Want to make it big in China? It's hard - and local journalists expect travel expenses

Building awareness for a Western brand in China is "bloody hard" and requires payments to journalists in a way that would surprise Western media professionals, PR360 attendees heard yesterday from Cassandra Cheong, the Asia Pacific MD of The Hoffman Agency.

Speaking at a session of PRWeek's Global PR Festival on the role of PR in building your brand in the world’s largest market, Cheong covered censorship, geography and culture as complicating factors for Western brands seeking a presence in China.

Cheong told the audience that a mistake brands often make is to treat China as a single market.

She said: "It’s a flawed concept. Cities and districts have their own dialects and their own customs. It’s closer to compare China with the whole of Europe."

Guanxi, the term for culture, is also a critical concept for Western brands to understand and this involves building relationships with journalists.

There are more than 10,000 print publications in China, all of which are licensed by the government, and the number is growing every day. 

But while Western media relations practitioners might readily understand the concept of building relationships with journalists, in China this is a critical component of getting coverage, with 90 per cent of pitches made over the phone.

Cheong said: "You want to pitch, you want to get coverage? You have to get on the phone. Relationships are about the feeling that you know me and you care about me."

The press release still has a place in Chinese media relations, but it is press conferences and events that are most likely to guarantee coverage.

Cheong said: "Journalism in China is not so sophisticated and journalists need to be spoon-fed with pictures and everything else because they are not used to investigative work."

But press conferences come with an added component that would be alien to most PRs in the West because in China, it is expected that the brand holding the press conference would pay between £55 and £220 in ‘travel allowance’, depending on seniority, to the journalists who attend.

"Without travel allowance, nobody would turn up to an event – except one held by Apple," said Cheong.
Cheong also highlighted differences between Google and China’s main search engine, Baidu.

She said that while Google is an organic search engine with respect to search results, Baidu asks brands to pay for search results that put them near the top.

Baidu speaks to brands and asks them which key words their potential customers would use to search for their product, and then sells the brands those words so that when they are keyed in, the brand is at the top of the results.

Censorship is also a major factor in for PRs to consider.

Cheong said: "Everything is regulated and controlled by the government - you have to show that [your brand] supports government policies."

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