Are PR and MNCs corrupting Chinese media?

The week before last I had lunch with a foreign correspondent who asked me if there was corruption in PR in China. Although I was only providing background, and not speaking to him on the record, I was, to put it politely, diplomatic in my answer. Ever mindful of the brand that graces my business-card, it’s an issue that I tend to tread lightly upon. I did, however, send him on to a friend who has been here longer than me and who works independently and is, therefore, inclined to be more forthcoming about such things.

But the topic arose again last week, courtesy of bloggers Bingfeng, of Bingfeng Teahouse, and Myrick, of Asiapundit. Bingfeng fired the first shot in a post telling foreigners who complain about China’s media restrictions to find something better to do with their time. The crux of his argument was the blocking of any individual site affects only a few thousand people. However, a pervasive culture of media corruption fostered by “foreign MNCs” (multinational corporations) affects everyone in China:

As we all know, the blocking of these web sites, in its worst situation, influence the life of a few thousands in china, while at the same time, the corrupt journalists/media taking money from firms and various organizations and writing misleading articles to fool the public is a everyday story in china, as i know, the norm of taking money from firms to make favorable media exposures was cultivated by many MNCs in china, which bribe chinese journalists in the name of “media PR” or “marketing PR” activities, and bribe them when they have a “PR crisis”. such collusion affects the lives of millions of people and you could do something to change it, especially a lot of them are related with MNCs in china.

There is some truth in what Bingfeng wrote. On this site I have previously written, tongue somewhat in cheek, of the “transportation claim” commonly paid to journalists who attend press events in China. According to the journalist I had lunch with, foreign technology companies originated this practice about ten years ago. I don’t know the detailed history. Anyone who does is invited to comment.

So I agree with Bingfeng to some extent. However, before he makes me his “star of the week” again, he needs to read on, because I’m going to bite later.

Myrick posted a rather interesting response to Bingfeng. First, he pointed out that he, a foreign correspondent by day, was recently offered 500 RMB (about US$60) himself while attending an event sponsored by a nameless European telecommunications firm. He mentioned that, although he refused the money, three Chinese journalists who were present accepted. I suspect that this was vanilla “transportation claim” (车马费) as 500 RMB is the amount typically offered to journalists who attend an event from out of town, while 200 RMB is the going rate for journalists from in town. If Myrick was attending an event in the town he is based in, then there is some inflation happening.

I would like to point out that whoever offered Myrick the money, even if it was simply transportation claim, was an idiot or badly trained. Foreign correspondents work differently than Chinese ones on many levels. Any PR firm, local or foreign, that doesn’t train their staff on these differences is courting trouble. In my company we often dissuade clients from mixing local and foreign journalists not only because it makes things like the transportation claim awkward, but because we often have different messages for domestic and overseas audiences.

In a rebuttal to Bingfeng that I agreed with, Myrick wrote the following:

Bingfeng is correct that this is a serious problem for China – a 2003 study by the Institute for Public Relations [proxy link – WM] puts China dead last in a list of 66 countries in a study on the acceptability of bribery for coverage.

Still, by citing the existence of this problem as a criticism of free-speech advocates he is making a common fallacy of argument by evading the issue.

This is also known as the Chewbacca defense.

That last link is from the blocked-in-China Wikipedia. I regret that readers here won’t be able to access it without a proxy.

The problems of censorship in and press bribery in China are related issues, both shape the content of news here. But to say that censorship of a website is something that only affects a “few thousand” is a gross understatement. While it may be only a handful of residents who are affected by a block on a single blogspot site, the control of information in China promotes ignorance, retards democratic development and prevents the building of an educated civil society. This affects 1.3 billion.

The report that Myrick points to is well worth looking at. The reason why I agree with Myrick’s response, besides correctly calling out the “Chewbacca defense”, is that it points out that there is a relationship between corruption of the media and censorship. I think that relationship is quite deep, and has to do with how the media have evolved here and what Chinese societal expectations of the media are. I also think that relationship should be looked at in terms of corruption in general.

Not to be dissuaded, Bingfeng came back with the following:

[The] so-called “bribery for coverage” is more than just giving money to get favorable media exposures, thanks to the cultivatons of MNCs in china, the collusion between media and business has evolved into more sophisticated forms that influence/manipulate the public and they are unfortuantely followed by more and more organizations and individuals. khodorkovski-style chinese firms are on the horizons and their agents are already very active. this imposes an immediate threat to the emerging “civil society” in china, not the censorship.

