Working in PR in China

This appeared in the latest issue of Profile magazine, the CIPR’s (Chartered Institute of Public Relations) venerable organ. I’ve linked here but for some reason it is behind a firewall. We are still looking for all levels of talent in China and in Asia so if you fancy going to where the action really is, contact Working in Asia was about the best thing I did for my career and it could be for yours too. Here and here for previous rants on the subject.

A practitioner’s life in a People’s Republic
Jacquie Kane MCIPR

If you had asked me a year ago if I thought I’d be swapping the gentle grandeur of Edinburgh’s New Town for an office on the 29th floor of a skyscraper overlooking downtown Shanghai, I’d have said you were daft. But here I find myself; a trailing spouse who landed a job working for an international PR firm in the world’s most talked about economy, China.

Moving from the comfort of a mature public relations market with a free press to a still developing market where government influence over media is ever-present, I wasn’t entirely sure how much this would impact on the day-to-day job of a PR practitioner. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

The Chinese professional communications marketplace is a complex beast. There are multiple players and it’s highly competitive. PR firms operating here range from sophisticated international firms like Edelman, offering strategic counsel on the digital media space and stakeholder engagement programmes, to smaller domestic start-ups that focus more on execution-level work. Durable differentiation is critical.

The key differentiator is intellectual capital – investing in research and people to understand the drivers of reputation, and the trusted information channels in an incredibly complex and dynamic market.

Understanding how this diverse sector works has been one of my biggest challenges.

China is the largest newspaper market in the world with 75 per cent of the 100 top selling dailies. It has 2,200 newspapers, 7,000 magazines, 700 conventional TV stations, 3,000 cable TV channels, 1,300+ radio stations, and with 173 million broadband connections, an estimated 55 million internet users are actively blogging on BBS. The statistics are simply staggering.

And news-values are completely different. State-influence changes the nature of what is considered to be newsworthy, the well-known cliché of celebrities attending the opening of a paper bag, sometimes rings true for China. There is an insatiable media hunger for opening events, unveilings and promotional shows for all manner of products.

But the media is gradually westernizing, not only through more investigative and in-depth reporting in quality business journals but also through increased financial independence. Drastically reduced financial support from the Government is being supplanted by advertising and sponsorship although their ownership and influence remains. Thus there is an increasing need for media to capture and retain audience through compelling and entertaining news.

Another major difference is the quality of some of the journalism. There is a high turnover among journalists making durable, deep relationships difficult to develop. This is in part because journalists are young, generally inexperienced and poorly paid. This lack of journalistic experience, industry knowledge, discipline to fully investigate all sides of a story, in combination with reliance on single unsubstantiated sources can lead to frequent, major errors in reporting. ‘Cut and Paste’ journalism, often relying on online sources, is common practice.

As befits a financial and commercial hub like Shanghai, my work engages me with many foreign multinational companies already operating in China. But there are also an increasing number of Chinese firms seeking to expand internationally that come to us for strategic counsel.

Educating international firms about how best to build reputations for businesses and products in China and vice versa for Chinese firms looking to break into overseas markets, is a key part of our communications offering. And one I really enjoy as many domestic companies have never felt the need for strategic PR until now.

At the moment, the Beijing Olympics are a priority and we work for three of the 12 top sponsors helping them to gain the reputational benefits that come as a result of association with the Games. But it’s not all commercial brands, there are a growing number of overseas government agencies beating a path to China hoping to attract inward investment; the Mayor of Chicago and the Canadian Province of British Columbia to name but a few that we advise. With the Shanghai World Expo in 2010 just around the corner, no doubt this will continue.

So the client mix is as diverse as in the UK but one of the noticeable differences is the pace – demanding. Because China is in the throws of such rapid economic growth, speedy responses and breakneck turnaround rates on client work is what’s needed, and can make the difference between winning and losing a new piece of business. 24/7 truly means open for business around the clock here.

But despite all these challenges, China is a new frontier for public relations. I am relishing every moment of it.

[tags] CIPR, Profile Magazine, PR in China [/tags]

Categories Technology

3 thoughts on “Working in PR in China

  1. I completely agree – the best thing I’ve done in my career too. Absolutely loved it – impossible to have an unrewarding day.

    What I learnt in 3 years I tried to capture in this…

    You could email Alan, or you could play him off by emailing my old boss who I miss very much – Chris Graves,


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