Focus On...China

All eyes are on a Chinese PR market that is evolving at breakneck speed.


Is there a better place to be a PR professional right now than China? The PR market has rebounded from a recession that continues to linger on elsewhere, aided by its growing economic clout and thirst for innovation.

The complexity of issues, meanwhile, makes China fertile ground for savvy PR specialists. 2008 was a watershed year, bringing the new China - via the Olympics, product crises, Tibet and a tragic earthquake - into living rooms across the globe.

2009 has not been noticeably less eventful, with particular activity centering on the country's stimulus package and focus on domestic enterprises.

The 60th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party dominated the news agenda. And the US preoccupation with the country has heightened scrutiny of evolving trade issues, and reinforced China's growing global presence.

The lowdown

The China International Public Relations Association (Cipra) estimated that the country's PR industry was worth US$1.5bn in 2007. Until this year, growth averaged upwards of 20 per cent. A flat 2009 is expected to precede a continued upward trajectory in 2010.


Influential English-language blog Danwei hosts a useful China media guide.

State-owned broadcaster CCTV dominates the country's TV landscape, which numbers 3,793 channels in more than 600 cities, according to media agency MindShare.

Any understanding of CCTV's output must begin by appreciating the traditional role of the media in China.

‘The basic Western assumption is that the media's job is to challenge authority in the interests of the public,' says a source at one of the country's biggest PR agencies. ‘In China, the assumption is that the media are there to support the government's agenda.'

A more open environment is slowly taking hold. Weber Shandwick Shanghai MD Darren Burns points to the popular soap opera Wo Ju, which offers up such themes as government corruption, morality and the futility of the rat race.

Local government corruption has become something of a cause celebre, driven forward by the country's most respected news magazine: Caijing. That title suffered an implosion this year when key editorial staff walked out to start a new magazine.

Other titles noted for a more independent streak include newspapers Southern Metropolis Daily and Southern Weekend, and business titles Economic Observer and 21st Century Business Herald.

China already counts the world's biggest internet population, at 338 million users. Usage is driven by portals Sohu, Sina and Netease, search giant Baidu, and video-sharing players such as Tudou and Youku. Social networking websites also attract millions of users, led by instant messaging site QQ, and others such as Renren, and Facebook clone Kaixin001.

Many popular Western platforms, such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, are intermittently blocked by a system dubbed the Great Firewall of China. Local iterations, such as Sina's microblogging service, are incredibly popular.

Bulletin boards and forums - which offer anonymity - have proved particularly successful, often becoming the springboard for high-profile brand crises, and a destination for astroturfing. The latter trend is best exemplified by the Government's '50-cent army', a loose network of web users that rapidly rebut anti-China sentiment.

‘Just because Facebook and Twitter are blocked does not mean local versions of these platforms can't operate,' says Ogilvy PR China CEO Scott Kronick. ‘A lot of innovation is coming from companies that are adopting similar social media platforms with Chinese characteristics.'

A vibrant blogosphere includes the world's most popular blogger, Xu Jing Lei. ‘Each sector has a host of e-influencers that must be engaged,' says Burns.


Hill & Knowlton was the first multinational network to open its doors in the country, in 1984. It was joined soon afterwards by Burson-Marsteller.

An estimate of agency revenues in the country puts Ogilvy PR well ahead in a top five that also includes H&K, B-M, Weber Shandwick and Edelman.

Several strong local outfits have already been snapped up by international agencies, including H-Line and Pegasus, bought by Ogilvy and Edelman respectively. BlueFocus has attracted plenty of acquisition attention, alongside Shunya (minority-owned by Omnicom) and D&S.

Activity has centred on the first-tier cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, although many agencies have already begun operations in second-tier cities such as Chengdu and Chongqing.

Burns points out salaries have been flat in 2009 but will resume an upward trajectory next year, fuelled by public affairs, corporate, lifestyle, digital and the 2010 Shanghai Expo.

Much PR work remains traditional in nature, including the practice of paying journalists' expenses to attend events and press conferences. ‘What's more of a problem is the linkages between advertising and editorial and back-door deals to withhold bad coverage,' says the source.

Bellwether brands

Media Asia's Top 1,000 Brands 2009 report names white goods giant Haier, website Baidu and oil company Sinopec as key domestic players. PC maker Lenovo, meanwhile, won Communicator of the Year at the 2008 Asia-Pacific PR Awards.

In terms of multinational corporations, the Media report lists Sony, Canon, Coca-Cola, Nokia and Google. However, it is hard to find international brands that are not spending significant sums on PR in China, led by veterans Microsoft, Adidas, McDonald's and PepsiCo.

Increasingly, there are plenty of sensitive brand issues to test PR professionals. Last year, Nike called in Fleishman-Hillard to handle its CSR business in the country. Foreign brands require increasing guidance to avoid falling foul of local sentiment, in the manner of Starbucks, Carrefour and Danone.


According to Kronick, the Chinese government ‘historically has not spent a lot on PR or communications, but is beginning to do so'.

Last year, the country looked for a PR agency to help handle its reputation issues ahead of the Beijing Olympics. H&K, meanwhile, was assigned the Beijing Olympics Organising Committee account and, more recently, a brief to promote Beijing's image abroad.

Public affairs is considered a key growth area. ‘Given the fact the government regulates all industries, public affairs and lobbying are very important,' says Kronick.

The area is largely unregulated, with Burns pointing out multinational corporations ‘are not committing enough resources to understanding opportunities to engage governments and authorities at all levels'.

Key stats

 Population: 1.3 billion

GDP: $6,000 per capita (100th in the world)

Unemployment: Four per cent, officially.

Languages: Mandarin, and its many local dialects.

Religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Christianity.


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