No one really knows how many television stations there are in China. Best estimates put the number at 5,000. Yet, just over ten years ago there were no more than 40. The number of newspapers has increased from around 200 to more than 2,500, radio stations have blossomed from a 100 to 1,200 and TV and radio penetration is now over 85 percent.
In just, 10 years, the media in has exploded. But it is still heavily regulated and owned and controlled by the state run Communist Party. Most local media is pro-China in its content and style and is used as a tool for control and influence over the country’s huge population.
There are also limits on foreign journalists – where they can travel and to whom they can speak. Overseas media regularly have their offices screened and their activities are closely monitored.
Taiwan, Tibet and human rights issues are strictly off the editorial agenda.
Despite this, consumerism has well and truly arrived in China. There’s now an increased sophistication in the market – and marketing communications, brand management and reputation building have become big business.
There is no such thing as privately owned media in China – and foreign companies are restricted. Consumerism is driving up advertising revenue. The dominant Chinese television network, CCTV is said to earn a total of 1 billion yuan or A$200 million a year.
So in this environment how can Australian companies effectively get their message across and plan marketing communications strategies in China?
The first thing to understand is how companies will have to work in a very complex and constantly changing regulatory environment.
“China is very conscious of reforming its media and has some relatively progressive thinking internally about where to take it,” said Gary Davey CEO of Star TV in Hong Kong. “But it’s going to take a very long time because they are equally sensitive about the importance of control.”
An older generation of bureaucrats still sees the media, and television in particular, as a propaganda device and any attempt to reform it into a commercially driven business raises great suspicion amongst the Chinese leadership.
In the past the News Corporation owned STAR TV has upset Chinese authorities and Davey is quick to point out the sensitivities of the Chinese marketplace, especially when it comes to cultural differences.
“You might be able to run a successful State-run security operation by trying to force your own cultural values down someone else’s throat, but you certainly can’t run a business doing that.”
STAR TV has had to develop strategies that fit these realities. “We’ve created new companies with Chinese partners to play a part in the evolution of the policy,” Davey said.
The days of handing out long red envelopes filled with cash to journalists at press conferences in China could also well be over. The industry is trying to clean up its act and has recently released a new code of practice for both public relations professionals and journalists.
The local media is still very pro-China in its content and style but the practice of accepting cash and gifts in return for running positive stories is now being phased out.
Tony Turner has worked in corporate communications in China for over 25 years and is the Hong Kong based Chairman of the Rowland Company.
He says in the past there has been a degree of cronyism, corruption and lack of transparency in the media but that is changing as Western-based multinationals entered the market with a new set of communication standards.
“What we’ve got today in Hong Kong is a highly professional, highly inquisitive and free media,” he said.
Turner believes many multinationals don’t want their name tarnished by being caught for paying journalists.
“The opportunity for PR and professional PR is as great as it ever could be,” Turner said.
This view is reflected in Beijing where Gua Hu-ming heads up the China International Public Relations Association. He says PR as a profession, started in China 15 years ago and first appeared in joint venture hotels.
In the past it has been standard practice for reporters to accept cash and gifts in return for running positive stories or even working in conjunction with investors to ramp up the stock market.
But this is changing Mr Gua believes the Chinese media and journalists are becoming more professional.
But what impact is the Internet having on traditional news sources and PR campaigns?
Dr Xueli Huang is an expert on Internet marketing based at Edith Cowan University in Perth.
He says Internet usage is growing in China with 60 million users but news content is still heavily controlled.
Most users are young and cannot afford a computer. Instead they use Internet cafes to send emails and their main news sources are limited to international news sites such as the BBC World Service and CNN.
“I don’t think the Chinese Government will ban all the news sites, but Government will certainly want to control political sites.”
Bandwidth is also a problem in China. Huang believes newspapers, radio and TV will still provide local news because of the time in downloading information from the Internet and the lack of infrastructure.
So if you are doing business in China here are 12 success tips for implementing a successful marketing communications plan:
1. Understand cultural differences. Be sensitive to local communities and understand the complex and varied structures of the Chinese media. They are not uniform and often controlled at a local, provincial and national level. I will never forget the cultural shock of seeing an armed red-guard standing on a pillbox outside a TV studio in Guangzhou asking for my official ID. Improve your cultural literacy by understanding the culture and history of those you’re doing business with. Respect these differences and don’t impose your own values & perceptions on how the local media should treat you.
2. Use a local spokesperson. Depending on the news value of the story, you will have a better chance of gaining media coverage the more Chinese you make your message. Using a local spokesperson will give you greater credibility. For example in PR campaigns for Nokia and IBM in China, they use local Chairmen who are Chinese because they are well respected and have deep Chinese roots.
3. Know your point of difference – what you do in your own backyard you also have to do in new markets. Find out what makes you or your service or product unique in the marketplace? How will it stand out from the competition. In the past cultural differences have been used as an excuse for dubious practices not acceptable back home. This has changed.
4. Clarify your communication objectives? What do you want to achieve? To inform or entertain? To provide information? To build a profile? To influence public opinion? Personal marketing? Marketing or launching a new product or service? How will cultural diversity and differing news values influence this? News values differ in China. Often issues will be reported one or two days later and not with the urgency or timeliness of the Western media.
5. Define your target audience? Who is your target audience? General public? Customers? Competitors? Suppliers? What age are they, what level of education, what beliefs and values, geographical location, how do they use the local Chinese media? How credible is the media your target audience uses? Does it still have credibility even though it is controlled? The media is evolving and becoming more respected.
6. Identify the best channels of communication. What is the best way to reach your target audience? TV, Radio, Internet, newspapers – local or national? Do your homework on how news is structured and gathered. Investigate who is reporting on what. Find out the nuances. TV has the highest penetration, while the Internet is growing amongst younger Chinese.
7. What is your key message? The media is becoming more competitive and market driven. They need readers and viewers to stay viable in the new economy. How can you make your message appealing and newsworthy? Distill what you want to say into three key points. Always check translations of media releases. Have them retranslated back into English to check for accuracy.
8. Build your case? When building your case look for the China angle. What are the features, advantages and benefits of your message for your Chinese targets? What evidence and proof do you have that is seen as credible and independent within their cultural belief system?
9. What is the China hook? What will make your message or news release stand out from the rest and appeal to the values of Chinese journalists. You are not successful in China until the local market tells you. Giving money to Chinese journalists is no longer acceptable. Use more legal and ethical incentives such as providing transport, lunch or a gift or souvenir item.
10. Develop long-term relationships with the media. Visit and meet journalists face to face. Network, get to know them and involve them in the story. There is now a focus on the interactive brand experience. For example in a recent mobile phone campaign local journalists were involved in trailing the product prior to launch. They were asked for their feedback and engaged proactively in its development providing them with ownership of the product and subsequent story. Relationships and personal connections, or guanxi are very important in China and especially so in cultivating good media contacts.
11. If you have to face the media yourself … Use the Three Golden Rules to Perform at your Best = Know Your Topic, Be Prepared, Relax.