Since my maiden voyage to China in 1999, I’ve made 20 or so trips to the country.
I learn new things every time.
To call “PR in China” complex is like saying Donald Trump enjoys attention. While the words are accurate, they don’t quite capture the essence of the situation.
That’s why we teamed with PR Week Asia and PR Newswire to conduct the “Cracking the PR Code in China” seminar last week. It was an opportunity to share lessons learned from those who have been in the communication trenches in China.
Here are 10 “takeaways” from the session:
1. Watchdog vs. Serve the Party: This was a good insight explained by Will Moss, senior director of global corporate communications for Motorola Mobility, and one of the speakers at the seminar. We keep hearing that the government controls the media in China, but what exactly does that mean? Unlike the U.S. where the media acts as a watchdog, the core existence for publications in China is to serve the Party. While this dynamic typically becomes visible for issues that impact society as a whole — think food supply, health epidemics, trade agreements, etc. — it can touch technology companies. For example, anything related to the reduction of jobs tends to have the government’s attention.
2. Apparently media is a growth industry in China: I was blown away with these stats. Back in 1968, 42 newspapers operated in China. The number increased to 382 newspapers in 1998. Today, there are over 2,000 newspapers in China, and that doesn’t take into account the 10,000+ magazines and online properties. The irony is the professionalizing of journalism in China is still a work in progress (more on this in a moment).
3. E-Commerce on steroids: We perceive the online buying in the U.S. around Cyber Monday and Black Friday as a crazed frenzy. Compare the numbers with “Singles Day” in China — as the moniker sounds, it’s a day to promote consumption by the singles crowd in China — in the chart below shared by PR Newswire’s Michael Pranikoff, another speaker at the seminar.The combined buying of Cyber Monday and Black Friday is only a fraction of the nearly $9 billion spent during Singles Day last Nov. 11. For those with aspirations of participating in Jeopardy, the reason behind the date lies in 11/11. Apparently Three Dog Night wasn’t right. One isn’t the loneliest number.
4. Culture makes a difference: It’s critical that a company’s business strategy account for the cultural differences in China; otherwise, the best PR on the planet can’t help. Cassandra Cheong, our Asia Pacific MD, and Jenny Chan, our VP of business development in Asia, highlighted the example of Taobao destroying eBay in China. Why? Taobao understood that the typical Chinese buyer actually enjoys haggling over price.Consequently, Taobao built its buying application to allow buyers to interact with the sellers and simulate the adrenaline rush of haggling. eBay treated the China buyers like American buyers and paid the price with an unsuccessful venture in China.
5. The Infamous Transportation Fee: Back in the day, the government would provide a few shekels to journalists to cover their transportation to attend press conferences. This practice led to Chinese journalists expecting what’s now called a “transportation fee” to attend corporate press conferences. The amount starts at around $40 and goes up from there depending on media type. Does the fee actually go toward transportation? Usually not, which brings us back to the professionalizing of the journalism industry in China. As long as pay is so low for most journalists in China, they are going to look for ways to supplement their income. According to some of the speakers, transportation fees can easily constitute 20 percent of a Chinese journalist’s income. With that said, the process is transparent from the corporate perspective with transportation fees landing as a line item in the budget and each journalist signing for receipt of the fee.
6. Translation Does Not Constitute Localization: Often the U.S. HQ flings content to the communications team in China with instructions to translate. Of course, content in China should be in the local language, but that doesn’t guarantee relevance. Instead, you need to reshape the content specifically with the target audience in China. The website example below from Experian demonstrates true localization:7. One More Point on Language: The language of China is called Simplified Chinese (Mandarin). There have been cases of companies with Taiwanese operations leveraging their content in China. Big mistake, both practically and politically. Taiwan uses what’s called Traditional Chinese.
8. Hong Kong As a “Backdoor” into China: Unlike China, the journalism in Hong Kong resembles what we’re accustomed to in the U.S. And as Jenny Chan pointed out, a large percent of the media coverage of business in Hong Kong has some type of China angle. She highlighted Bien Perez at the South China Morning Post as one of the top tech journalists in Hong Kong and someone who often writes with a China angle.
Sidenote: I periodically turn to Bien for his perspective. In fact, earlier this year he offered commentary on the five-year anniversary of Google’s decision to “pull out” out of China.
9. Consumer Activism in China: Don’t confuse the demonstrations in Hong Kong with consumer activism gaining traction in China. That’s not the case. To borrow the government line, one country, two systems. During my fireside chat with Will Moss, he touched on the recent Airbnb initiative in which the company activated its customers to voice their displeasure with government actions that would impede their ability to rent a cheap room. Don’t think this dynamic has gone unnoticed by the Chinese government which would quickly shut down any effort by any company to mobilize its customers in protest against the government.10. Playing off the Government’s Economic Agenda: As noted earlier, the media in China serves the party, so it stands to reason that stories with a tie to the government’s agenda are going to get more run. Good news for technology companies. The current economic agenda from the Chinese government — mass innovation and entrepreneurship — delivers a natural connection to the tech industry.