Data visualization: not just for experts anymore

Depending on how you look at it, “Big Data” is either a blessing or a curse. Some organizations see it as a daunting challenge to their ability to analyze and understand it. Others see it as key to new insights, cures, solutions and advances.

But that’s the crux of Big Data, isn’t it? No, not whether you view it negatively or positively, but literally how you look at it. Big Data is meaningless unless it can be analyzed and interpreted. For management to do that, they need to be able to easily interpret it and draw conclusions from it.

Historical stock price data plotted as 3-D graphs

The key to being able to do that is data visualization, and data visualization is becoming ever more crucial in enabling senior managers in many fields – including finance, online engagement, climate, energy, manufacturing and agriculture – to evaluate Big Data without special technological expertise or assistance.

In a TDWI Research report last fall, David Stodder called data visualization “one of the great innovations of our time.” “Quantitative communication through graphical representation of data and analytical concepts is essential to surviving amid the deluge of data flowing through our world,” he wrote. He added that data visualization sits at the confluence of such factors as technology, the study of human perception and graphical interfaces, and “can contribute significantly to the fruitful interpretation and sharing of insights.”

As David Brooks wrote in the February 4 New York Times, “Technology has rewarded graphic artists who visualize data.”

A graphic visualization of global environment indicators

Perhaps the most important developments in data visualization today are the strides being made in making it easily understood and interpreted by a lay audience – in other words, not requiring technical expertise or an analytical background to interpret and understand.

“The best visualizations cause you to see something you weren’t expecting, and allow you to act on it,” commented Amanda Cox, the Times graphics editor, in the Harvard Business Review last March. In their innovative use of graphic, statistical and analytical tools, Cox and her colleagues have made the Times a leader in data visualization.

That work, she said, has provided her team with this insight: “When I first started, I thought design was ten minutes to ‘make it [the technical analysis] cute’ at the end that I could talk someone into doing for me. Now I know that design thinking needs to be involved from conception.”

Data visualization from Google Earth

Likewise, by Jim Strikeleather, executive strategist, Innovation for Dell Services, emphasized the importance of the end-user in a Harvard Business Review blog post last April. Data visualization, he said, must be developed with an understanding of the audience; it must set up a clear framework; and it must tell a story.

Many examples of data visualization are available at the federal website To view an especially effective example – providing a dynamic look at climate data and trends – view the visuals available at

This post originally appeared in CapsuleScape, the blog of Capsule Design in Minneapolis.


Six keys to insurance and reinsurance thought leadership

Few industries offer as many opportunities for thought leadership – that is, becoming a go-to resource for insights, research and information on key topics and issues – than insurance and reinsurance.

This industry interacts with firms in all other industries. It helps companies respond to sudden and unforeseen challenges. And, insurers and reinsurers must be attuned to trends concerning economics, markets, the climate, society and many other disciplines.

A few large, established firms in this industry have built strong thought leadership reputations. Reinsurer Swiss Re, brokers Marsh, Guy Carpenter and Aon, and other global companies have large research staffs generating regular studies and reports.

It’s not just for Goliath, but for David as well

Is thought leadership in insurance and reinsurance, therefore, the sole purview of such industry giants? Not at all. In fact, it remains an often-overlooked activity of many firms who, whether due to size, precedent or other factors, have not included it in their marketing strategies.

That’s a missed opportunity. In today’s marketplace, customers are turning away from advertising and other traditional marketing. Instead, they’re looking for sources they can trust for guidance and insight on business. They’re looking for thought leaders – and if insurers and reinsurers don’t provide leadership in their industry, prospects will turn to sources who can provide it, whether banks, investment firms, consultants or others.

Although media relations and speaking platforms offer insurers and reinsurers effective thought leadership venues, such firms now can also utilize “content marketing” for their thought leadership, sending it directly to prospects via blogs and white papers and then promoting it via social media so that it appears in all of the right places online.

