Media relations in China: a matter of protocol

xinhua_news_agency_32633aWith news global and accessible 24 hours a day, it’s easy to assume (as many do) that public relations – and, in particular, media relations – is the same the world over.  But although “Western” style independent journalism is practiced in many locations, there are still cultural and political norms and customs that need to be considered by professionals who represent their clients to members of the news media.

That’s especially true in China, whose one-party political system affects the Chinese view of how the media – both domestic and international – should function in their country.  Approaching the news media in that country – for example, to seek attention and coverage for a U.S.-based client entering the market or doing business there – requires a very different protocol than in the United States.  In business journalism in particular, it relates to the importance of hierarchy in China’s political system as well as among a variety of social networks and organizations, and the guanxi – relationships – that are required to conduct business effectively.

In the United States, a public relations professional who wants to provide information or pitch a story idea about a client to the media typically contacts the reporter or editor who would most likely cover that story – who covers that “beat.”  Successful PR people work to become trusted sources for reporters who may have an interest in a given topic and what their client may have to say about it.

While relationships with individual reporters are important in China, there are several other critical relationships required to deliver a client’s message or story effectively.  To successfully obtain media coverage in China, the first step is not necessarily taken by a PR person with a reporter.  Traditional protocol looks to top executives of the client organization – for example, a U.S.-based company – to introduce themselves and begin the relationships with the top management of the Chinese government as well as the targeted Chinese media organizations.  I saw this firsthand when serving as the public relations person for a U.S. reinsurance company entering the China market in 2001.

We were interested in obtaining coverage for our company’s opening of a Beijing representative office, even though many Western insurers already had such offices in China. But there were still many topics and issues in the China marketplace on which our company could offer insights and expertise.  So, with the help of an experienced China consultancy based in Hong Kong, the Exceptional Resource Group, or “XRG” (www.xrg-china.com), we prepared a set of statements on such topics as China’s pending entry into the World Trade Organization and the importance of reinsurance in the development of China’s infrastructure.  We had those statements, along with company fact sheets, backgrounders and a news release – both in English and Mandarin – ready to distribute in a comprehensive media kit.

The relationship lunch

Then, at XRG’s recommendation and with their assistance, we took the first step: an informal relationship-building lunch with editors of the top national Chinese business and news outlets.  In a private room at a Beijing restaurant, we hosted the top execs of such publications as China Daily, China Insurance, China Economic Times, China Women’s Daily, the Xinhua news service, and others invited with the assistance of XRG.  This kind of informal lunch is feasible in China because all national media organizations work for and report to the same national government and political overseers. Interspersed around the large table were well-briefed senior executives from our company, along with strategically positioned interpreters.  All of us from the United States were prepared to talk about not only what our company wanted to bring to the Chinese marketplace, but our views about key economic and business topics and issues – the timely topics that would be of most interest to each one of the different Chinese news organizations.

The conversation was friendly, convivial and free flowing.  It also was interesting to observe the interactions of the editors, who knew one another but apparently didn’t see each other very often.  The lunch also was an opportunity for them to reconnect and talk candidly about issues of the day.

XRG brought to our attention an important caveat: although it was okay for the Chinese editors to openly voice their criticisms of their current situation in the informal lunch atmosphere, this did not mean that we, as foreign guests in China, could, or should, do the same thing.

As the end of the luncheon approached, we distributed our prepared media kits.  Then, as the news chiefs reviewed the materials, we saw the fruit of our efforts: the editors began pulling out their cell phones and calling their reporters, instructing them to attend our official opening reception the following evening and to ask for me.  The next day, before the reception was to begin, reporters showed up at the event, asking for our media materials.  (Later that evening, our company’s executives would cap the event with an official ceremony with officials of the China Insurance Regulatory Commission.)

Mutual respect and trust

Does this approach guarantee a company’s desired media coverage? Not at all.  The reporters I talked with asked smart and probing questions, and were just as prepared – if not more so – than reporters I met in Beijing from Western news services.  But our media relations approach reflected a respect for their culture, and helped to build relationships of friendly respect and trust, demonstrating how building guanxi guides business and similar interactions in and with China.  The resulting positive media coverage, reaching millions in the China marketplace, helped to introduce our company to this dynamic and growing marketplace.

As China’s news media has grown and developed, such an approach likely may not be feasible in all circumstances.  But as our success showed, a clear holistic understanding of how to build relationships and navigate the protocols in and between many different Chinese political, government and media organizations is fundamentally important not only to doing business in that country, but to conducting media relations as well.

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