My firm's global network, PROI, recently convened in Beijing. I learned the following lesson: Before we can develop successful communications programs in China, we have to learn to do business the Chinese way. The country's history and culture make this a daunting - but rewarding - prospect for any Westerner.
To understand China, begin with a shift in perspective. Americans think in terms of "me," but the Chinese start with the group perspective - they think "we." Individual entrepreneurship is a cornerstone of the American way, but in China, personal identity and reward is derived from the group that one is a part of - family, business, club, or community. This is a simple idea with a profound impact on business interactions. It is not unusual for Chinese negotiating parties to outnumber Western counterparts 2- or 3-to-1. It naturally follows that the Chinese are fierce networkers. They place a high premium on "guanxi," meaning "connections" or "relationships," and they make it a priority, both personally and professionally.
The Chinese have almost no interest in hothouse flowers (deals that come after a few weeks), no matter how detailed, productive, or sincere. They trust their foreign business partners only after many months and years, and they don't begin with an assessment of your business plan. They begin with you, your professional background, personal history, and even family ties. Their "investigation" will take place over a lengthy period of social interaction, and it advances only incrementally. Tempted to shortcut this process with a bold stroke? You'll be making a mistake. The Chinese distrust those who share too much, too soon. It is said that you'll never hear a Chinese person share more than a third of what is on his or her mind. Americans who fail to recognize this distinctly Chinese characteristic will fail to close the deal.
Our colleagues operating in Beijing face unique challenges. Hiring can carry significant financial risks. If a new employee doesn't work out, they could be owed up to a year's salary in severance. In China, there is virtually no one more than 50 years old available for professional employment. Mao's Cultural Revolution eliminated higher education for a generation of Chinese. As our network partner in Beijing put it, the educated class in China has a "demographic hole in it."
In the US, publicity is a process. In China, it is often a transaction. Press releases are accompanied as often by a phone number and e-mail address as by cash. PR and public affairs, as we know them, are virtually absent in China. Media relations is largely event-driven, so many Chinese firms billed as PR companies do little more than choreograph photo-ops.
The strategy for many American firms will be simply to get to China first. But only those with the patience and finesse to first learn the culture will get the deals - and that is the hardest part. Americans willing to adapt will be rewarded with a leading position on what will almost certainly be a new Silk Road.
Joseph Clayton is CEO of Widmeyer Communications; and VP of Americas region, Public Relations Organisation International (PROI).