China: 25 years on

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John Holden
Managing Director Beijing, H&K China

In 1984, just five years into the Reform and Opening experiment launched by Deng Xiaoping, and only eight years after the arrest of the “Gang of Four,” it was far from obvious that China was on its way to becoming an economic superpower. At that time, China’s GDP was 15 times smaller than that of the United States, and only half the size of France.

All public communication then fell under the rubric “propaganda” and appeared only in government-owned and controlled media. The geography of discourse was strictly controlled, but it was constantly morphing – a political battleground between reformers and conservatives, who were both well represented in the propaganda centers of the party-state. Those readers and viewers who correctly navigated the ideological skirmishes were the ones to benefit most in the bureaucracies and in the nascent world of business. It was, to say the least, not an easy time or place to start the practice of Public Relations.

PR in China today
Just as China’s economy has grown beyond all expectations over the past 25 years, so has the field of public relations. With the world’s third largest economy (14 times what it was in 1984), there is a lot of business to be spread around the 3000 or so self-styled “public relations” firms in China. And the scope of work has expanded together with the explosion of aggressive, profit-oriented media outlets and the rise of the internet and mobile phone technology. While the government’s censorship of sensitive political subjects garners headlines overseas, the big story in China today is not that news is controlled. It is that the news spreads more or less anarchically, and at light speed.

There is a growing trend amongst Chinese firms and government bodies for sophisticated public relations services as they look to communicate with overseas constituents. China-based multinationals are coming to understand that what may be immediately understood in Beijing may be incomprehensible, or worse, negatively perceived, in Berlin.

Looking ahead
With the world’s largest number of internet and cell phone users (300 million and 650 million respectively), digital is at the frontier of social change in China. The power and reach of new media has not escaped the attention of marketers nor the Chinese authorities. Chinese citizens have not been shy about using the web to support social causes, launch attacks on businesses, or criticize officials. Companies that ignore the ebb and flow of internet conversations do so at their peril. The Chinese government has taken note of the social web’s potential to reveal the concerns and attitudes of a good portion of Chinese society, and the opportunities afforded by the internet to shape and guide public discourse.

These digital intersections where Chinese populism, international business, and government power meet each other are also the new frontiers for public relations in China, and embody enormous risk and opportunity. Gone are the days when companies or governments could build walls of silence around themselves. An individual’s blog or video can breach those walls, demand dialogue, and oblige accountability. A recent example was the attack on Starbuck’s Forbidden City store by television journalist and blogger Rui Chenggang, which led the company to quietly abandon its prestigious location.

The challenge to corporate public relations in this new digital era is immense, but at the same time the opportunities for well-planned, authentic communications campaigns are boundless. There are more ways to engage in China today than ever before, and given the “noise” that people are exposed to, the power of lucid, timely, and convincing stories has never been greater.

That is why the future of public relations in China has never been brighter. The principles of public relations haven’t changed: active listening, local knowledge, international best practices, integrity, nuance, creativity and perseverance.

But the scope is changing rapidly. Companies and brands whether domestic or international that stay abreast of the social, demographic, economic and political changes sweeping China will succeed. Those that fail to keep up will lose share as quickly as they lose relevance.

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