China’s PR challenge

Watch any debate about the upcoming US Presidential election and you will see why the public relations industry is more relevant today than ever before. Success rests in the nuanced understanding of voting constituencies, the careful crafting of messages and the ability to communicate those messages in a way that hits hot buttons and sways opinion. Campaign strategists begin with the candidate, but also use such messaging to cultivate third-party advocates that will speak out and endorse the candidate. Finally, the campaign management team takes the messages and thinks through how they should be communicated on TV, radio, print, and through various digital channels that are serving as the most effective and efficient way to reach out to certain segments of the voting public.

In my opinion this is why campaign managers often make the best PR people. They understand day-to-day message management, how to stay relevant and build support. There is no middle ground in a political campaign. Campaigns are won and lost and the successful campaigners understand this.

But what does this have to do with the role of PR in brand communications in China? Everything I believe. Similar to political campaigns, Chinese brands must understand their consumers in deeply nuanced ways. They must understand how to communicate with their consumers – be they domestic or international – not just in one overarching message that is crafted at the beginning of the year, but in day-to-day tweaking of that message to stay relevant and timely. Brand managers must consider how to craft the messages daily and weekly and think through how they will appear in the various mediums that are available to them. Campaign mentality is what PR practitioners in China need today. But that is not all.

Edward Bernays, considered the father of public relations, once said: “[The term public relations] hasn’t only been misused, but people have used the name for press agents, flacks, publicity men or women, individuals who simply try to get pieces into the paper that are favourable to a client. Whereas, by my definition, a PR person is an applied social scientist who advises a client or employer on the social attitudes and actions to take in order to win support of the publics upon whom his or her or its viability depends.”

Part of understanding where the world is today is knowing which people, institutions and organisations have a disproportionate share of influence, and working with them to integrate a brand’s message with their missions into some shared vision. I believe that brands that communicate on message, and stay relevant with a cultivated group of supporters, are those that will win the competition for share of mind and wallet.

It is what the best brand marketers do. They not only have their messaging, but they think through who are the best people to communicate that message and in which media. Technology companies do this very well with the analyst community. Luxury goods companies do this with celebrities that they feel are ‘on brand’. Automotive companies do this with industry experts. Ironically, this area of expertise is not covered by traditional advertising folks, or direct marketers or activation professionals. They rest with the public relations experts who need to understand the brand world and the way influence plays in this and how to cultivate and nurture public opinion. That is the role of the public relations professional in the brand marketing mix today.


Chinese brands were slow to recognise the value of PR, but the interest from Chinese brands competing both domestically and internationally has skyrocketed. Some believe the evolving professionalism of Chinese domestic media is part of this. There is a growing younger core of Chinese journalists who are much better at investigative journalism than their predecessors, and these journalists are trained to report in a more balanced and objective way. At least until their editors get a hold of the story, that is.

Others argue that a combination of world events that has put China at the forefront of the media is the reason. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis of 2002-2003 was the beginning of this, when social media overtook traditional domestic channels to help bring the truth forward in what was happening in China at the time. The food scares of 2007 were another factor in creating a cloud over the truth and a demand for transparency in what was happening to China’s food stock and various brands operating in the food, dairy and consumable industries.

The reporting of Chinese official support during the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 showed what was possible if spokespeople were portrayed in a positive light, similar to Premier Wen Jiabao’s response. Finally, the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the media focus on China during this time regularly put many brands and public officials in the spotlight and teased out better skills in how to interact with the Chinese and global media in a greater way.

No matter the event, the belief that great communications is a two-way dialogue and not a one-way monologue has got through. At Ogilvy PR, we have a saying: ‘a brand is not successful until the local market tells you so.’ Effective communications is about understanding the consumer and the world he or she lives in, and addressing them in an authentic way.

The Chinese Ministry of Health understood this back in 2003. They reached out for a discussion on communicating in the midst of the SARS crisis and worked to understand what was required of them as spokespeople to engender trust among their constituency. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has also worked at this. In the midst of the 2007 food scare, Ogilvy PR had the chance to review messages and comments from a healthcare spokesperson during this time. There was a tendency to send a message of ‘guarantee’ to turn the issue around, but it only served to inflame consumers. We told this spokesperson that “whether everything was back to normal or not, there are too many factors affecting a message of ‘guarantee’ and no one would believe this.”

After the discussion, the spokesperson realised that perhaps a guarantee, even though they cleaned up the mess, was too strong and too early of a message. Rather, communicating the steps that have been taken to ensure safety was a better message to send than an outright ‘guarantee’.


From these earlier events, we have seen marked growth in interest in PR from Chinese companies pursuing growth in international markets. Amid the investment banking, accounting and legal advisors they are turning to are PR professionals. Today, rarely do we meet aspiring global Chinese brands that are inflexible and insistent on what they want to say to whom. On the contrary, they are asking, ‘what is important?’ ‘How do we gain understanding from the foreign country’s consumer?’ The predominant nature of these global brands is not political. They operate in auto ecosystem areas, traditional Chinese medicine and medical equipment. They want to expand beyond Chinese borders but are novices in doing so. They want to buck the cheap ‘Made in China’ trend. They know that what they say is not as good as what others may say about them. So they are coming to PR to communicate in an authentic way.

We are working with a client now in such a way. They are non-political. Their ambition is to acquire a company in the US that has leading technology in an area where China does not. They want to buy the company to bring the technology to China to upgrade its ability to operate similarly. This technology can help save lives. Their plan is to understand all of the company’s stakeholders to let them know their true ambition. They want to understand who they are, what matters to them and how to bridge the gap in understanding. They want to know how to make such a partnership a success.

This company wants to communicate in an authentic way. It wants to get to know the citizens, the politicians, the employees and rather than communicate what it wants to say, it wants to understand what is meaningful to them and find out how it fits into this mix. Certainly, it has a business mission, to acquire the technology, but it realises this will not be successful if the stakeholders are not happy. Fortunately, it is beginning to think like campaign strategists. In an era when campaigns are won and lost, we are certain this Chinese global brand will succeed.

There are no comments

Add yours