I’m sorry, the government has killed your story

Colleagues from American and European offices often ask Imagethief how PR in China is different from PR in the west. Usually I give a two-part answer. First I tell them that were they to step into our offices in China they would see many things that they would instantly recognize as garden variety PR. We write press releases, organize events, craft angles and pitch stories to competitive publications and journalists, develop communication strategies and train executives in how to handle the media, among other things. But then I tell them about what’s different, usually sticking to the highlights. In the best diplomatic, spin-doctorese I tell them that the Chinese media’s “ethical framework is not entirely developed”. By which I mean that it is, in many ways, a corrupt swamp. (This is something of a theme in the foreign media recently, having been covered by the Washington Post, New York Times and AP with the Lan Chengzhang case as catalyst.)

The other difference is that the government has explicit power over the media agenda. Most of the time, self-censorship is the rule. However the propaganda ministry –中宣部– also sends out guidance on sensitive issues to major media. Editors who want to keep their jobs are expected to toe the line. Occasionally an acute issue will motivate a directive to halt coverage of a topic, as when media were directed to layoff the Foxconn-Apple scandal of last year. (Recently this has led to proscribed topics sloshing over into journalists’ and editors’ blogs, but that’s a topic for ESWN.)

We were reminded of the realities of government management of the media agenda recently, shortly after arranging an interview between one of our MNC clients and a Chinese business magazine. The magazine in question had requested the interview, with an eye on exploring our client’s business and investments in China. The discussion was vigorous but reasonably balanced and we were expecting a decent article as a result, with publication planned prior to Chinese New Year.

About two weeks after the interview, one of the editors involved called us and said the story would be “delayed”. Apparently the magazine had just received guidance from the Propaganda Ministry to be more “sensitive” in publishing stories that involved foreign investment, particularly around certain industries or well-known Chinese brands. We had not, at first blush, considered the story we were developing to be particularly risky or sensitive. But the journalists and editors at the magazine were, as you would expect, taking the ministerial guidance extremely seriously. So we had to wait, and so did our client.

But clients who make busy senior (foreign) executives available expect explanations about these kinds of things. “Hey, dude, it’s China,” doesn’t really cut it, so we did a little poking around. The back-story is illustrative of one of the challenges of the PR biz in China.

Anyone who follows current affairs in China will know that these are delicate times for discussing the topic of foreign investment. Questions are being raised about the quality of foreign investment and the intent behind it. Early last November the 11th Five Year Plan was published. It put a great deal of emphasis on the quality of foreign investment. In this English Xinhua article about the plan, the money graf –as far as we were concerned– is the very last one:

In response to the rising concern over foreign acquisitions of leading Chinese firms in critical sectors, the document says China will speed up legislation and step up the supervision of sensitive acquisitions and takeovers to ensure critical industries and enterprises remain under Chinese control.

Shortly thereafter, it seems the initial guidance to treat reporting around this topic sensitively was passed on to at least some Chinese media. The publication we were dealing with was government-linked, and had little wiggle-room as far as interpreting this directive to be “sensitive”. Unfortunately, apparently, they had somehow missed the memo and in their previous issue published an article that had raised eyebrows upstairs. This had resulted in a ministerial reminder to toe the line, which descended, Rumsfeldian snowflake fashion, into the in-boxes of the editors of the magazine we were working with the day before they called to tell us that they had to postpone.

My initial response when the Chinese media-relations guru on my team told me that the magazine had to postpone the story because of a government directive was to assume they were giving me a polite brush-off. Similar, perhaps, to what you might get if a Western editor didn’t like the story a journalist had put together on your client, and the journalist in question wanted to tell you something more polite than, “The editor thinks your interview was crap on a stick.”

“Are they yanking our chain?” was the first question I asked her. Some of our other Chinese team members, including one of our government relations people, had the same first reaction, so it wasn’t just foreigner-itis. But after some research and phone calls turned up the story above I changed my opinion. At the very least, if it was an excuse, it was a damn well substantiated one with abundant face-saving for everyone. In which case, my face duly saved, I could sleep well at night.

The net result, however, is that our story went on the back burner, where it remains until the publication feels that it can once again broach the topic of foreign investment in certain industries, or hell freezes over (whichever comes first). And now I have one more piece of due-diligence to do when identifying Chinese media to work with in future.

Such is one of the many things that make PR in China such a rush.

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