So, you want to work in PR in China…

From time to time Imagethief gets a note from an American or English student who thinks that a career in PR in China would be just the ticket and wants some advice as to how to get into the field. This week I had two such inquiries. The first got a carefully written note answering his questions in detail. The second got a paragraph followed by a cut-and-paste of the note that went to the first one.

I wasn’t just being miserly, although I can be miserly when called upon. The people writing me may come from different circumstances, but they tend to ask similar questions and get the same basic advice, which is generally applicable to most young foreigners looking to build a PR career in China. It makes sense to put some of that information into a blog post so that it is more broadly available and so I don’t have to write the same response over and over.

With that in mind, here is my advice. Bear in mind that this advice is for foreigners looking to break into PR in China. The conditions are different for Chinese applicants. Also, the following reflects my own inclinations. Other people may take a different approach, and your mileage may vary.

First, be able to explain why you’re fascinated by PR

I wrote all the China stuff below and then it occurred to me that I hadn’t included this most basic of conditions. But you’d better be prepared to discuss why you’re fascinated by (not just interested in) public relations. Know something about the key players in the industry. Be able to explain what PR is, how it works, and what some of the issues the industry is currently facing are. Tell me why you are passionate about PR. Then tell me why you are passionate about doing it in China, of all places. If you tell me it’s because you’re “a people-person” or because you “love to communicate” I may scream in pain. That is because I will have just sprained the muscles I use to roll my eyes.

Be here now*

If you’re already in China or planning to be here, great. If not, plan on bringing yourself out. It sucks, but no one is going to fly a fresh graduate out for interviews no matter how good their GPA. You might get telephone interviews, but most people making hiring decisions will choose someone they’ve met face-to-face over someone they’ve only interviewed on the phone. Even if you have a good phone interview, you’re still going to have to pick up your own ticket in the end. Agencies might seek out and hire experienced domain specialists from overseas, but at the entry level there are plenty of fresh graduates, language students and English teachers looking to make leap already here, so don’t expect someone else to do the heavy lifting. Plan a month in China and arrange interviews while you’re here. Spend your spare time in language school or traveling. Or writing the Great Chinese Novel. It doesn’t really matter. People will be impressed that you were willing to take the risk and bring yourself out.

Naturally, the more time you’ve spent in China already the better. It’s true that Beijing in 2010 (or whenever you’re reading this) is pretty civilized, but it’s still a long way from home. Not everyone who comes here likes it as much as they think they will. One thing I always look for is some sign that you know what you’re getting yourself into. A year or even a summer already spent studying in China is a good start. I want to know that you’re fascinated by China. That your life won’t be complete until you can live and work in China. The (distant) second best option is serious time spent abroad somewhere else, preferably in Asia. The two weeks you spent on a class trip doesn’t impress me so much. I want to be reasonably sure you won’t be here for three months and then freak out because it’s dirty/there are too many beggars/the air is bad/there are recognizable animal parts in the food/[your neurosis here]. I’ve seen it happen.

*With apologies to Oasis.

Prove you have a passion for China

I hinted at this a bit above, but let me spend a little more time on it because it’s important. I’m not so interested in someone who wants to work in China because they think it’s the next big thing or a couple of years in China will look great on their CV or help them get into business school. What I really want is someone who is fascinated by China. A person who is fascinated by China will be able to talk at length about the China books they’ve read, about China journalism, and about why it is that China excites them. (In an interview I’ll always ask which China books a foreign candidate has read, which they liked and didn’t like, and why.) These days every candidate has spent at least some time studying the language, although a caveat about this below. They’ll have opinions about Chinese companies or how China is perceived in the US, even if they haven’t been to China before.

Related to that, another thing I always test for is a good knowledge of current events in China. What issues are important in China at the moment? What are the latest scandals? What’s been in the Chinese news or in foreign news about China? If you follow the reading advice below, this should come naturally. Knowing the headline stuff (Expo is opening next month, Google has troubles here, there was just an earthquake in Qinghai…) is obligatory. If you can take it to the next level (KFC just had a coupon crisis in China, there is a big debate over whether or not there is a property bubble in the major cities, Gao Zhisheng was recently released from jail, Western media is having a Han Han moment, what was that whole deal with Deng Yujiao…) you’ll impress me more.

