By Mandy Heiser, Account Executive
Let’s take a look at the top Google results for the recommended search “china and us”:
What about “us and china”?
Let’s pull out a few phrases: “high-stakes trade”, “far apart”, “fail to reach agreement” “fighting for global power” …
The story these search results tell is of a relationship fraught with tension.
But even with this heavy atmosphere, the Chinese market is incredibly important to modern companies. As PR professionals it is vital that we bridge the communications gap between China and the United States to benefit our clients.
Our CEO Lou Hoffman led a panel with The Hoffman Agency’s GM of China Jason Cao, Alibaba Head of International Corporate Affairs Jennifer Kuperman and Intel Director of Reputation Communications William Moss at The Holmes Report In2Summit to discuss this very topic.
Lou opened up the discussion addressing the GOP elephant in the room.
While anti-China rhetoric has been unfortunately present throughout the United States’ political history, the Trump administration has seen a yuuuge escalation. This has made the jobs of international communications experts quite different today than it was four years ago.
Moss spoke to the increasing complexities the job now carries: “It’s always been complicated to a certain degree. But I think for a long time there was a pretty well understood operating framework, a fairly stable political and economic relationship. There are now more factors that we have had to juggle and more a delicate line we have had to walk to be aware of the political sensibilities on both sides.”
Cao offered his perspective of the changes that have taken place in communications in China: “The Chinese media are more open and aggressive to dig out new strategies and discuss the trade war. Multinational companies are more conservative and don’t disclose strategy.”
Geopolitical politics have created a “narrative of tension” — one Kuperman believes ultimately puts businesses at harm. “There are two frequencies happening — the commercial market in China is still alive and well, but geopolitical noise is affecting the stock market and prices. We work hard to explain to our investors the actual reality, and we look at the media not only as a channel, but also as an audience that we need to educate every single day. I think the media here and the way it portrays U.S.-China relations hurts U.S.-China relations. It’s not good, and it’s not accurate.”
Moss added, “We spend a lot of time trying to convince people that we are doing business as we always have been. Reporters don’t want to hear, ‘It’s business as usual, come back later.’ They want to hear about tension between geopolitical powers, and we don’t want to contribute to that narrative of tension.”
Within this atmosphere of tension, Hoffman questioned, “How do you communicate to stakeholders?”
Moss shared, “Both governments have different objectives, but we can’t tell two different stories to two different governments. We have to think about a really diverse employee and customer base, including both Americans and Chinese.”
Kuperman stressed the increased importance of creating a third-party network: “We care a lot about what industry experts talk and think about us. The team will call people commenting on what’s happening with Alibaba and China and take them out to coffee to educate them.” She highlighted the value of engaging and mobilizing employees: “Everybody here is an ambassador, and every opportunity is one to tell your story.”
Kuperman also spoke to the benefit of exploring owned media as a creative way to humanize and own the narrative with the example of Alizila, Alibaba’s news platform offering updates on corporate and business unit news, the digital economy and e-commerce industry, and China-specific insights to both Chinese and American users.
Hoffman closed out the panel with the question that had been on everybody’s minds —“What are some best practices for American companies starting communications in China?”
Moss took the lead: “Everything cross-migrates. This is something I worry about a lot in managing different stakeholder groups. ‘How could this go wrong?’ Ask yourself uncomfortable questions to know how to respond and get ready for every possibility.” He also shared the value of looking for areas of shared interest that make for good stories on both sides, as a bright spot in the midst of political noise.
Cao stressed the fundamental principle of respecting the unknowns: “In China, everything happens so quickly. Try new things, be flexible, and know everything can be solved.” He emphasized the duty multinational companies have to learn the code of working with Chinese media, and advised not to underestimate the value of social media as a communications tool in China (particularly the fast-growing WeChat and TikTok).
The way media relations operates in the U.S. is vastly different from the way it operates in China. As a result, different expectations must be set for American businesses looking to do communications in China, and Chinese businesses looking to do communications in America. Hoffman argued against the “myth of cheapness” in America when it comes to Chinese media relations, pointing out that it requires a much higher level of investment due to the complexities of engagement and factors such as translation services. Cao in turn highlighted the importance of setting expectations with Chinese clients about American media relations, which requires a much longer lead time, a higher level of patience and persistence, and offers no guarantee of media coverage even if you do land a briefing.
Ultimately, the best way to bridge the communications gap between the U.S. and China comes down to one thing — Education.
In these Trumpian times, it can be difficult to separate the reality from the political spin — both the reality of U.S.-China business outside of geopolitical noise, and of the way media relations works in China versus the U.S. Taking a look at the hard numbers in context and emphasizing areas of shared interest between the U.S. and China will help illuminate the reality of the two economic powers’ business relationship.