Over the past 13 years I have witnessed, and been part of, hundreds of China PR campaigns, activations, events, press conferences, interviews and other activities. So the following is based on real experience.
Where are we in the China public relations industry in 2015?
Has anything changed in the last few years?
Celebrities like the UK's Dr. Hilary Jones still attract media coverage. Your author watches carefully in the background.
How it works in China
A few key things to understand about doing PR in China:
- Strictly censored media means that you cannot do anything outlandish or illegal. It will not be reported. There is even a list of banned words that cannot be used.
- Advertising laws may also affect the PR industry – more about that in this blog.
- A lot of brand coverage you see may be classified as “paid editorial” – basically an advertorial that is not marked as such. This unfortunately also leads to weak, biased content.
- The Western practice of investigative journalism only seems to exist with a few, closely watched publications. Generally junior reporters are stuck with the non-lucrative social and public stories.
- Historically, if you wanted a journalist to attend your event, some form of transaction will be required to make that happen. That might be a gift, transportation card, or something else such as the ubiquitous red packet with a few bills. Cringe anyone? One time a journalist asked for lunch. We said “no.” The next day there was a half-page article about how the event was a miserable flop and that the organizers were ill-meaning (not true!).
Are you a designer handbag or a bottle of detergent?
The content that you are covering is crucial to the success of a PR campaign in China. Designer goods and popular, unique brands will get tons of coverage in fashion magazines. It is not difficult to convince a home interior editor to run a photo of a new Italian lamp from a hot design house. Commodities need some type of special twist to catch an editor’s eye – which is usually why FMCG marketing typically focuses on advertisement and in-store promotion.
For China B2B marketing, focusing on trade magazines and some part on general business is the right move. Which magazines are best focused for your industry? Have you talked to your target readers/clients to find out what media channels they follow? Knowledge of the specific target market and their media habits will be the keys to success.
Is PR in China a cheap way to do advertising?
No. On the marketing scale, general PR outreach is cheaper than banner ads, outdoor ads, TV and print advertising. But the aims are different. Typical outcomes will be media placements – stories and articles in print or online media. It might be a brand story, or the results of a survey that mentioned the brand, or the introduction of a new product to China. The aims of a PR campaign are generally different from a traditional ad campaign – we are trying to get reporters, a third party – to talk about our brands and products.
The PR agency affects the outcome of the story, but a lot of that is through the creation of the interesting story – the one that will be of interest to the media readers, and hence to the reporter as well. What spark in your story will break through the massive clutter of Chinese media? The execution of media placement, such as personal connections, ranks low on the actual outcome of a campaign.
Attracting onlookers on Beijing’s thoroughfare. Make sure you have your police license organized.
Celebrities wield massive power in Asia. I witnessed a near riot on Wangfujing in Beijing when Shuqi, an A-list movie star, made an appearance at a watch store. The other day at an event for Ecco shoes in Chongqing, the appearance of a star helped generate massive crowds, as well as TV coverage.
The flip side of that coin is how well does celebrity coverage help the brand? Does standing in front of a brand board emblazoned with the brand name, or the old tripe of wearing the brand sticker on your arm, really help sales or brand awareness? I would argue “probably yes,” but also strongly note that Chinese consumers are already very wary of celebrity endorsement. For certain sectors, such as infant formula and medical devices, there also may be legal ramifications, which I have already covered in this blog.
Media & KOL checking-in. Offsite events generate online coverage.
Trends – what are we seeing this year?
- Fewer large-scale media events. It’s much harder to get journalists to participate in events now. The old days easily saw 100+ journalists, but those days are few and far between now. Big events can still be an effective way to get a lot of news out in one strong burst.
- Tighter integration of social media into any activity. How can campaigns extend their reach beyond general media? Inviting and supporting bloggers as part of the media campaign is a great way to build grassroots support for a campaign.
- PR is no longer living in a bubble - think about how you can incorporate microsite launches, WeChat HTML5 posts, and other digital outreach into your campaign.
- More careful stories, due to the stricter laws.
- Fewer red packets with top media, especially government-related media. In the future, I predict the anti-corruption enforcement will finally come into play in this overlooked industry.
- Fewer print media and more online – no surprise.