Communication in the land of the Forbidden City

How your company should communicate in the Chinese arena



It is almost compulsory to begin such a challenging subject with an old Chinese proverb. There are certainly lessons we can discover in China which would serve us all well in Brussels, Westminster or Washington DC. “Make happy those who are near, and those who are far will come.” But let’s avoid any Confucian confusion at the outset. Any attempt to generalise on this topic, to summarise concisely the depth and complexity of Chinese politics and the workings of government in such a vast country is probably doomed to failure. The best advice for communications professionals looking into China from the outside is to do just that: take local advice. But the first question to answer is “whose advice?”

“I know a guy, who knows a guy…”

There are numerous well-established consultancies which claim to offer an understanding of government in China. You can find them through all the typical industry sources, but I have found that they vary greatly in their quality and resources. If you have any significant interest in China it is also fairly likely they may have already found you; some organisations employ extremely aggressive marketing techniques directed at multinationals in particular. My first words in Chinese after ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’ were ‘Go away!’ Asking around for a good recommendation for a Chinese agency or adviser is as good a guide as it is anywhere in the world. There are pitfalls with this approach: these different parties make varying claims regarding their experience, knowledge and connections, and selection of the right organisation to work with can determine your success or failure. Many, particularly multinational agency networks which have established themselves in Beijing and Shanghai, are conflicted with multiple clients or, like sole operators, they can be linked within China to one particular individual, faction, locality, region, issue or sector. 

Herein, then, lies a paradox: China may be hard to know – and in some aspects hard to work in – from a communications point of view, but for international communications professionals there are strangely similar rules which apply there as they do in all international markets. Shop around for help and ensure you always have multiple sources of intelligence. In short, tread carefully.

Guiding principles

There are some common challenges presented to companies from outside China who seek to build their businesses there and some simple guiding principles which, if closely observed, can provide the foundation for long-term success. You can not do business in China and ignore the government. However simple your business proposition, you will come into contact with it at different levels, starting with your visa. So include this in your scenario planning and proactively examine the potential barriers for your business. Things can move very swiftly in China: you can construct that plant or open that store faster than you would ever have imagined. But then finding trained staff or securing permits can seriously undermine your returns, as can perpetual health and safety challenges, regulation violations or additional and unexpected taxation at local and regional level.

The pace of change

China’s communications environment is rapidly evolving. They are early adopters in e-media and social networking, are very flexible and learn as fast, or faster, than anywhere else on earth. The common perception that there is a simple and clear top-down hierarchy in government and that working with the leadership leads to direct influence and clear outcomes is simply false; it may never really have been true. Increasingly, communications takes place in a complex web with multiple influences and you ignore any one of these at your peril. Chinese government is hierarchical and centralised but it is also as influenced by public opinion and the media as it is in Europe or the US. Don’t let the question of whether or not they edit Google lead you to believe that e-media and social networks are not growing as fast in China as they have in other developing markets. It remains to be seen whether recent events in North Africa pointing to the democratising effects of social media as a root cause of political unrest will herald further and more onerous central measures to regulate and even to curb these potential channels altogether. Right now, in 2011, we are at a watershed.

A complex web

In China as elsewhere, the multiple vectors of business, consumers, academia and political bodies are interwoven. It is certainly possible and advisable to engage with the leadership in Beijing but you cannot ignore the power of regional and local government and you need to beware of divided loyalties and agendas. Does that sound familiar? For many international companies it is often true that the government is, in some shape or form, the customer. It is also a huge employer. The range of responsibilities within the different bodies like the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the National Energy Agency (NEA) (to name just two which particularly interest my company) is vast but there are powerful elements throughout the system right down to local community administration which can halt your best laid plans.