Six keys to insurance and reinsurance thought leadership

Still doubtful that thought leadership could be a meaningful part of your company’s marketing strategy? Here are six suggestions for approaching an insurance or reinsurance thought leadership program:

Think big – industry-wide, nationally, or even globally. Yes, marketing your company’s latest product or coverage innovation is essential, and it’s important to announce important personnel appointments. Thought leadership, however, requires thinking more broadly. How might the rise of “Big Data” affect your clients and the risks they face? If your clients are in medical liability, what do they need to be learning about health care reform? What are the implications of climate change for the industry? What are the possible impacts on a pandemic for insurers – not only life insurers, but property-casualty as well? The possibilities are endless.

Think outside the industry. Many objective informational resources are available in this industry – the Insurance Information Institute, the National Insurance Crime Bureau, the International Underwriting Association, the National Council on Compensation Insurance and others. Outside the industry, however, universities, think tanks, management consultants, government agencies and other entities also produce research and commentary on a universe of subjects, and can be a source of topics for your thought leadership pieces.

Listen to what people are talking about. This is an industry with a variety of events, conferences and regular “meet-ups” where conversations are plentiful and paramount. What current issues are on people’s minds? What topics concern them or what would they like to learn more about? There are many opportunities for such informal “sampling” of insurance and reinsurance executives for their ideas and possible thought leadership topics.

Talk with the marketplace, and measure it. More formal market research is also an important consideration, and can yield industry insights and data. Depending on the purpose and budget, this might involve precise, scientific market research, or other, newer alternatives – for example, a confidential survey via “Survey Monkey,” or quick polling through social media. These newer, less formal research tools can still provide useful snapshots of how executives view current industry issues.

Seek out the hidden experts – even in your own organization. It’s impossible to predict with certainty just where you might find topic experts. A friend of mine once worked for a life insurance company, and while having an informal conversation with a mid-level actuary he learned that the actuary, in addition to his job responsibilities, had been doing independent research  on life expectancies in specific states. That research eventually became the basis for an annual report on the “healthiest states,” which attracted the coverage of ABC’s Nightline, USA Today and many other news outlets.

Think ahead. Ever since the ancient Greeks visited Delphi to get the Oracle’s latest predictions, people have continually asked: what does the future hold? This industry is in the business of anticipating the future and, in a sense, making “bets.” The large amounts of data collected by insurers and reinsurers, and the experts who evaluate it, can help provide forecasts of what will happen in the future, and what the industry needs to prepare for.

A successful insurance and reinsurance thought leadership strategy

Several years ago, I led communications for a reinsurance company – a significant operation, but much smaller than the industry’s global giants. We undertook a marketing program that, because of budget limitations, utilized minimal advertising and other “paid” media but instead emphasized “earned” media coverage through thought leadership.

At the beginning of the program, we didn’t even register with the marketplace in terms of awareness of our brand. But after a couple of years we revisited the benchmark research. Not only did the marketplace, as a result of the program, perceive our company in the way that we had hoped, but also our market awareness had increased dramatically – to a level that vied with that of the industry’s major global brands.

The success was due to thought leadership. With a strategic thought leadership program as part of your company’s marketing mix, you can help position your firm to compete effectively – even with those “global giants.”

Reputation insurance: a product in search of a market

Warren Buffett

Few statements sum up the value of managing and protecting a reputation – the principal role of public relations – than this from Warren Buffett: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

A reputation is not easily attained or purchased: a company or organization develops and invests in it over years of consistent, ethical practices. Yet one case of poor judgment, corner cutting or scandal can put that reputation – acknowledged so often as a company’s “most important asset” – at serious risk.

With commentators, executives and directors so concerned about new risks to reputation – for example, intense competitive pressures, or the possibility of negative publicity “going viral” via the Internet or social media – it would seem that the best way to follow Buffett’s advice would be to ensure that reputation management is viewed as a role of top management, with reputation management professionals “at the table” with top execs. And, that’s the case with many successful, leading companies.

It therefore seems illogical, inconsistent and unnecessary that several leading insurers have proposed addressing reputational risks with a product – reputation insurance — that sends just the opposite, wrong message. These are liability insurance policies that cover the costs of responding to such threats as adverse publicity. Policies cover the costs of the counsel and assistance of public relations firms, advertising, social media campaigns and the monitoring of a company’s brand perceptions.

Please note: I use the terms “public relations” and “reputation management” interchangeably.  Several years ago, whether to better describe the profession or to combat the negative attributes associated with the term “public relations,” many in this profession described their work as reputation management. Whatever the term, managing a reputation with all audiences and stakeholders is at the heart of the field of public relations.

