Six Myths of PR In China

When foreign firms think about promoting their products and services in China for many the default position is to draw unfavourable parallels with their home market and local competitors (lack of independent and balanced perspective in Chinese media, reluctance to apply critical rigour, abundance of positive spin).  Yet listen to Zhihua (Stephanie) Yan at Z.H. STUDIO, one of the members of my professional community and her recent experiences with mainland Chinese organisations and you soon grasp that many of these myths are just that “myths” with little or no substance.

  1. Majority of mainland Chinese firms today readily embrace independent third party commentaries (expert opinions).
  2. Greater number of Chinese organisations share the belief that balanced perspectives enrich a story.
  3. Greater propensity of mainland Chinese organisations to happily approve constructive criticism and editors and audiences willing to embrace diverse opinions.
  4. Are there exceptions, of course, there are mainland clients who still want to see media releases, interviews and published articles present a “more positive tone” (is that so different from US or Western European organisations?)
  5. PR investments must have clear business outcomes for mainland Chinese firms to approve expenditure. The “value” derived may be more intangible (improved image or stronger brand) than tangible (increased sales, faster talent recuitment, larger capital raising) but it must have a discernible impact on their key constituents’ behaviour.
  6. The credibility gap between “earned media” (published articles, interviews, op-ed pieces) and “paid media” in China has never been wider. Although the demand for the former still lags substantially behind the latter amongst local organisations.

Put it simply, there are three “stumbling blocks”  that currently inhibit wider adoption of typical PR approaches and the demand for external expertise amongst many mainland Chinese organisations:

  1. Mindset
  2. Capabilities
  3. Incentive

Here is two examples,

Case Study #1: A global media-savvy Business School professor requested that Stephanie proof-read, double-check and triple check quotes given to a reporter for a US news wire service in advance of providing his permission for publication.

Case Study #2: A senior executive in a Chinese organisation decided to pass on an exclusive interview with a correspondent  from a world-class, top-tier newspaper after 4-6 months of Stephanie “cultivating the opportunity” because an environment he was working in has “close to zero” risk tolerance and he saw no visible upside in speaking to the reporter. In such circumstances, retainer fees are a “must” for external PR experts wanting to survive in China today.

“Local” Growth Challenges for Marketing & Media Agencies

  1. Cultural: You have to “give to get”. The basic dynamics of PR providing newsworthy and relevant insight that is in the best interests of the writer, not the firm are still not widely understood by many local organisations.  (Increasing need for external expertise to align corporate leaders’ beliefs, attitudes and behaviour with the differing needs of local and international media when promoting their products and services)
  2. Labour Intensive: Many local organisations are unaware of the time invested in attracting major media outlets. (Increasing need for improved education, more relevant examples, more effective metaphors at the outset)
  3. Engaging External Expertise: Low awareness of the “value” derived from an external marketing agency facilitating media interviews. (Increasing need for more effective communication skills and persuasive language with clients pre-, during and at the disengagement stage)
  4. Self vs. External Promotion: Propensity amongst some local CEOs (large egos) to confuse a PR firm’s success generating demand for interviews from top media outlets with their own and their firm’s actual “object of interest” to global media. In other words why pay a marketing agency a fee if they are such a “star”? (Need to use more powerful metrics or formula to show perceived and actual level of interest, the improvement in the client’s condition and the client’s good deal)

These mis-alignment factors simply hinder the prospect of very healthy collaboration with local organisations and require greater time investment to fulfil some really credible, trust-worthy “earned media” results. For China-based media and marketing agencies it’s not something they “don’t want to do”, or even “don’t have the resources to achieve” rather there is an immediate requirement to figure out a better “alignment” with local clients’ market needs and their mutual self-interest.

When you think the grass is greener for local organisations and local agencies in China, as a “foreigner” you might be surprised about the significant advantages you start with.

© James Berkeley 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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