Microsoft and Yahoo have been under fire in recent months for abetting the Chinese government's pursuit of censorious policies against critical journalists and media outlets.
The companies are uncomfortably conflicted by having to abide by Chinese traditions at odds with their American headquarters' ideas of free speech. And among countries that are open to Western business development, China is easily the most controlling of its media, particularly concerning economic and political issues.
At the same time, China is the place to be doing business and certainly is seen as the land of opportunity for many PR firms. Most recently, Financial Dynamics has entered a joint venture with Chinese consultancy Eastwei Relations, and there isn't a week that goes by when some executive - corporate or agency - who we are trying to reach isn't "traveling in China."
Even while this market grows more and more exciting, PR firms should pay close attention to the issues that media companies like Yahoo are dealing with in meeting Chinese regulations for filtering and reporting on content violations. Their struggles to answer Western critics of their actions - actions that have been taken in compliance with Chinese regulations - reveals much about the challenges facing American companies in the market in general, in grasping both cultural and political nuances.
But as a part of this media relationship, the PR
industry should not divorce itself from the humanitarian issues at stake either, in a place where journalists do go to jail for writing the wrong thing about the system. Lou Hoffman, CEO of the Hoffman Agency, who has had an operation in China for 10 years, agrees that China's continual clampdowns on free speech may be seen as inconsistent with the ideals of the PR industry as "part of the mechanism that theoretically allows for the free flow of information."
But Hoffman says part of the story in China is that things have changed in the time that his firm has operated there and are continuing to evolve toward more openness. "Looking at the big picture, there is going to be a natural gravitation away from [oppressive practices]," he says. "If you don't get in now, you don't get to be part of the process."
If you sense there is an interesting dichotomy between China's eagerness to welcome in US companies and investment, and its lingering Communist practices and constraints, you are not alone. "There is highly sophisticated and strategic development going on," says Jerry Olszewski, senior partner at Ketchum, who heads up Ketchum's international operations, including those in Asia. "There are tracks of government being strict on things, yet at the same time wide open about being an attractive business target."
As the Chinese government continues its efforts to control its transition to a free-market society, there are likely to be more issues that are at odds with Western sensibilities of openness and free speech. The worst thing to do is to try to impose a US philosophy on another country. But as US PR firms report on their successes in cracking into this new and exciting market, they would be wise to keep tabs on all issues that could potentially conflict with their own ethics and philosophy.