Decoding China’s PR scene

Tips on navigating China’s fragmented communication landscape

Nothing is straight forward in China, and communication in China remains highly complex and fragmented. Let’s set the record straight on what makes the Chinese media tick and how public relations practitioners new to the landscape should delve into the communication trenches in China.

I have often been asked what it is like to do communications in China. “It’s hard!” and as a Brit would say, “It’s bloody hard.”

Time after time, I see public relations effectiveness being compromised by presuming that the way public relations is done in London or Hong Kong can be implemented in China. One crucial mistake that I observe companies making is diving in headfirst without first grasping a clear understanding of how China works.

China has more than 650 cities, with a population edging on 1.4 billion people. It has a vast geography with its own peoples, dialects, customs and brand preferences. Treating China as a single market is a flawed concept – it’s closer to the truth to treat China like Europe. Just like how it would not make sense to employ a single strategy across all countries in Europe, a cookie-cutter concept of bucketing all of China into one public relations plan will be totally ineffective in this fast changing and diversified market.

China has more than 4,000 years of history and culture behind it, so keep an open mind to adapting and embracing the different aspects of the culture. It is important to remember that in order to succeed in China, your goal should be to communicate effectively across different cultures, not to change the other culture!

Don’t be overly eager to cast a wide net wanting to capture everyone at one swoop. Keeping focused by segmenting your markets into bitesize parcels and setting priorities is likely to be more effective as you cannot (and don’t want to) reach out to all. Carrying out a solid plan in the already highly competitive and fragmented landscape will pay off with plenty of opportunities for corporate storytelling and effective media relations. The trick is to take universal communication functions and integrate them in a way that effectively navigates China’s unique market forces, government structure, and trends that will result in powerful public relations.

Media with Chinese traits

With China’s media landscape unlike any other, its sheer size alone can throw you off balance. Here’s a quick snapshot: starting with 42 newspapers in 1968 (virtually all Communist Party papers), it grew to more than 380 newspapers in 1980 and today, China has more than 22,000 titles. Not to mention online websites, which are in the tens of thousands … and still growing.

It is important to note that this vast and growing number of media in China is still highly regulated and censored. This means that if you don’t want to get into trouble with the government, it pays to employ self-censorship, especially if you are in a business focused on user-generated content. Self-censorship covers not only words but also images. Failing to do so can result in your website being shut down (with no forewarning), your business licence being revoked, fines and even arrests. So tackling the Chinese media is a whole different ball game altogether.

Besides the bigger media landscape, there are little practices in the media industry that can be stumbling blocks to the success of your media strategy if you are not aware of them. For example, the giving of ‘media allowance’ (a.k.a transport allowance) to journalists at events is a common practice. Depending on types of media and the seniority of attending journalists, the amount per person ranges from USD50 – USD300. So build them into your budget.

Bringing this point across triggered my memory of a first-hand experience on the subtle differences faced by one of our foreign clients in dealing with the Chinese media. An initial request by this client to pitch their story to selected media under embargo was politely declined. We had to explain that local media do not observe embargoes and it didn’t matter whether they sign an NDA or not. It doesn’t stop here.

Local media will use Mandarin as the only language of communication, and it doesn’t matter that they understand English perfectly. So arranging for an interpreter is a standard operation procedure in all planning. Also be prepared to exercise (extreme?) patience as members of the media are perpetually late by at least half an hour (and traffic is always to be blamed). So don’t expect your event to start on time.

Building your network

To be successful in China depends very much on your ability to manoeuvre through the labyrinth of relationships. Yes, the infamous “关系” (Guān Xì = relationship) is very much alive and kicking in present day China. Building strong relations means remembering your stakeholders on key Chinese festivities such as Chinese New Year, mid-Autumn Festival, etc., with a meal and/or bearing gifts. You will definitely score cookie points if you remember to send gifts for their birthdays, wedding anniversaries, baby’s first month celebrations, etc. However, do note that it’s illegal to give gifts to government officials or to treat them to lavish meals.

The underlying principle on relationship building hinges on harmony (avoiding any conflict and maintaining proper demeanour) and preserving face (not to cause the other party to be embarrassed and respect for elders and rankings). The latter is highly crucial when dealing with government officials. Make every effort to know your counterparts by their title and always address, shake hands and hand out your business card to the most senior person in the room first. All meetings should begin with brief small talk but keep away from any political subjects. It pays to invest in relationships because any degree of relationship can only work to the benefit of building a strong brand in China.

Making yourself relevant

For the Chinese to sit up and notice your brand, you need to be relevant to them. This calls for localisation of your content. However, localisation is more than mere translation. Of course, translating your content into simplified Chinese is a must but don’t confuse it with traditional Chinese, which is used in Hong Kong and Taiwanese markets.

But a more important aspect of localisation and relevance is demonstrating your ‘in-China, for-China’ commitment through sound business strategy and/or investment plans, backed by China-specific data. You must be able to articulate your understanding of the Chinese government’s economic agenda and how your plans support those policies for the long term.

On a more tactical level, the Chinese warm up a lot better to a local spokesperson, whether it’s your company representative or a customer reference. Having a local face weaved into the wider Chinese narrative goes a long way. A simple litmus test of the degree of localisation is how many images you use in China, whether on your website or brochures or advertisements, have an Asian element?

Mastering the art of treading through the various elements of the market’s complexity will allow you to move rapidly into spheres such as content creation and building digital public relations tools specially localised for the Chinese market.

Social media

Everyone should know by now that global social media networks such Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, are not accessible in China … well, not unless you leap the internet firewall. China has filled this gap with their own platforms, with WeChat and Weibo taking the lead.

Tracing back to the overall picture, it is estimated that China will have more than 721 Million Internet users by end of 20161. This is more than 20 per cent of the total world internet users. China is the most social media savvy population in the world. So what does this tell you?

  • You need to decide your digital direction and strategy
  • You need to integrate both public relations and social media in the whole marketing mix
  • You need to retool your business operations for the digital age
  • You need to increase the corporate clock speed on innovation

WeChat is now the number one, super Apps platform that is inseparable from the fabric of everyday life in China. You cannot afford to neglect the power of this platform. If you are not already actively and effectively on WeChat, seek help now!

Hong Kong as a gateway into China

Feeling the heat yet? China sounds too daunting a market for you? No worries. You can use Hong Kong as a gateway to China. As Hong Kong takes a more global approach, acting as the regional hub for international and regional media bureau, many of these publications have correspondents based out of China. Coverage in Hong Kong has significant influence over China. This makes Hong Kong a good testbed and learning platform before deep diving into China.

It’s a long march

Succeeding in this age of China taking centre stage requires humble listening and thinking with an open mind acclimatised to modern Asian sensibilities, because China is different.

Doing public relations in China merits serious investment of your time, efforts and budget. For a start, I urge you to spend time in China to observe and learn. Reading about China is not enough to help you better understand China. You need to live the life.

Cassandra Cheong

Cassandra Cheong is the managing director of The Hoffman Agency APAC. She has more than 25 years of communication experience, spending one-third of her career in China. She has earned the trust of many as the integrated marketing communication expert in providing strategic counsel and training that aligns media relations, brand communication, product marketing communication, channel communication, employee communication, executive communication, including digital campaigns. She has also worked in both B2B and B2C communications. The industries she is experienced in include the government sector and global companies in the technology, telecom and FMCG fields.