After working in Asia since 2001, global public relations executive Richard Burger recently returned to the United States. A columnist for the Chinese daily newspaper Global Times and a former senior vice president with Ketchum, Richard has more than 20 years of experience in media relations, journalism and social media. From Phoenix, he answered three questions about the state of communications in China.
After almost a decade in Taipei, Hong Kong and Beijing, you’ve told hundreds of stories about Western companies operating in China and about Chinese companies operating globally. What do you think a global company might learn from the way Chinese companies approach communications?
First I have to give some context. The approach of mainland Chinese companies to communications is quite different from that in the West. And I mean night and day. China is still learning how to implement modern communications techniques, but it is catching up fast. You have to keep in mind that until 30 years ago these techniques simply weren’t relevant to the Chinese PR practitioner. Product marketing and branding were unknown concepts in China until around 1980, and so was the concept of a pro-active media. Most Chinese media served as government mouthpieces, and it’s only in the last few years that we’ve seen a shift toward independence. As part of China’s reform policy, the government has cut loose many of the media they once ran, forcing them to sink or swim on their own merits instead of depending on permanent subsidies. So finally, journalism in China is coming into its own, but it’s a slow and difficult process. Under the circumstances, it makes sense that media relations, too, is in its relative infancy.
But that’s not to say we can’t learn anything from our Chinese counterparts. For example, I am always amazed at the ability of a good Chinese PR pro to own their media relationships. That is to say, they are wonderfully adept at building strong relationships with the reporters who cover their clients, to sensational effect. This is something that I often feel the US media relations industry has lost touch with — the “relations” part of “public relations.” The Chinese PR experts I know are unsurpassed at cultivating relationships among the media and using this art — which the Chinese refer to as “guanxi” — to win great results for their clients. We in the West would do well to re-learn the art (really more a science) of building, fostering, maintaining and leveraging our media relationships.
To flip that, what’s the key lesson that Chinese companies could take from the communications practices of organizations headquartered in the West?
As Chinese companies expand their horizons and play on the international stage, they need to adopt more of the Western communications practices, which include an emphasis on giving reporters access and information. We in the West are far more willing to badger the executive who doesn’t want to answer a question, to the point of nearly insisting that they get in front of the media and answer questions. For cultural reasons that go far back, Chinese PR people often see high-level executive as someone they take orders from, not someone they counsel and tell what to do. In the West, good PR practitioners are always of the mind that they have two clients — the media and the actual, paying client. Reporters are a client we go far out of our way for, to get them anything and everything they want, even faster than they need it. My guiding philosophy as a PR person is that the reporter comes before anything else, right up there with my clients. I have a commitment to both.
Communications people at Chinese companies have a unique challenge: Most of their executives are uncomfortable dealing with the non-Chinese media, who ask them difficult questions and won’t simply print what they’re told. Many of these executives are used to telling the local media when they want to meet with them, and have a hard time dealing with foreign media’s requests for near-instant access. And they also can be quite evasive, preferring to push the reporter’s request over to somebody else. This makes it so hard for the PR professional to function effectively, because they have such a hard time getting answers from those above them. Literally every Western journalist dealing with Chinese companies will tell you that getting information from communications people in China is like pulling teeth, mainly because they get no management clearance to say anything of substance. Senior management in Chinese companies tend to see PR’s role as protecting them from the media, holding pesky reporters at bay, and actually discouraging them from writing about their companies.
Chinese communicators have a lot to learn from the West because so many of them want to reach Western markets. To do this, they need to learn to provide media relations support that delights the journalist while helping the company achieve its goals. They need to learn how to force their spokespeople to be responsive and transparent. This is not an easy task, I know, especially considering how difficult it is in China to tell someone with a higher title what to do. Chinese communications is getting better fast, and considering how far behind they were for so many years I am deeply impressed with how good many of my Chinese counterparts are. Many, however, have a lot to learn and it’s good to see that they realize this and are striving to improve.
In the next five years, how do you expect global perceptions of Chinese organizations to change?
There are many, many kinds of Chinese organizations, and the majority will probably not be regarded too seriously because they’re simply not ready for prime time. These are still bound up by antiquated protocol and an overly polite culture that too often discourages creativity, speaking out and taking a point of view different from your co-workers (and especially your boss).
On the other hand, there is a new, more worldly group of emerging Chinese companies that are setting new standards. These companies get it — they understand communications and they prize creativity. We’re especially seeing this in Chinese firms that are blazing new technologies for electronic cars and other green products, to give one example. Companies like these are already making a deep impression on key Western journalists, who are in turn letting their readers and viewers know. The result is a growing respect for a number of Chinese firms, and perhaps even a sense that some of the next big things will come from China. I actually believe that myself, and hope these companies continue in the direction they’re heading.
Big-name Chinese brands are still not well known in the West, but they are coming in our direction and there’s no escaping their influence. We see this now not only with the two big brand names from China, Haier and Lenovo, but with the state-owned oil and power companies, which are making headlines every day for the deals they are cutting throughout the Asia Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Americans didn’t take these companies seriously a few years ago, but not any more. Ruthless, focused and disciplined, these companies are creating new balances of power that we will be living with for generations to come. Anyone who chooses to ignore emerging Chinese companies does so at their own peril.
Richard Burger continues to write about China in his blog, The Peking Duck.