Driving change at top speed in China

It's two am and I am wide awake. This is Beijing.

Driving change at top speed in China

It's 2 a.m. and I am wide awake. This is Beijing.

I am here to speak at a conference of the China International Public Relations Association (CIPRA). This is my maiden visit, and fulfillment of my New Year's resolution to make it to China in 2012.

Five days is not long enough to form credible conclusions about my hotel in Beijing, much less the whole, vast country. What I can say with complete authority is that I know basically nothing. That's pretty funny considering how many times I've thrown around glib comments about China, China, China over the years.

Still I try to marshal some coherent and not-irrelevant insight from my brief encounter. There is no question that talent – recruitment, training, retention, training and incentivizing, local v. expat, training, training, training – is a defining issue.

Many factors make this so. One is the evolving professionalism of the industry itself, where PR is still sometimes viewed as media relations and event planning, and little else. While perception of that is changing, it is still a reality for some Chinese firms in particular.

Young professionals also have high expectations that their earnings will grow at rates disproportionate with their experience. This is fueled by talent wars reminiscent of the dot-com bubble in the US. Title and salary inflation appears to be far worse than we saw then though.  

More context for the profession is sought, and needed. The audience at the CIPRA event was full of young people clearly hungry to understand the trajectory of PR in their country, and how it compares to the profession in the US and other more mature markets. Again and again my fellow speakers and I were asked, what are the differences between the profession “here” and “there”?

Multinational firms are creating ways to fill the void in leadership and skills training, but will need to find ways to do this more quickly and nimbly. The other major takeaway for me was speed. The pace of change is palpable, and it is observed by everyone in market – local and expat, novice and expert. Adjectives used to describe the industry in China -  “wild”, “intense”, “insane” and “exciting”.

My wonderful CIPRA guide, a young man in his 20s, told me the streets he knew not too long ago were full of bicycles, and that his parents used to ride them to work every day. The streets are now full of cars, many being enthusiastically and inexpertly driven at nerve-wracking speed. The PR industry in China seems to be moving at a similarly raucous pace, and is doing so in the social media era. That means nowhere to hide, and no way to slow down.

Among the multinational PR firms I have spent time with, I sense a similar kind of whiplash. I also saw some frustration at the lack of understanding of China realities from the US, and the metrics of success here.

Opportunity and risk co-exist. Two days before I arrived, Beijing was struck by its biggest rainstorm in 60 years. Some seven inches of rain fell overnight, and the death toll from flooding now stands at 75. The government was criticized for poor response, and the region's rapid growth that some say has been at the expense of good planning and sensible infrastructure.

Growth and change for all aspects of business life in China will continue to be fast-paced and at times terrifying. We talk a lot about the power of China in the US, but I have sensed no arrogance about its unique position in the PR power axis. Rather, in the questions and comments, the Chinese communicators I have been speaking to reveal their keen desire to move the profession towards best practices and strategies. There seem to know they aren't there yet.

That self-awareness is comforting, though it is clear that expectations will continue to run high as multinational corporations increase their investment and expectations of what China-based PR can deliver. The recent slowdown in economic indicators only increases the sense of urgency. The profession, local and international, must rally to create pathways and platforms to influence the direction that it takes.

There is so much more to understand about China PR – such as the scope of CSR, the role of government, and the role of local vs. international agencies. No doubt my theories here will be fine-tuned or demolished over subsequent visits to Beijing and other cities. Life in the learning curve is humbling but exhilarating - like China itself. 

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