PR 101: Journalism with Chinese characteristics

Reporters in China are expected to be accountable to the people as well as to the state. So do not be surprised if their notion of 'objectivity' is unlike yours

Claudia Choi, vice president, greater China, EBA Communications (a LEWIS PR firm)
Claudia Choi, vice president, greater China, EBA Communications (a LEWIS PR firm)

With the APEC CEO Summit (8-10 November 2014) and APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting (10-11 November 2014) being held in Beijing, China again sits right in the centre of the global political and economic stage. While the world’s media watches what Xi Jinping, China’s president, will do and say at APEC, China’s media is mulling some professional guidance offered by the president when the country celebrated its 15th annual Journalist Day on 8 Nov.

Journalists must serve the people and the government

The official social networking platform of People’s Daily (Overseas Edition) issued a news item on 8 Nov summarizing what Xi considers to be the top ten attributes of a good journalist. Of course, these included such qualities as integrity and professionalism, much like the Pew Research Centre’s principles of journalism. But the other attributes seem unique to journalism in China: reporters should be accountable to the people, and to the ruling party; and they should guide the world to have an ‘objective’ view of China, i.e. they should tell a good China story.

In some countries, such guidance from a politician might prompt ridicule. But not in China. Partly this is because the Chinese media is largely owned (in whole or through joint ventures), and tightly controlled, by the government. But there is more to it than that. Hard as it may be for foreigners to grasp, journalists enjoy a high social status in China just because they are considered to be patriotic in the highest sense: loyal to the citizens of China, and loyal to the Chinese government.

These loyalties are not considered self-contradictory, as they might be in the West, not are they considered contradictory to Pew’s principles. Indeed, many Chinese people would struggle with the notion that a journalist, who made a career out of criticizing his country and its institutions should be worthy of respect. At the same time, they are appreciative of journalists’ efforts to discover and publicise activities that are clearly contrary to the best interests of Chinese society.

China is the largest media market in the world

Let me put that into perspective. The sheer range of media outlets is phenomenal: more than 2,000 newspapers and 9,000 magazines, ranging from the very general to the minutely specialized. Then there are the more than 2,000 radio and 3,000 TV stations. The reach of big national newspapers and TV stations runs into the millions, but many Chinese people prefer their regional or local media. More than anywhere else in the world, PR programmes need to be minutely tailored for audience relevance, depending on what business you are in, what kind of customer you are trying to reach, what products or services you are selling, and where you operate.

Traditional media still play a dominant role in China because of their credibility. At least ten newspapers enjoy a daily circulation of more than 1 million. The government funded Reference News has a daily circulation of 3.2 million. Journalists are respected and increasingly investigative, albeit within tightly defined limits. The urge to break a big story is universal and there is much competition among Chinese reporters to sniff out news or pursue fresh angles.

Journalists in China are generally well educated, and those that specialise can be dauntingly well informed. Company executives can expect a serious, though polite, grilling. It is vital that they are media-trained locally before they face the Chinese interrogation.

China has the world’s largest online population

Beyond traditional media lies the world of social media, hugely popular in China and enormously influential. More than 632 million Chinese people use online services, of whom more than 527 million do so via mobile devices. Familiar names like Facebook and Twitter are unavailable but local equivalents abound. Both the scale and the variety are bewildering. There are blogs and microblogs (Sina Weibo), video-sharing sites (Youku), bulletin boards, special-interest forums, and multimedia messaging services (Tencent’s WeChat). More than 280 million Chinese consumers follow microbloggers, while 355 million subscribe to WeChat.

Any or all of these may be appropriate for your PR programme, depending on your message and audience. Chinese consumers increasingly turn to social media to form buying opinions.

Some 87 percent of Chinese consumers frequently research companies’ products or services on social media sites and are influenced by their findings. The role of trusted interlocutors – bloggers, reviewers, celebrities, and academics – is critical. Carefully cultivated contacts with intermediaries like these can do wonders for a company’s reputation. The Korean TV drama "My Love from the Star" is so popular among Chinese consumers that it has boosted sales for the many international fashion and cosmetic brands, who sought product placements in the sitcom. Samsonite is also leveraging the actor of the TV drama to rejuvenate its 100-year old brand.

To succeed in mainland China takes expert knowledge of journalism with Chinese characteristics … or in other words: the special ways that Chinese companies and government bodies operate, as well as awareness of local consumers’ fast-changing preferences.

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