“free speech/press fighters” could do something to change the media corruptions, but in the short term i don’t see their chant could do anything to reduce the media censorships. MNCs are the one who set the norms of media bribery, government “PR”, media “PR”, marketing “PR”, etc. and our “free speech/press fighters” could do something to ask them to change the norms or even follow a more strict business ethics. this is a more approachable goal.

like many things in china, the dysfunctional part of the system is not removed directly through a confrontational approach, but through the cultivations of incremental parts of the system. a less corrupt media will forster an environment that leads to less censorship.

the only disadvantage of a different roadmap is that hte process will be less satisfying for the moral superiority of some westerners and perhaps doesn’t fit into the political agendas of some of them.

Here again, Bingfeng is half right. There is “collusion between media and business [that] has evolved into more sophisticated forms that influence/manipulate the public.” We call that public relations, and it’s what I do for a living. But no matter how distasteful you might find it, it is not necessarily corrupt, and seems not to have undermined civil society in most of the rest of the world.

The origins of the transportation claim notwithstanding, blaming MNCs and PR companies for corruption in the Chinese media is absurd. Complicit though they may sometimes be, it’s like blaming vultures for the death of your horse in the desert. This argument is the reframing of a victimization theme I often see wielded against foreigners and multinationals when discussing problems in China. It plays well on nationalist sentiments and often does a really good job of deflecting attention away from serious, underlying issues worthy of scrutiny. The Chewbacca defense, as Myrick pointed out.

Furthermore, to suggest that a cleaner media will lead to fewer restrictions on free speech is, quite simply, to put the cart before the horse. I believe the exact opposite is true. Free speech and a less fettered press are much more likely to be effective weapons against corruption.

Who Are You Calling Corrupt?
Chinese companies and institutions, as anyone who lives here rapidly learns, are quite capable of corruption without any foreign influence whatsoever. Corruption, in the media or anywhere else, isn’t something that springs up spontaneously, or as the result of the wicked influence of foreign MNCs, who are perennial favorite targets of Chinese nationalism. Corruption is like a gas. It’s always there and it expands to fill the shape and volume of the space available for it.

The volume of space available for corruption is created by lack of transparency and by well established patterns of government and commercial behavior. While many countries, including the United States, have corruption, China leaves a comparatively wide-open space for it. For some details, sift through Transparency International’s website, which ranks China at number 78, alongside such illustrious company as Morocco, Sri Lanka, Senegal and Suriname. Or this more recent article (subscription) by Andrew Yeh, one of the Financial Times’ Beijing-based journalists, on the OECD’s assessment on the impact of widespread corruption in China.

However, this isn’t to say that some MNCs won’t collude with corruption. MNCs tend to be amoral beasts that adapt themselves superbly to any environment in which they need to operate. Many governments are aware of this, which explains laws like the United States’ Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Companies like mine often help to clean up the mess when MNCs get caught misbehaving. Bingfeng may be shocked to learn how often those cleanup efforts involve absolutely no bribes.

For the record, in my time in the PR industry in China, I have never witnessed anything I felt to be corrupt. I have never seen anyone in my company do anything I felt was corrupt. Nor, in the course of their work with me, have any of my clients, all MNCs, done anything I felt was corrupt or even borderline. One of my clients’ policies on separating advertising and paid coverage from PR is so strict that we don’t even help with advertorial copy, something I did all the time in Singapore.

If I was asked to do something I felt was wrong, I would decline to do it and warn whoever was asking me of the consequences. If necessary, I would resign before compromising myself, my colleagues or my company. I don’t think this is likely to happen, so it doesn’t keep me up nights. Our (Chinese) finance director is one of the most scrupulous and careful men I have ever met. He is constantly reminding us of our financial disclosure and probity obligations as part of a listed, international media conglomerate. Furthermore, despite the occasional ghastly scandal, there is no company as aware of the value of its reputation as a global PR company.

None of this, however, means that Bingfeng is wrong about there being corruption in the media or in PR in China. Within our office, it’s the local, Chinese PR firms that take the most flack for corruption. Chinese consultants in my office have spoken to me many times of what they perceive as the distinctly lower ethical standards of local firms. This may simply be their pride talking, or just empty gossip. Although given how close many of our Chinese consultants are to Chinese journalists, they’d be in a position to hear about anything that happens.