Reputation insurance products have not been developed without thoughtful consideration of reputational risks and how to manage them. For example, they can provide the client with access to an experienced public relations firm, enlisting the help of expert reputation management professionals.

Yet that doesn’t outweigh three significant weaknesses currently reflected in reputation insurance:

  • First, it’s reactive. For the most part, the coverage provides funds for services and counsel needed to respond to a public relations crisis.  Crisis communications are essential tools for any organization with a public reputation, but they need to arise from comprehensive plans developed in advance of any contingency.  Even more important, developing a strong reputation to begin can provide an organization with a reservoir of goodwill to help it overcome a crisis. Acting only when the crisis is happening can be too little, too late.
  • Second, if a company doesn’t activate a policy and utilize these services until after a crisis has occurred, it’s already playing “catch-up” in its efforts to restore its reputation, and may be vulnerable to various threats to relationships with its various stakeholders.
  • Third, it doesn’t cover the real damages that may occur following a crisis, nor can it.  Such damages can include a decline in stock price, loss of market share or unfavorable public opinion. Yes, those factors can be quantified, and all are indicators of a company’s reputation. But paying for financial damages is not the same as restoring a company’s reputation.

Perhaps the biggest deficiency of the concept of reputation insurance – at least, as reflected in current product offerings – is its incomplete understanding of the practice of public relations.  By emphasizing media relations in crisis situations, it ignores the role and importance of building strong relationships with an organization’s audiences and constituencies; for example, investors, employees, regulators, elected officials, suppliers and other organizations, as well as the news media. Simply equating reputation management with media relations fails to acknowledge the full scope of the practice of public relations, and what is needed to manage a public reputation.

One such reputation insurance product underwritten by a Lloyd’s of London syndicate reportedly is part of directors’ and officers’ (D&O) liability coverage, and would “exculpate” directors and officers from the damages resulting from an organization’s reputational risks. That may be an innovative development in D&O liability insurance, and it protects directors and officers, but it offers little or no protection to a company’s reputation.

Interior, Lloyd’s of London

I would not, however, suggest that the work of insurers in this area simply be dismissed.  In fact, public relations agencies and professionals could benefit from the work being done by insurers to quantify, evaluate and analyze reputational risks.  The analytics being employed regarding these and other risks could provide valuable information for corporate executives – and their public relations counselors – in monitoring and assessing possible threats to a company’s reputation.

But if a corporate executive wants to insure his or her company’s reputation, better to invest in the people and expertise needed to build, enrich and maintain that reputation over the 20 years suggested by Buffett, rather than buying a policy to deal with the aftermath of the five minutes it can take to destroy it.

The slippery slope of “sponsored content”

You’re scanning a news-related website, checking the headlines, and one catches your eye: “The End of Barack Obama?” Hmm, what’s this?  You click on it, but instead of a news story, you see an advertisement for an investment adviser.

Bob Garfield

That was the experience of Bob Garfield, advertising blogger, onetime commentator for Advertising Age magazine and author of The Chaos Scenario, which traces the upheavals in the media since the advent of online journalism, the decline of traditional print media and the struggles to monetize journalism on the Internet.

What Garfield encountered is a form of “sponsored content” — in his case, on the web site of the once-proud Philadelphia Inquirer. Garfield railed at the Inquirer’s deception in exchange for advertising dollars – what is often called “clickbait.” Garfield proposed that, to keep “paid” and “earned” media distinct, news outlets adhere to standards of disclosure. As the Edelman public relations firm – which has developed such standards for public relations practitioners – has indicated, doing otherwise could spark penalties from such government agencies as the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

Perhaps such standards of disclosure for sponsored content can help ensure the integrity of the three entities involved in the publication – the, media, sponsoring organizations and their public relations staff and agencies. Perhaps.

But first, let’s be clear: the sponsored content that serious, ethical firms such as Edelman and its clients include informative, well-researched articles, providing useful and informative content to readers. They’re published under the auspices of a sponsoring company or other organization. And they’re clearly labeled as such.

