized role in that environment.
There are also more key stakeholders in China than most multinational organizations are accustomed to, including the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). To communicate their key messages effectively to those stakeholders, foreign executives visiting or working in China have to be open to doing things differently than at home.
“It is very critical for companies to pay attention to government domestic and economic policy while doing business in China (including PR), because China is very politically-oriented,” says Ina Chu, senior director, Asia Pacific, for Kiterocket.
In some countries, different professionals handle public relations and government affairs. “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,” said Gregory Gilligan in an article in China Business Review, the official publication of the U.S.-China Business Council (USCBC). USCBC is a nonprofit organization representing over 200 American companies that do business with China.
Gilligan noted that multinational corporations doing business in China should view the PRC government, the CCP, and state-controlled media as critical stakeholders in their PR strategies. He said companies should engage government officials as part of their PR efforts. As examples of why this is true, Gilligan related a couple of PR case studies. One focuses on a failed effort by international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to use the 2008 Olympics in Beijing to bring attention to human rights issues in China. The NGOs didn’t pay enough attention to the government’s influence on media in China. “…The CCP and PRC government communicated to China’s populace the idea that international NGOs were attacking China in its time of glory, which aroused nationalism and resentment toward forces described as seeking to limit China’s peaceful rise and development,” wrote Gilligan.
The second case study describes problems some multinational companies in China faced in trying to be good corporate citizens after the devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008. After the earthquake, several prominent international companies in China immediately donated goods, services, and money to help earthquake victims. They were low key about their philanthropy and didn’t call attention to their efforts – they didn’t want to seem opportunistic.
However, false statements started spreading on the internet among the Chinese people saying these companies, which reaped immense profits from them, weren’t doing anything to help in a time of great suffering. Once the media and government became aware of the facts, their take on the situation was that these foreign companies had hurt themselves by not communicating their earthquake relief efforts. “A few companies … realized their problem was deeply political,” Gilligan noted. “To address the challenge, companies needed to reach out to the CCP, PRC government agencies, domestic NGOs and trade associations, the media, and directly to netizens.” The Chinese government and CCP realized they would look bad internationally if foreign organizations that contributed generously were poorly treated. So they let the public know that those organizations had contributed substantially to earthquake relief. Gilligan remarked, “The credibility that endorsement lent was critical for those brands to escape nearly irreparable damage to their image in China.”
The online publication Caixin related another multinational company PR failure. In 2019, Italian fashion company Dolce and Gabbana ran ads in China with a chopsticks theme. The ads were a PR disaster. Many Chinese felt the ads were insulting, and some celebrities rebuked the company. That led to e-commerce companies removing the company’s products from their platforms. Some people dubbed the company’s ads as marketing suicide.
Another PR fiasco centered around Marriott Hotels in 2018. The company hired a third-party vendor to do an online customer survey. According to the New York Times, the survey listed Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, and Tibet as separate countries. That triggered Chinese social media wrath and a call for a boycott against the company. In the Shanghai district where Marriott China is located, the government investigated the company for breaking Chinese cybersecurity and advertising laws, and questioned Marriott executives. The government shut down the company’s website and mobile app in China.
All of these case studies demonstrate why it is essential for multinationals to consult with Chinese public relations professionals who can lead them through the complex maze of stakeholder reactions. They also show Chinese citizens’ nationalism, patriotism, and understandable pride as their country increases its presence and power worldwide.
Agencies in China
Some large multinational public relations firms have set up shop in China. However, if your needs are not ongoing and your budget is on the small side, your best bet will be local firms or small Western firms with offices in China that help foreign companies straddle the differences in business and culture. There are also some local firms owned and headed by experienced professionals from other parts of the world. Ask colleagues for recommendations of agencies they have worked with, or contact your country’s chamber of commerce in China and ask for advice. Be sure to do a proper agency search, with online video interviews of several candidates. You may find that a firm that looks good on paper is too difficult to communicate with, has no experience working in your industry or too little experience working with overseas companies.
As mentioned above, PR, sales promotion, and digital marketing are all thought of as advertising by most Chinese businesspeople. Chinese ad agencies typically include a multidiscipline communications tool kit that includes a wide range of marketing and communications services.
For overseas organizations, effective marketing and public relations in China is a prerequisite to success. Multiple language barriers, a culture that varies significantly from one place to another, vast and diverse geography, massive cities with their own media, different rules of etiquette – while exciting for visitors, all of these factors can be intimidating to communicators when coupled with unfamiliar rules and regulations. However, the rewards of the Chinese market are worth the effort. There are marketing and communications experts in China who can lead the way for you.
*As an aside, the PRC government’s way of keeping overseas news out of China is to block it behind a government-established firewall. However, using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) can circumvent the firewall to get to foreign websites, something handy to know if you plan to visit China and would like to read your home town newspaper. According to Tom’s Guide, a tech news and reviews website, the Chinese government is aware of VPNs and does its best to block their use. So no VPN can guarantee working service in China 100% of the time. Additionally, you have to set up a VPN before visiting since it’s impossible to set up a VPN in China except from another VPN.
Sources for this post:
The Guardian, “China’s young reporters give up on journalism: ‘you can’t write what you want’”, by Tom Phillips, Feb. 11, 2016
Tom’s Guide, “What Can You Use a China VPN for?,” Tom Johnson, December 14, 2020
Sapore di Cina (Traveling or Living in Asia), “The List of Blocked Websites in China,” Sapore di Cina, May 14, 2020
New York Times, “’We’re Almost Extinct’: China’s Investigative Journalists Are Silenced Under Xi,” Javier C. Hernández, July 12, 2019; “For China’s Leading Investigative Reporter, Enough Is Enough,” Jane Perlez, June 7, 2019
Committee to Protect Journalists, “Journalists Attacked in China Since 1992,” December, 2020
China Business Review, “Effective Public Relations in China,” January 1, 2011
Council on Foreign Relations, “Media Censorship in China,” February 17, 2017
Marketing to China website (Shanghai-based digital marketing agency)
Statista, “Social Networking in China: Statistics and Facts,” October 9, 2020