Now, allow me to pose a hypothetical scenario. If you’re MNC X, and you want to buy some coverage savaging your bitter competitor, MNC Y, in the China market, which of the two following PR firms would you use to arrange it?

  1. The SOX compliant multinational PR firm with public company accounting requirements and an international reputation to protect or,
  2. The privately held, locally owned firm with no international reputation or financial disclosure obligations.

Simple risk management suggests the latter would be a better choice. Now perhaps, was this to actually happen, it would be a case of a wicked MNC leading an otherwise chaste Chinese PR company down the dark path of corruption. More likely, it would be willing buyer/willing seller. Furthermore, I’d be shocked Smurf blue to hear that Chinese companies, forever battling their own corruption demons, would turn up their noses at these methods. I don’t think they’d need to learn the trick from foreign MNCs.

In case you are wondering, although I think it’s a bad idea, I don’t feel that the transportation claim is corrupt. Media corruption thrives in the dark, when its influence is hidden. The transportation claim is completely matter-of-fact and auditable. You can follow the trail, from our cost estimate for events to our invoices to clients to the list of exactly which journalists showed up at a press event, and their sign-in signatures. It’s never guaranteed us good coverage, or even attendance at events. Frankly, I think it’s a desperate waste of money, and it will be a good day for the maturity of Chinese media when it is abolished. But that will only happen when the Chinese media decide for themselves to abolish it, or when all companies with PR efforts in China, both local and foreign, decide to abolish it together. It would take a company with a large risk appetite indeed to unilaterally decide no longer offer the transportation claim, especially while their competitors still did.

Is my position hypocrisy? Or rationalization? Maybe.

What is this Media of which You Speak?
I have been working in China for just over a year, and I, as an individual, am not an expert on the Chinese media. But I have been involved in media-related work, one way or another, for thirteen years, my graduate degree is in media studies, and I work in an industry whose stock in trade is an understanding of media. With that disclosure, you may take the following observations as you will.

The problem with Chinese media is not that it is being corrupted by ne’er-do-well foreign MNCs or PR firms. Rather, it is that the Chinese media are in transition from explicit state control to something subtler and more reflective of modern Chinese society. It has become something that isn’t developed country media, but which looks like it from a distance. Bound up in this transition are the ongoing changes in China’s media regulations as the government tries to figure out what it wants Chinese media to be, and shifting public expectations of what role the media should play in Chinese society. The tremors of this transition have been documented in Chinese media, overseas media and, not least, by the China blogging community. An interesting recent example includes ESWN’s post on fraudsters representing themselves as journalists.

If all this seems like a recipe for confusion…it is. This shows in, yes, the opportunities for corruption and, more mundanely, in how the media relate to authority, to multinationals and, of course, to PR firms.

There is a relationship aspect to PR work everywhere. It’s formalized. We call it, surprisingly enough, “media relations”. An ability to build good relationships with journalists is one of our marketable skills. Here in China, our relationships with journalists are especially cozy. Not corrupt, mind you, just cozy.

This coziness isn’t unique to China any more than media corruption or the influence of corporate or state parent organizations. Anyone who thinks that the US, for example, is immune to this hasn’t been following the salacious Plamegate affair. This has done wonders to illuminate the shameful coziness that greases the operations of both the Washington DC press corps and the spin-obsessed White House. But in China this coziness is more pervasive.

Although I never did PR in the US, I did do it in Singapore, which also has state-controlled media often accused of pliancy. Even in Singapore, no matter how good my personal relationships with journalists were (and they were pretty good), there was often an adversarial quality to the professional relationship. That wasn’t necessarily expressed in hostility or bad press, but in healthy skepticism, tough questions, and wariness of spin. All qualities of a decent press corps.

Here in China I find, on average, that it is much easier for us to control a line of questioning or set it in advance, review coverage and quotes before they go to press, suggest themes and anticipate the tone of stories. Journalists here often expect us to package stories quite completely for them, giving us yet more room to set the agenda. We have stenographers at most media events, and send complete transcripts of press conferences and round tables to the journalists who attend them, often on the same day. It is expected that we will do this. When we can package a story more completely, we can dictate its tone more effectively. Among my Chinese team members, the nickname for pliant journalists is “rabbits”. Not the image of ferocity.