What if your reasons for coming to China are completely cynical and you’re simply well prepared enough to confidently address all of the above? That works for me too. I’m in business, and one has to be pragmatic. If you’ve got mad skills I don’t care so much if you’re not all infatuated.

Think about what you offer

Not to be harsh, but why am I going to hire you, an entry-level foreigner, with all the extra costs and paperwork and visa BS you will require, over the English-speaking Chinese graduate who wants to join my company? The Chinese applicant probably scored in the top fifth percentile in the Gaokao and went to an elite university. One of my most junior team members was number two in his province, and his province has a population a fifth the size of the United States. Contrary to what you may have heard, you’re not necessarily more creative than Chinese applicants. True, the Chinese educational system isn’t known for being entirely conducive to free-spirited exploration, but we can be choosy. Ninety percent of our work is meant for Chinese audiences. So, how do you fit in?

This was a loaded question but an important one. We do hire entry-level foreigners so there are opportunities. Initial responsibilities lean heavily toward editing English language materials, but the goal is always to move on up to more involved and comprehensive work. But the issue I’m getting at is how you differentiate yourself from the other applicants, Chinese and foreign. Most of the foreigners I interview have spent time in China and have studied Chinese, so those aren’t differentiators anymore. Particularly interesting work experience (even internships) can be. Some of the things I’m always interested in are time spent working or interning in mainstream foreign media organizations (foreigners at my company generally manage relationships with foreign journalists); a really good understanding of social media and Internet (be prepared to talk literately about how technology is changing the news and PR industries); college radio or TV experience; an entrepreneurial streak; and a love of writing.

Writing in particular remains the most fundamental of PR skills even in the era of social media and word-of-mouth. If you can’t write well or don’t enjoy writing, then I seriously suggest considering another line of work. Furthermore, most junior foreigners at my agency start out as English language editors. Their job is to make sure that senior foreigners, like me, don’t have to spend too much of our scarce time copy editing. This means you need to have some writing and editing talent (the two aren’t quite the same thing). I’ll always ask for writing samples, and one of the things I look for is a sign that an applicant not only can write, but genuinely enjoys it. Keeping a blog, writing for student publications and writing as a hobby are the kinds of thing that I like to see.

Show you love to read, too

People who write well are almost always compulsive readers. I want to know that an applicant reads everything they can get their hands on. I mentioned books above. I also like to hear which blogs, websites, newspapers and magazines an applicant likes. Things that I keep an eye open for are Chinese or vertical industry interests. For instance, I handle technology clients, so I like an applicant that goes to a lot of tech news sites every day and has opinions about technology that are informed by reading. I’ll always dig into the responses a bit to get a sense of what drives an applicant’s tastes and how they discover interesting material.

One of the things I often ask foreign applicants is where they go for China news, which Western media organizations they think are best for Chinese news, how they think China is represented in Western media, and which journalists’ work they like. Only the most hardcore can discuss the latter question, but I like it because if you’re going to be working with foreign media you should have some sense of who they are and the framework they operate in.

I also like people who are clearly paying attention to the China blogs. If you’re already here and don’t know what Danwei or China Media Project is, you’re not trying hard enough. If you’ve read my blog too you’ll definitely get some brownie points (but that alone won’t get you a job). Look at the blogroll to the left, and start reading. Even if you can’t read them easily, I’ll be impressed if you know who’s influential in the China blogosphere, either in general or in the industry that you’re interested in.

Finally, if you can read Chinese and can have the same discussion about Chinese media and journalism, that will definitely help. Notice that it’s not the language skill itself, but how you’re applying it that’s important to me here. More on that below. But even if you can’t read Chinese comfortably, several good Chinese media organizations publish in English now and I’ll be much more impressed with an applicant that is paying attention to two or three of them than one that is not.