Reputation as part of the business plan

It makes sense to establish a clear reputation plan and build your profile at all levels that impact your business. Do not underestimate the value of working closely with government media and information outlets: positioned correctly, you can actually surf the wave of government support to accelerate your projects and programmes. The typical formula for government relations in China is direct lobbying to the relevant officials but this must be undertaken with utmost care. The Chinese government wants to be seen to do a good job, but individuals are always looking for the credit which derives from political achievements and the benefits that can be derived from success. There are strict boundaries regarding access and messaging but these are unevenly applied and this further endorses the strategy of ensuring your hand is held tightly by a local adviser or your own colleagues in the country. The winning formula is undoubtedly to demonstrate clearly from the outset how what you are doing can benefit the whole country, support government strategy and reflect well on the leadership and individual contributors.

The word ‘commitment’ is strong currency in China, especially when it is demonstrated in tangible ways with inward investment, technology and employment. Do not be surprised that aspirations towards good governance, sustainable business and community engagement are rated extremely highly, too. Increasingly, experience indicates that the same sensitivity a company might naturally demonstrate towards conduct, environmental and social issues in, for example, Germany or California, translates directly into Chinese.

Media strategy

The mass media also has a role to play in your government communications strategy and it is prudent to place a strong emphasis on telling your story widely. Over 2,000 newspapers are controlled by several different media groups and almost 10,000 periodicals and journals are widely read. Almost 90 per cent of the population watches television via around 750 television and cable operators, and radio is equivalent in its reach and listenership. Since the early 1980s, there has been significant liberalisation and, three decades later, a competitive ethos exists between news outlets, although news is still crafted within certain carefully unwritten parameters. The internet is used as much as it is in the US or Europe, and there is a constant hunger for content especially on global current affairs and business. The demographic is younger, around 1 -45, but interest is accelerating and user groups are expanding.

Online noodles

There is a Chinese world view among the population which is equally as powerful (and in some ways as narrowcast) as you can observe on CNN, Al Jazeera or the BBC. While announcements from the government are understood to be the official view, news outlets are widely trusted and in some aspects highly professional: they scrutinise corporate and business issues with keen interest and are more than prepared to wield the sword of truth. Not surprisingly, Chinese people like their news served Chinese-style and the internet more than any other medium reflects the eclectic nature of their interests and their increasingly critical powers and sensitivity. 

No western brand manager would deliver a strategy which did not recognise the importance of media in adding value or forging perception of a product or service. The Chinese are becoming the world’s largest consumer market and they make their personal choices when the acquire goods and services based on value judgments too. A pre-entry communication strategy is well advised and should be cultivated constantly.

Guess how much?

Ascribing a fiscal value or measure to a personal relationship is rather like guessing the value of a brand: it is somewhat intangible but it can show up clearly in goodwill following the transaction. No organisation with any degree of experience in China would underestimate the vital importance of direct face-to-face engagement with the most senior leaders, but the plain truth is that this form of direct lobbying is simply no longer sufficient to influence government policy or secure commercial access. 

An integrated approach to reputation combining government, investor and media relations is essential. Consider carefully orchestrated campaigning. In this regard there are parallels with US national politics: you have to win hearts and minds across the nation. But, the secret lies in the grassroots: the more local you can be, the more powerful your message becomes when you transpose your efforts at a national level.

Be Chinese

The more Chinese you can be in China, the better, so actively pursue a strategy of engaging your own internal Chinese leadership. Concentrate on doing the business well, doing the right things and showing commitment – the long terms gains will come. The ultimate justification for such an approach is that you, or your company will certainly make mistakes along the way, and the value of a mutually beneficial, win-win strategy will show. It may ultimately also determine whether you continue to have a business at all.   

Chris Springham

Chris Springham is vice president of global communications at wind turbine blades manufacturer LM Wind Power. His responsibilities include media relations, financial communications, government relations and regulation, internal communications and crisis management. Prior to this, he worked in political and media consultancy in London with a wide range of clients from Boeing to the BBC. Before that, he was director of media relations at Rolls-Royce until 2000. His career began with Mobil Oil, where he spent 15 years and became company spokesman.