Seeing Red: Notes on China’s PR Industry


A recent Guardian article reported that the Chinese state would add to its list of draconian media restrictions by creating a blacklist for journalists who don’t conform to government reporting rules. This got me thinking about the Chinese PR industry and how it differs from ours.

I spent a bit of time in China on my travels and since then I’ve taken quite an interest in their affairs. Theres something about the country and its culture that has stayed with me since my visit and Im keen on going back there to work in the future.

Media coverage in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics often focused on the country’s problems, such as environmental degredation, wealth and class disparity and the governments oppressive hold over Tibet. However,  there’s no denying that it has achieved an incredible amount of positive growth and change over the last 30 years, and all in the wake of some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.

The PR industry is still young but is growing fast to accomodate changing times. David Zhau, MD of Hill & Knowlton Shanghai provides a good overview of the industry and trends in 2008.

Issues effecting the practice of PR

In recent years the Chinese media has enjoyed more editorial control but output is still monitored by the Communist Party’s propaganda department. The government still has tight control over all media outlets and the news agenda often reflects this. Gaining timely news coverage can be a problem, as news has a longer shelf life: it can be published immediatly or up to one month after the event.

Popular news topics include anything that fits in with the national agenda and echoes government plans such as the country’s rise to becoming the next global superpower, “green” initiatives backing up government plans to clean up the country and other CSR issues. It is also important for foreign companies to emphasise commitment to the local economy and community.

china1CSR is increasingly becoming an important part of brand building, especially with regards to the green environment. Chinese consumers are among the worlds most environmentally conscious according to research.

Cultural differences impact greatly on the way public relations and business in general is practiced and new practices don’t always mix well with tradition. The concept of ‘Guanxi’, meaning personal connections, is rooted in Chinese culture and society. Personal connections are often the measure of success in business, even more than the price or quality of your goods and services. In PR, personal connections with journalists often secures media coverage over and above genuine news value but this is changing.

Online and social media environment


Opportunites for reaching audiences online are huge. The China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC) claims the nation’s internet population rose 41.9% in 2008 to 298 million, reports the BBC. The CNNIC study also reported large increases in internet usage in rural areas as well as from mobile devices.

Blogging continues to grow, with numbers hitting 162 million at the end of 2008. As is the case in other countries, it is a powerful force for consumers and activists of all kinds. However, the Chinese blogosphere dwarfs that of other countries, even the US, so online conversations are even more important. The potential for online brand building and word-of-mouth are there, but so is the possibility of a large scale backlash if things go wrong. For example in 2007 a Starbucks coffee shop in the forbidden city, Beijing, was forced to close after news anchor Rui Chenggang sparked an online campaign through his blog.

Online bulletin boards (BBS’s) are said to be more than twice as popular as blogs due to the Chinese prefering anonymity, but social media as a whole is alive and well. The names are often different but the categories are the same: social networks, video/audio sharing, photos and tags, consumer reviews and microblogging are all popular.

This social media boom comes despite government attempts to censor anything they don’t like, including user generated content. The restrictive environment certainly isn’t ideal for those within the Chinese social media environment, but it doesn’t seem to have stifled their enthusiasm or creativity. Shel Israel explains how China’s web 2.0 censorship isn’t really as bad as it is perceived to be and that people generally find ways to work around it.


In short it seems that the Chinese PR industry has adapted itself to tie in with the needs of the state and the more restrictive media environment and is seeing success because of this. Whats more the huge mass of Netizens are heavily engaged in social media persuits and its influence is growing by the day.

Maybe the idea of Guanxi (personal relationships) that’s so ingrained in Chinese culture is the reason behing the success of social media there, or maybe their just all technology mad. It’ll certainly help organisations build closer relationships with their customers whichever way you look at it.


About Tom Craik

Senior Account Executive at Finn Communications, a PR and Word of Mouth agency based in Leeds. Baby face. Northern Monkey. Attention junkie. Space man. Fake tan. Dancefloor dreamer. Analyser. Deliberator. Wordsmith. Book worm. Head in clouds. Telecaster. Dance floor master. Closet rasta. Free love. Fresh jokes. Old gear. Naff beard. Existential. Influential. Left of centre. iPod. Math rock. Psych Folk. Dropping dubstep. Chicken Balti. Laos. Berlin. Bass bin. Circle pit. Guggenheim. Baltic. Cabernet. Globalised. Wired. No house. No car. Going places!
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One Response to Seeing Red: Notes on China’s PR Industry

  1. It is interesting when you talk about the idea of Guanxi and how important it is within business in china. Like you said, social media really does provide better oppotunities than ever before to increase your network of influence and develop more strategic and personal relationships so i can really see why it would be hugely successful.
    Keep the blogs coming i think they really great!

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