Chinese language is an advantage, not a guarantee

Back in 2004 when my (Chinese) boss hired me, I explained that my Chinese wasn’t very good. “Don’t worry,” she laughed. “I’m not hiring you for your Chinese skills. I’ve got plenty of Chinese people who can handle that.” And thank heavens for that, because my Chinese still isn’t great.

Don’t misunderstand me: Chinese skills are really useful and I much prefer a Chinese speaking (and reading) foreign applicant. But it’s only one factor among many. Abundant Chinese skills won’t make up for a lack of other qualifications or selling points. You can speak Chinese like Dashan, but if your English writing isn’t up to scratch I’m not going to hire you. As a foreigner, you’re never hired first and foremost for your Chinese skills. Like my boss, I have Chinese people on my team to handle the Chinese stuff. You’re there either to handle the English language stuff, or use your Chinese skills in support of English language stuff (for example, by being able to refer to a Chinese original document when editing a translation). Also, if you claim awesome Chinese I’ll have my Chinese team members interview you in Chinese to see how well your claim holds up (including asking you about any Chinese language stuff you may have cited in your “I love to read” proof points). Bear that in mind.

Work your contacts and get a recommendation or a referral

I got hired in China because I had several years of PR and Internet experience and a pretty deep knowledge of technology. I had also brought myself to Beijing for three months to do a language program, so I was able to do interviews in person. But, importantly, I also had an introduction from the guy who then ran the Singapore office of the company I joined in Beijing. I hadn’t worked for him, but he had interviewed me right before I left for my language program and was (inexplicably) impressed enough to make the connection.

I love it when I have candidates referred by people whose judgment I trust. Hiring involves risk. In China, where hiring foreigners comes with extra bureaucratic hassle, the risk is magnified. A candidate that doesn’t work out costs me time, money, effort and possibly client trust. I like to mitigate my hiring risk as much as possible, and recommendations are one way to do that.

If you want to work in PR in China, I strongly recommend doing an internship with an agency back home. Not only will you get some experience, but at best they’ll hook you up with their China office after you graduate. That won’t guarantee you a job, but it may very well help get you an interview. If nothing else, hopefully they’ll give you a good recommendation, and I value good recommendations from other people in the PR industry even if I don’t know them personally. If I think you’re worth hiring, however, I will make a phone call, so that person will need to be prepared to go into some detail about you.

Other places to check

There are two other things I’ll refer you to. One is a post by my good friend David Wolf (who was instrumental in my own hiring into my first job in China), “Some advice for the China-bound job seeker.”

Also, some months ago I did a long interview on the Blue Ocean Network during which I talked about things I look for in job applicants. If you’ve read down to here you’ll know most of it already, but it wouldn’t hurt to check it out.

Finally, some of you upon reading all of this may wonder, did he just give away the keys to the kingdom? Let me answer with a story. When I was in college in the late eighties I was a biology student. Like all bio students, I had to take organic chemistry. O-chem was the weeding class for science majors. You passed and went on to complete a hard science degree, or you washed out and went into the social sciences or whatever. O-chem exams were open book. “Hah!” I thought. “Open book! That’s easy!”

What a dumbass I was. O-chem is one of those subjects where “open book” is meaningless. You either know the material and the underlying concepts, or you choke, frantically flipping through your 800 page tome looking for the right formula while flop-sweat drips onto your test paper. Amazingly, I passed, but it was not an experience that I look back upon with warmth.

The kinds of things I’ve mentioned above are like that. You could memorize all the questions I’m going to ask in an interview and have answers ready in advance for all of them (which I would consider a sign of diligence and good preparation), but once you start talking I’ll know within sixty seconds whether it’s just a cram or the underlying passion, knowledge and understanding are really there.

I certainly welcome comments from people on both sides of this process, especially if they’ve had different experiences than me.

Good luck, and see you in China.

Note: Thanks to Gerald Schmidt for the copy edits. Like I said, writing and editing are different skills. Candidates take note: Another desirable quality is being able to take corrections with good grace.

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