I traveled to China last September — Steve Wozniak ended up right behind me in line going through customs — which was my 38th trip to China. Even after spending a fair amount of time there, I still feel like a student always learning new things. So many dimensions to the communications industry in China make for enormous complexity.
Let’s start with the fact that China has been ruled by the Communist Party since 1949. If a person parachutes into Beijing or Shanghai for a week, he or she will experience the type of capitalism that befits a world-class economy.It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “This isn’t all that different from any big city in the West.” Yet, Communist rule means the government controls all media, which inevitably impacts media properties and the journalists.
When we conducted a seminar on PR in China last year at Andreessen Horowitz, Will Moss, now a senior PR executive at Intel, explained that unlike in 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. — media in general lands high on the government’s radar.
One quick example —
The Chinese government has issued new regulations over the past couple of years relating to online media. As is often the case, these regulations tend to leave plenty of room for interpretation, but they seem to open the door for the Government to shut down corporate blogs. Whether this happens or not misses the point. The Government controls the media.
You can’t talk about the differences in communications between the U.S. and China without touching on culture. I think the biggest factor here is how relationships work. Yes, relationships have importance in the U.S. PR practitioners in the U.S. who are effective at media relationships are those who have built relationships with journalists over time. Yet, this relationship-building typically takes place in the virtual world, on email and over the phone. And pitching journalists whom you don’t know is an acceptable practice. In contrast, it’s difficult to successfully pitch a journalist in China without already knowing him or her. Toward this end, there’s a more symbiotic bent between PR and journalism in China with the two professions often mixing over social activities ranging from a beer at a bar to mahjong.
Drilling down to the next level, the stories that underpin communications in China need to be localized taking into account the local culture. Another quick example. Taobao destroyed 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. It’s a situation in which you can’t really separate product functionality from communications and brand building.I also think it’s fair to say that journalism is less developed in China than in the West. Thinking out loud, an enterprising high school student who enjoys writing in China seems unlikely to choose a career path in journalism and its limitations. Looking at the state of journalism in China from a PR perspective, news announcements which have been increasingly commoditized in the U.S., still hold value in China with journalists attending press events … which takes us to the infamous “transportation fee.”
In theory, this money allows journalists to take a taxi to and from press events since their publications won’t cover the expense. In reality, many journalists pocket most of the money, instead taking public transportation. Back in 2012, The New York Times wrote a story called, “In China Press, Best Coverage Cash Can Buy,” which addressed how luxury brands in China were buying editorial coverage in lifestyle publications like Esquire. There’s no getting around the fact that communications professionals must navigate the money issue in China, staying true to their companies’ rules as well as U.S. federal regulations. With that said, I would suggest this issue surfaces everywhere including the U.S.
Here’s what I mean. We supported HP for a number of years, including when the company was heavily involved in the World Cup in France. HP footed the bill for journalists to travel to France, watch the World Cup, and, of course, report on HP’s technology that underpinned the World Cup operation. Did HP buy the coverage? No rate sheets were exchanged. Did HP expect stories on their technology at the event? Absolutely. Did the journalists understand that accepting the junket meant writing stories on the technology at the World Cup? Hard to fathom that they didn’t. I know it’s apples to oranges, but again, the point is there’s plenty of gray area to go around.
Back to the big picture. I view China’s pursuit of the 2008 Olympics as a milestone for the communications industry in China. I say that because various Chinese government agencies hired global communication consultancies to help them sell China’s proposition to to the IOC. When the IOC did indeed award the Olympics to China in 2001 — I was in Hong Kong at the time, and the atmosphere was downright electric — it affirmed the value of communications at an international standard which, in turn, accelerated the lifting of the local communications industry.One final comment —
Speaking to a room full of communication students at Peking University earlier this year proved to be an enlightening experience. The Q&A ended up going longer than my talk, resembling more of a roundtable discussion. The students asked probing questions. The critical thinking from that room of students left me with the impression that they’re going to apply the same type of fresh perspectives and idealism to communications that we find young professionals applying in the U.S. While the communications industry in China lags behind its Western counterparts, like so many areas in China, it’s catching up.