A scholarly analysis of the economics of PR in China

It occurs to me that, despite having been a Beijing PR professional for six months, I have yet to write anything about working in Beijing, as opposed to just living here.

So let me tackle that by talking about one of the most striking differences between public relations in China, and public relations anywhere else. We pay journalists to come to press conferences.

I can now hear the collective, outraged gasp from my peers around the world. But, as adventurers throughout history have discovered, it is asking for a short trip to the dog-headed guillotine to judge China by your imperialist standards. Unless you have gunboats.

I have no gunboats, so I try to stay open-minded.

When we do a press conference in Beijing, we give every journalist who shows up a 200 yuan “transportation reimbursement”. I use quotation marks because you have to labor mightily to roll up even a 50 yuan taxi fare in Beijing, and the average ride probably sets you back 20. Clearly, it ain’t all going to transportation.

Before you let your imagination run wild, we do not keep a bucket full of cash behind the media reception desk. It’s all very discreet, with the money distributed in plain, white envelopes along with the press release and the naff corporate gift du jour. This is completely standard practice across China, so save your indignation.

200 yuan, or roughly $40 Singapore/$25 US, is a lot of money in Beijing. I can get through a weekend on 200 yuan if I am not crawling the decadent, five-star hotel bars like Centro or Red Moon.

But exchange rates don’t tell the real story. Having learned a lesson from that most scholarly of news magazines, The Economist, I believe international monetary comparisons are best expressed in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP), rather than straight exchange rates. So, for the benefit of my friends in Singapore (Americans, bear with me), I will make a PPP comparison using the commodity that flacks and hacks best understand: beer.

In Beijing, rock bottom for a beer out on the town (say, a pint of Yanjing at the Electric Cactus Garden in Wudaokou) is about 3 yuan. In Singapore, rock bottom for a beer out on the town (a tall Tiger at the Maxwell Road hawker center) is about $5 Sing, or 25 yuan, more or less.

So the 200 yuan we pay a journalist, after we deduct a legitimate 50 yuan for round-trip taxis, will buy about 50 beers. (150 yuan remaining divided by 3 yuan a pint. Are you following me? If not, you need to come over to my house for poker night.)

OK, Singaporean journalists, hold onto your hat. To achieve similar benefits from attending a press conference in Singapore, you’d have to receive an ang pao containing, wait for it, $270 Sing. That’s two $10 cab fares (ignoring the fact that you will claim them), and $250 to pay for your 50 tall Tigers at $5 a snort. (Other countries, insert your own math. Bloomberg exchange rate calculator here, and I know you don’t need me to tell you the price of a cheap beer.)

So, journalists, next time my peers from whatever PR firm in Singapore phone you up and ask if you will be attending their client’s unveiling of the latest in electronic toilet brushes, or whatever, I suggest you demand just compensation. If it’s good enough for the Chinese press corps, by god, it’s good enough for you.

Note: Some economically literate readers may wish to point out that PPP should be calculated using a basket of commodities rather than just one. In defense of my analysis, a beer represents a basket of agricultural and industrial commodities: hops, malt, water, packaging, the energy required for manufacturing and distribution, etc. If you still want to take issue with my analysis, get a girlfriend or a hobby for god’s sake.

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