Interview: Yujie Chen

Director, Xinhua PR Newswire

Director, Xinhua PR Newswire

Yujie Chen heads up Xinhua PR Newswire's day-to-day sales, marketing, editorial, media relations, and client services in mainland China, as well as media relations for its Hong Kong and Taiwan offices. The newswire has a partnership with US-based PR Newswire to provide news distribution and other communications services between China and the Western marketplace.

Chen discussed, via e-mail, the changing Chinese media environment, the growth of both Chinese PR agencies and blogs, and why Western companies need to pay attention to the Chinese market more than ever.

Q: Has there been a change in the way the Chinese media interacts with PR agencies?
The media community in China is becoming increasingly sophisticated and makes greater demands on agencies than ever before. For the most part of the past two decades, media have come to rely on PR people as the major source of information. It used to be that companies would issue short statements about particular subjects, but now, as competition intensifies among the media and the level of professionalism increases, the media are looking for more in-depth information from companies to write edgier and more comprehensive stories. As a result, journalists are taking a much more aggressive and critical approach and doing a lot more independent research and investigative reporting. This is obviously making the job of the PR people a lot more challenging, but also more important, as they face a more skeptical media audience.

In addition, the emergence of online media and blogs has created a much larger and more diverse audience for company news, and created a challenge for PR people to reach all of their audiences. This is especially critical for crisis communications, and that's why many of our clients rely on us to get out their message in the face of any negative stories that have emerged in the blogs. That means we need to continually improve our distribution capabilities that include ... a connection with traditional media, as well as the newer, increasingly popular internet media.

Q: Have you noticed more independent Chinese agencies starting? What about international firms setting up shop in China?
Public relations is fairly new here in China, having only taken hold in the past 15-20 years. The greatest growth has made itself known in the past three to five years, and it is only going to expand further. When the World Trade Organization accepted China into its membership, the opportunities started to open up. Chinese agencies are beginning to flourish as many young PR managers decide to open up shop after schooling in the US or in China, or after working for multinational agencies that have shown them the ropes. There are now about 2,000 local PR agencies in China, employing 30,000 people.

In the mid 1980s-1990s, well-known international PR agencies opened businesses in China to serve global clients who were pursuing their own business interests in China. Increasingly, these international PR agencies that started here to focus on working for the big multinational companies are now looking to expand their operations into providing services for the new Chinese business community.

Another interesting trend is the fast growing number of M&As, joint ventures, or alliances being announced between local and international agencies. Obviously such deals make sense for both sides: while international agencies, especially latecomers, need to rely on local knowledge and expertise to tap into the China market, local agencies, serving local clients that have a growing interest in overseas financial and consumer markets need to work with Western agencies to learn about PR in America, Europe, and the rest of Asia.

Q: Are more US businesses dedicating resources to communicating to the Chinese people through PR?
Most definitely. We are seeing a very strong interest among US companies trying to reach the China market. One example of that is that the number of news releases that US companies sent through us has more than doubled during the past 12 months.

Q: Are Chinese companies distributing news to just media in China, or to the US or Europe as well? What other countries are pushing for a larger presence in China?
Chinese companies have a great desire to communicate their messages to the Chinese audience, but they show increasing need to send their stories to the rest of the world where they are either traded or have a need to expand their brand. Half of our clients, mostly in tech, consumer electronics, and auto sectors, come to us to distribute their news abroad. Some Chinese automakers are already exporting cars to the overseas market. We expect that to be accompanied by aggressive PR campaigns.

As for activity by other countries here in China, the answer lies within a close look at the global community: virtually any country that has any interest in China is expanding its communications efforts here. If they aren't, they are going to miss the boat.

Q: Chinese blogs were the source of much discussion because some of the popular blog hosting sites were shut down in 2004. Is the blogging phenomenon still popular in China?
The recent shut-down of some blogging sites has not stopped the growing popularity of blogging at all. The largest blogging site in China now has over 3 million members, which actually makes it the largest in the world. And many bloggers in China are playing an increasingly important role in terms of generating news ideas for the traditional media and shaping public opinion. This presents an opportunity and a challenge at the same time for PR people, for obvious reasons.

Q: There is much talk about Chinese businesses paying journalists to attend press conferences. Do you sense a change in this policy?
This practice is certainly frowned upon, but is a fact of life. However, I am pleased to say that this practice is changing as the entire communications community matures. Most importantly, real news is still the determining factor for what gets used. "Pay-for-play" announcements are seen by the increasingly sophisticated Chinese consumer as mere advertising and consequently don't carry much weight. Please note that Chinese authorities strictly ban any pay-for-play, and what has happened in the past year is mainly loose compliance among local media outlets and journalists. But it's encouraging that some key national media have stood out and vowed to implement tighter management so as to eradicate "pay-for-play." Personally I believe this practice will fade out.

Q: How do the cultural and corporate differences between the Chinese and US markets affect your job?
They have made my job and my life better overall. I don't really view cultural differences as barriers but instead as opportunities to expand my own view of the world. And that clearly affects the way I conduct my business affairs. The Chinese are no different than anyone else in that we expect honesty, courtesy, sensitivity, and professionalism. For me, working with US companies has been a great learning experience, and I think many of our colleagues and friends share my view.

Q: What US misconception about the Chinese PR market would you like to correct?
As I said above, we are no different than anyone else. If Westerners would take the time to learn more about this country, and they need to, myths of the past will be dispelled quickly. As far as the PR market is concerned, I think China's market, though still fledgling, is more competitive and sophisticated than many people outside the country may imagine. As has been reported by key American media such as the Wall Street Journal recently, multinationals are finding smaller, local players a much more formidable force to contend with than before. Small and medium-size companies are very innovative and nimble and they are the driving force of the Chinese economy. And there are so many of them.

The second thing is that the Chinese market is very fragmented as well. We have many different regions with very different traditions and habits and levels of economic developments. So China is seldom a homogeneous market and each regional market will needs to be tackled individually. Both these two factors seem to make the job for the US companies rather difficult. And the key to success here is local knowledge and the willingness to be flexible.

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