Now, I want to stress two important things. First, relationships are not a red carpet. We flacks in China are not excused from having to come up with good pitches and interesting events. And we’re not immune to bad press, by any stretch of the imagination. We also have real PR challenges that are unique to doing business in China. It’s just that the relationships are more central to how we work. In the land of guanxi, this is not so surprising.

Second, and most important, my observations above are industry generalizations. I know many extremely bright and motivated Chinese journalists who take real pride in their work. They are capable of asking dynamite questions, picking up killer angles, and writing hard-hitting and intelligent stories. Chinese journalists have suffered and died for their commitment to their work, and for their integrity and many are worthy of the highest respect. (Contrary to what you might think, most PR people are news junkies and really appreciate dynamite journalism, as long as it isn’t causing trouble for our own clients.) Even many of the “rabbits” are good, smart people working in an established system. Please do not interpret my observations as a condemnation of Chinese journalists.

Some Chinese media pliancy may simply be a result of a wildly booming industry that is hungry for content. The seller of a product that is in high demand, such as particular content, exerts more control. That’s why Hollywood publicists can dictate question lists for stars, whereas corporate flacks like me seldom can. But I think some of it also descends from the Chinese media’s recent legacy of control and management from above. Chinese media are still evolving their editorial standards and modes of operation. PR firms, multinationals and Chinese firms will all figure out how best to operate and achieve their goals in this environment. That might be cynical, and you don’t have to like it, but it isn’t corrupt. Ruthlessly separating my preferences as a media consumer from my objectives as a PR pro, I am under no obligation to tell a journalist to ask tougher questions of my client.

Mouthpieces or Watchdogs?
What does China want from its media? Let me return to the idea that started it all off: the relationship between free speech and corruption. The media can be a potent weapon in fighting corruption, given the space to do so. A few years ago, Jiang Zemin appeared to recognize this when he cited media as one of the country’s great tools in its perennial war against corruption. Of course the media themselves were fighting their own corruption demons in ways that went far beyond low-rent payola for good coverage, as 2004 busts of senior editorial staff from the well known Southern Metropolis News and Nanfang Daily Group showed.

But beyond media’s own corruption problems, counting on them to help unmask corruption demands independence and a culture of enterprise that needs room to grow. The current government seems to have different ideas, as this recent article from The Economist (subscription) reports:

The Chinese government’s increasingly hardline stance is encapsulated in Document 16, promulgated this spring. Among other things, this banned the practice of yidi baodao, or “reports from non-local places”, with journalists travelling to distant cities where, free of their local minders, they could write harder-hitting stories about corrupt local officials or social unrest. “This was the best hope for China developing an open press,” says Mr [Nicolas] Becquelin [of human-rights group HRIC]. In Hong Kong, papers critical of China, like Apple Daily, are complaining that advertisers are fleeing because of threats to their mainland businesses. Journalists there are suddenly finding it harder to get visas for travel to the mainland.

These regulations were also covered nicely by the invaluable Chinese media blog, Danwei.

Even more worrying, some suggest that anti-corruption drives in China are simply tools to clean out the lingering remnants of the previous power structure and, bizarrely, to implement monetary policy, as suggested by this Asia Times Online article. So, even in their role as corruption fighters, the Chinese media face the specter of being cynically deployed tools of state policy.

Media can, of course, be effective weapons against corruption, whether that’s corruption in government, business or within their own industry. Even if, for no other reason than fulfilling their own business objectives by attracting eyeballs, most publications love nothing more than to break a big scandal wide open.

But that will never happen here unless the government can decide what role the media should fill in society: mouthpieces or watchdogs. They can’t be both. You can’t state-manage a media industry to effectiveness as anti-corruption crusaders, and keep it muzzled at the same time. You have to do the opposite. Give them space, in the form of freedom of the press, which is just another way of saying freedom of speech. That will help to lift the veil on corruption everywhere including, yes, in the media itself.

So when we arrogant foreigners rail against the restrictions on the Chinese media, we aren’t ignoring the problem of corruption in the media, or anywhere else. In fact, we are advocating for the unleashing of China’s most potent weapon against corruption.

A truly free media.

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