China's PR agency search indicates comms strategy shift by Beijing

Tired of being blamed for economic volatility and labor problems in the U.S., China's government has realized it needs to shift comms strategy for reaching out to the West, experts say.

Image via Wikimedia Commons. (By Christophe Meneboeuf. Mao Zedong portrait attributed to Zhang Zhenshi and a committee of artists)
Image via Wikimedia Commons. (By Christophe Meneboeuf. Mao Zedong portrait attributed to Zhang Zhenshi and a committee of artists)

This week, Apple blamed the end of its 13-year run of quarterly revenue growth on weak results in China, with sales plummeting 26% in Greater China and 11% in mainland China. And the country’s weakened economy has been blasted from London to Toronto for causing volatility in global financial markets.

To that end, five global agencies have reportedly made credential pitches to China's State Council Information Office, the administrative body of the Chinese government, to work on a potential campaign to improve the country’s image.

In the West, "there is the perception that somehow China is a malevolent force in the world rather than a force for positive change. And I think China recognizes the way it sees itself and the way the rest of the world sees it are two very, very different things," says David Wolf, MD of Allison+Partners’ global China practice. "There is a great perceptual gap as far as the Chinese are concerned – and they have a need to close that gap, but they don’t understand how."

He adds that experts don’t believe Chinese authorities think they can solve their image problems in the West overnight. Yet they do want to get the ball rolling on improving their reputation overseas.

"I don’t think that anybody in the Chinese government believes they are going to convince audiences around the world that China is bringing rainbows and happiness to everyone, but I think they at least want to have their point of view heard and understood at least to a degree sympathetically in the West," Wolf says.

In terms of which outside partner the Chinese government will choose, Reuters reported that it contacted Edelman, FleishmanHillard, Ketchum, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, and Ogilvy Public Relations. Most of the agencies declined to comment or did not respond to requests seeking comment.

Scott Kronick, president and CEO of Ogilvy Public Relations in Asia-Pacific, replied via email, "In my 21 years in China, you should know that the Chinese government frequently looks to outsiders to provide a perspective on marketing and communications campaigns across a number of levels."

"The Ministry of Culture looks to global firms to help the world understand Chinese culture better. The Olympic Committee looked to outside firms to help it communicate globally," he added. "There are certainly many gaps in what is reality and myth in China, and there is no shortage of commentators on such issues. Hence, there is a market for informed advisory services."

The firms were reportedly asked to give presentations on China’s biggest image problems and show their knowledge of "managing new forms of media."

Yet for China to better communicate its point of view on divisive issues, it must understand that the influencers in the West have changed, says Marc Ross, cofounder and partner at Caracal Strategies.

"In some ways, China is still fighting the last war, which is a heavy reliance on print and TV media as the way to get the message out because of their own past experiences. They’re still not fully vested in all these different communication tools," he explains. "And for a long time, China has relied on big D.C. power players such as the Henry Kissingers and Henry Paulsons, to be shepherds between the U.S. and Chinese governments, but those relationships are moving on and new voices are coming in."

However, he adds that the agency search itself shows China realizes it needs to change strategies and use different platforms to target new audiences.

"Frankly, the Chinese have to do a better job in being more grassroots in their approach and talking to the mainstream," Ross advises. "But that they are having this conversation with agencies is recognition of the fact that China knows it needs to tell a different story. At the end of the day, China wants to be recognized as one of the most important countries in the world, and certainly PR and communications has a role to play in that."

Some communications experts say China’s agency search also shows it recognizes it could have even fewer allies in Washington after November, especially if Republican frontrunner Donald Trump is voted the 45th president of the United States. Trump has repeatedly demanded the U.S. government get tough on China, calling this week for an "America first" foreign policy that would redraw the country’s obligations overseas.

Peter Prodromou, president of Racepoint Global, notes that China faces a number of serious messaging challenges, especially due to the increase of globalization in the past two decades and those changes not benefitting American workers or citizens in many ways.

"It’s hard to know specifically how leaders of other countries are processing the American election and its implications behind closed doors,  but publicly, there is a lot of commentary that could be alarming to those outside the US," he says. "Anytime you have the kind of populist rhetoric we are seeing...there is reason for those countries that saw the benefit to be concerned."

Too hot to handle?
Sources say an official RFP has not been issued by China. Yet should a Western-owned PR firm start working on an image-changing campaign for the nation, it should do so "with their eyes wide open," adds Ross.

"If you talk to high-level U.S. government officials, a lot of the challenges they have interacting with China is in understanding who they are ultimately speaking with, because there are so many different stakeholders and vested interests," he says. "It is not an integrated government."

However, Ross notes it could be an opportunity for a firm, citing Weber Shandwick’s work to secure the 2008 Summer Olympics for Beijing.

Wolf adds that taking on work for the Chinese government comes with risks, not the least of which is reputation for the firm and the PR industry at large.

"Our industry remains dogged by such accounts as Thank You for Smoking and Toxic Sludge Is Good for You; our industry never comes out on the good side of defending a bad issue or defending a lost cause," he says. "And I don’t think it behooves us as a profession to simply take money from anyone who is offering it and has a big problem, unless we believe we can counsel them not only how to communicate about themselves but also change dirty behavior."

However, others don’t see working with China to be as potentially contentious for a firm as a contract with Russia, for instance. Last year, Ketchum ended its work with the Russian Federation in the U.S. and Europe amid growing tensions between the country and Western governments over its role in the conflict in Ukraine.

"Russia has not been – and is not – as accepted by the West as China has been," says Prodromou, noting China has been embraced in trade agreements with the West and the Chinese renminbi included in the International Monetary Fund’s reserve currency basket, along with the U.S. dollar, the euro, the British pound, and the Japanese yen.

"But country work is always tricky. I think you have to evaluate very carefully what you’re being asked to do, what the goals and objectives of the work are, and then make your own judgement call," Prodromou says.

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