But although sponsored content can be a legitimate as component of a public relations strategy, the three entities that can be involved in sponsored content – the sponsoring entity, the public relations advisers and the news media — should carefully consider the pros and cons of sponsoring, placing or publishing it, as it carries specific risks for all three

The news media

Pros: Hit by dwindling circulation, new competition and other economic pressures, sponsored content would seem to offer an important new source of revenue for news outlets.  And research indicates that readers – especially from the business world – may be more amenable than in the past to receiving information directly from sponsoring organizations.  As an article in the January 2013 edition of Inc. stated, “Business-to-business customers would much rather read an article or white paper – or watch a video or slide show – than see a pop-up or banner ad.”

Cons: The Inc. article discussed sponsored content versus traditional advertising. In that comparison, sponsored content that consists, for example, in a white paper can have much more credibility than a traditional ad. But it’s a different question altogether when you compare sponsored content with professional journalism.

Just as important, the incentives of sponsored content for news outlets are not positive: how often will a news organization, stretched for funds, sell space for sponsored content at the expense of its regular news coverage?  And, more insidiously, to what extent will news organizations lure readers to such clickbait as in the case of Bob Garfield, thus weakening their credibility as independent sources of news and information?

The sponsoring organizations

Pros: Much of the public – in particular, business leaders – today has a low opinion of the news media.  Executives often complain that a reporter “got the facts wrong,” or forsook accuracy in an article or report in order to inject more conflict or drama into an article. Why run that risk, an organization may ask, when you can “go direct” in a sponsored article placed in a news or trade publication?

Cons: Although blogs, web sites, Facebook and many other new tools of social media and the Internet give companies, organizations and individuals legitimate new opportunities to present their viewpoints and information, research continues to indicate the value of third parties in the news and information equation.  While audiences are increasingly open to a variety of information sources, news and information that is edited or curated by a respected third party generally is assigned more credibility than sponsored content.

If you have the money, it may be easy to “buy” media coverage, whether in an advertisement or sponsored article.  But “earned” media continues to have more credibility in the eye of the reader.

Public relations practitioners

Pros: Traditionally, public relations pros – whether in agencies or on corporate staffs – have had journalism backgrounds, with journalism degrees or experience with news organizations.  Knowledge of the news and information gathering process, and the ability to write clearly, effectively and fast, are required to do their jobs effectively.  Writing well-researched, informative and persuasive articles is part of their DNA: they’re well qualified to produce sponsored content.

As the demand for sponsored content has increased, large public relations firms also have formed units that will specialize in sponsored content, tapping a growing new source of revenues.

Cons:  Advertising and public relations are both part of the marketing mix, but they have very different purposes.  Advertising seeks to provide memorable messages directly to potential customers or supporters. Advertisers pay for that capability, and the messages are so delineated.

Although public relations has long defied definition, the description of the public relations function in 1923 by Edward L. Bernays, the “Father of Public Relations,” still carries weight today:

…information given to the public, persuasion directed at the public to modify attitudes and actions, and efforts to integrate attitudes and actions of an institution with its publics and of publics with those of that institution.

Edward L. Bernays

Edward L. Bernays

Public relations, therefore, participates in the public news and information process, and effective public relations practitioners represent their clients successfully and ethically in that process.  That’s why smart companies and other organizations hire them: if the organizations want to place ads, they’ll hire advertising people.

I have obvious biases here, but one of the reasons I have pursued a public relations career is that the results of effective public relations – for example, being quoted or cited in a major national or global news outlet – are much more powerful than advertising.  In my view, neglecting that role to pursue such activities as sponsored content ignores more powerful and beneficial opportunities.

The recent fixation on sponsored content presents risks for the news media, sponsoring organizations and public relations pros.  As they should consider those risks, consumers and readers of news should also ask: is that content really what you think it is?

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog

We live in a time when public opinion on many issues is almost evenly divided, when politics has changed from a search TCB-22230for compromise to the “permanent campaign” of “us versus them,” and when, as a result, discourse and debate often devolves into a coarse exchange of personal attacks and disrespect.

In this environment, have social media and online communications only made things worse, giving many the anonymity to engage in personal attacks and even hate speech?  And what are the implications for influencers, communicators and others who work within open and free channels of communications?

I’ve often wondered about this when, after reading articles online, I’ve perused the “comments” section that follows, only to find it full of name-calling and extremism. But, after ignoring such vitriol, I was struck by a recent New York Times op-ed column by Joe Nocera.

Referring to Twitter, and why he doesn’t Tweet, Nocera wrote: “What I object to most of all is that, like other forms of social media, Twitter can be so hateful.  It can bring out the worst in people, giving them license to tweet things they would never say in real life.”

He then referred to an “investor and CNBC commentator,” who “regularly tweeted his investment insights,” and had 63,000 followers. But the commentator withdrew from Twitter because of nasty and foul messages.  “I received several life-threatening tweets,” he told Nocera.  “I concluded it wasn’t work navigating the sharks to find the good fish.”

So, it’s at least worth reflecting on whether social media have opened new avenues for hateful anonymous speech that will only continue to worsen public discourse. Thought leaders in public relations and marketing commented that such speech is an unfortunate but not unexpected byproduct of developments in media, yet media and communications professionals can play a role in addressing it.

Just ignore it?

Ron Culp

Ron Culp

Although such online disrespect seems to be increasing, it’s important note that, as with speech in other media, many are ignoring it it.

“If I had 63,000 followers, I’d put up with a few social media shark bites,” commented Ron Culp, public relations consultant (formerly, general manager of Ketchum PR’s Chicago office) and now professional director of the graduate program in public relations and advertising at DePaul University. “Anonymous social media comments — both negative and positive — carry little weight with most readers, so throwing in the towel over a few discouraging comments seems a bit thin skinned.”

Likewise, Augie Ray, a social media leader at an East Coast-based Fortune 100 company, pointed to how anonymity and public discourse aren’t necessarily compatible, and how readers can avoid the vitriol by frequenting platforms where commenters identify themselves.

Augie Ray

Augie Ray

“I’m increasingly a fan of dialog in places where anonymity is not the rule or where moderation is possible,” Ray said. “For example, I’ve observed Facebook being used for more professional and political discourse than was common years ago.

“I think there will always be a place for the open, anonymous dialog on places like Twitter (where I’ve never had a problem with nasty or threatening tweets, by the way), but I also think the benefits of civil discourse are easier to achieve when people have to be themselves, where community managers moderate discussions or where reputation matters.”

When reputation matters

That’s perhaps the key word for public relations, marketing and other professionals who ply their trades in communications and media: reputation.  For professionals whose responsibility is to manage reputation, should we care about the coarseness and vitriol seen on social media?

Mr Seitel043013

Fraser Seitel

“You bet we should care,” responded Fraser Seitel, New York-based public relations consultant, adjunct professor at New York University and television commentator on news communications and marketing-related topics.  “Social media devices are compulsory tools for public relations,” Seitel said. “But they are just ‘tools.’ What matters much more than a facility with social media is knowledge, counsel and judgment.”

Social media, Seitel added, “has not only made coarseness and vindictiveness a prevalent no-risk proposition, but it also has given voice to unknowledgeable, inexperienced, no-talent novices parading as experts; who lower the standards of that on which they opine.

“For public relations people who should be concerned about ‘standards,’ social media pose a new threat to the perception of the field’s professionalism,” Seitel said.

That’s a pretty strong statement, underscoring the special responsibilities of those who work in communications.  In light of the comments of Tim Brunelle, a Minneapolis-based brand strategist, such risks and responsibilities have already existed in other areas.


Tim Brunelle

“The Internet (and social media specifically) are duel-edged,” Brunelle said. “They empower — but that gives fuel to the best and worst of humanity. The same is true of the printed word, of art, of science.

“It’s just easier to run into mean-spiritedness and cruelty in the new social spaces,” Brunelle added.  “And let’s not forget that social media is a child, very few years old. Children are cruel.”

We’ve been here before

Nocera and his friend, therefore, may have been started at what they encountered on social media, but I believe their response – to withdraw from it – is incorrect. The duty of commentators like them, or public relations and marketing professionals who listen to such teachers as Ray, Culp, Seitel and Brunelle, is to remain in the realm of social media, adhering to professional standards by exhibiting reason, respect, and decency.

John Milton wrote almost 400 years ago that competition in the marketplace of ideas is the only way to ensure the best ideas prevail. Today, the same principle applies to the tone and manner of public speech: as social media are used to enlighten and inform, rather than degrade and defame, more will focus on the former and ignore the latter.

That, perhaps, is one of the great potential opportunities of social media: to elevate public discourse as the public is exposed to more information and more points of view.

What, then, is your view?  Do you agree or disagree? And have the comments of some on social media caused you to withdraw from it, or to participate with a better type of public discourse?

Danger and Opportunity

(The following originally appeared in the July 16, 2013 edition of O’Dwyer’s PR Newsletter)

Several years ago, a 3M Corp. engineer – a native of China – developed the company’s program for reducing its generation of pollution. He acknowledged the public’s view of the pollution “crisis,” but still provided a positive emphasis by noting that the Chinese symbol for “crisis” combines the symbols for “danger” and “opportunity.”

Chinese for “crisis”: “danger” + “opportunity”

I’ve thought of that perspective – that a crisis can not only involve preventing or removing a danger, but offers an opportunity to learn, grow or even benefit – as I’ve read recent tips and commentaries by PR thought leaders on crisis communications.  Crisis counsel is among the most important roles for public relations professionals, and public relations firms have developed robust crisis communications practices.

Yet such commentaries usually emphasize defense and protection: responding quickly, managing the media, deflecting attention and protecting the stock price. Key considerations, of course, but do we often overlook the “opportunity” part of the crisis equation?

Effective crisis counsel should evaluate not only the initial response, but how to build on that response by leveraging a company’s reputation to enhance its standing among key publics. In fact, clients should ask themselves and their public relations counsel well before any crisis occurs if they have forged a sufficiently strong reputation to manage a crisis to their advantage.

Tapping community support

Please note: I’m not referring cases involving human tragedy: in such crises, safety, security and even survival must be primary concerns.

Nor am I necessarily referring to self-inflicted crises, such as that created recently by Food Network celebrity Paula Deen — although even that case, had it been addressed early and sensibly, could have been managed to restore and even build her reputation.

Perhaps the best example of what I am referring to occurred in 1987.  “Greenmailers” were rapidly accumulating stock of the Dayton-Hudson Corporation, signaling a prelude to a hostile takeover of the department store firm.  As Dayton-Hudson management undertook various immediate legal and financial actions, the company’s head of public relations, Ann Barkelew, rallied to the company’s side leaders of the many nonprofit organizations that had benefited from the company’s largesse.

Members of the Dayton family, since the inception of their firm, had demonstrated a longstanding commitment to their local

The onetime Dayton’s department store (now Macy’s) on Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis

communities through such measures as financial support of nonprofits.  Community leaders from an array of nonprofit organizations joined to support and lobby on behalf of the company. Dayton-Hudson had incorporated under Minnesota law, not, as with many of its competitors, Delaware law, and the community groups drove public opinion that resulted in new legislation that made such takeovers of Minnesota-domiciled firms much more difficult.  With that public support, the takeover effort stalled and eventually failed.

Dayton-Hudson had built up a reservoir of goodwill through its community efforts, along with ethical business practices, a high level of customer service and other factors in its long history.  The 1987 crisis became was an opportunity to tap that support and goodwill to fend off a threat to the company. But it also served as an additional opportunity, to remind the community of the company’s importance and to further build and enhance its reputation.

Don’t wait for the danger

Since then, changes in customer preferences and the economics of retail have reduced the popularity of such department stores and led to the rise of such “big box” retailers as Target, once a division of Dayton-Hudson but, today, the surviving and much larger firm.

But the lessons of Dayton-Hudson’s experience are relevant for a company of any size or industry.  When the crisis hit, the company had built up support among its community and customers and developed a strong and authentic public reputation.

When help was needed, that reputation counted for a lot.  But the experience of the crisis itself, by reminding the public of the community asset represented in Dayton-Hudson, helped to further enhance and strengthen the company’s reputation.

Likewise, if you run a company and want to ensure that, if a crisis hits, you have the resources to deal with it, it’s not enough to have the phone number of a crisis counselor who can step in when the emergency occurs.  The best preparation is to work with public relations counsel to build the strong marketplace reputation that, if a crisis occurs, will enable you to take advantage of it as an opportunity – and not just survive the danger.

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” (, 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.