The Looming Crisis for Public Relations in China

I love PR (public relations)
Image by DoktorSpinn via Flickr

In the Hutong
Watching candy-wrappers blow in the wind
1818 hrs.

Gady Epstein and Imagethief have offered spot-on commentary about Mengniu‘s alleged hiring of a Beijing PR firm to disseminate libelous disinformation about a competitor. This sort of extreme case makes a good story, and hopefully there will be a few visible prosecutions to ensure these particular practitioners never twist the truth again.

But there are a wide range of activities in the public relations industry in China that, while they would be considered unethical or illegal elsewhere, are accepted practices here. While the practices in isolation may not seem egregious, they create an atmosphere of permissiveness that undermines the effort by many public relations people, both Chinese and foreign, to move public relations out of the sewer and into the boardroom.

Practices I have witnessed in the past decade include:

  1. Corporations and their public relations firms paying reporters a “transportation fee” of anywhere from RMB 200 – RMB 700 simply to come to a press conference or an interview, regardless of any relationship that fee has to the actual costs incurred.
  2. Public relations firms writing pro-client stories – essentially press releases in the style of a feature – for reporters to publish under their own bylines.
  3. PR firms pricing their services on a per-published-word basis, who, after taking a cut, then pay reporters to write reams of laudatory copy in return for a gratuity for each word published.
  4. Companies entertaining reporters at expensive restaurants, plying them with expensive gifts, or taking them on junkets.
  5. Companies paying reporters outright to write positive stories about them.
  6. Companies paying reporters outright to spike negative stories about them.
  7. Companies buying ads in newspapers in order to keep those publications for writing negative stories about them, with the reporter taking a commission on ad sales.
  8. Companies paying PR firms to hire people to go onto online forums and pretend to be consumers who love their company’s products (or who hate a competitor’s products). (We call it “astroturfing” because it fakes grassroots sentiment.)

These are not practices followed by all PR people or companies in China. There are firms and clients who are willing to put themselves at a short-term disadvantage in order to keep their practices above reproach, and they do so quietly. But the ethically-challenged practices remain altogether too common.

Until they are stamped out or drastically reduced, they will not only foster more scandals, they will undermine the credibility of China’s maturing news media in the eyes of the public. The government and the Party can afford neither. And therein lies a great danger for the PR business.

A PR industry truly interested in its future would move to put a stop to practices that may be considered unethical. If the motivation of protecting their clients against the kind of official attention Mengniu is getting these days is not enough to provoke a change, perhaps the specter of the government stepping in to regulate the industry in detail will be.

The global PR industry is not without its considerable ethical failings. Indeed, I reckon I will spend the rest of my professional life in a quixotic battle against spin as a substitute for true communications.

But it is early days in the evolution of China’s own craft of corporate communications. It would be a regrettable pity if that craft were to dissolve itself in the acids of disinformation and ethical compromise, right when it – and the companies it advises – most desperately needs to learn to communicate.

David Kilburn

Similar practices were prevalent in Korea in the 1980’s, as the PR industry dawned there. Some companies used to hand out out envelopes of cash to reporters who attended press briefings. Worse, some publications felt this was how their reporters should make a living. It would be optimistic to say that malpractise has been eliminated, but it is certainly a more professional industry today.

Chassit

Totally agree on the point of “crisis”. China has to make a foundamental definition about what is PR and what is not before anything. Right now it seems to be acknowledged by default that “anything dealing with the public and some sort of relationship is PR”, and under that guideline came Mengniu’s sick joke of a “PR” action.

But as to the 8 examples of “PR activity with Chinese character”, I beg to differ on some. They are not entirely PR firms’ fault. On the contrary, many of them are the result of PR and media double-screw-up. The following are my points as someone made the transition from a media people to a PR guy. To keep it short, I won’t quote the original lines, just leave some comment. Sorry for the back-and-forth scrolling trouble.

1. RMB 200 – 700 “transportation fee” is a common practice indeed. But it’s not entirely the PR side corrupting media, but a work of demand and supply. Many media entities in China give their editors and journalists, at least the Chinese ones, pathetic wage, usually around 3000 to 4000 per month (that’s a bit on the high side actually). And anyone who has lived in Beijing for some time knows what’s that mean for a life here, especially to those paying rents. Leaders of newspapers and magazines *expect* their workers to get what they need to keep themselves live from PR firms. It goes too far back to say for sure who started it first, but right now it’s a win-win condition. Yes, asking for, taking, or simply offering such fee is not right, and is to a degree a form of bribery. But unless some fundamental change happens in both media and PR circles at the same time, it’s not likely to change. I know one magazine who never takes a cent for “transportation”, and I respect them whole-hearted. However, facing an cross-industry problem I won’t blame those who compromises to it.

2. Pro-client stories in the form of a feature is a common (but messy) practice from the media side. It’s generally called 软文 (soft-article, or more intuitively soft-advertising). It’s considered a subtle form of advertising, and listed as a standard service on media’s rate cards. Usually magazines charge soft-article clients on a “per page” basis, and depends on which magazine you may have 20% to 50% discount if you care to barter hard. Sure it’s against professional journalism, but reasonably a product of demand-driven market. Companies have found “soft-article” much more persuasive than boring full page ad, and there is no law to forbid such practice, and so it is. “Soft-articles” countribute to a large part of the ad revenue of a magazine (or newspaper/website). In practice it frequently gets dirty though, with editors abusing their power, collecting money from clients, keep it to themselves, and publish them without a cent cost. This is probably what example 3 is about. A Chinese media company is always firmly against editors stealing soft-article money, but quite pro the “business” itself. Usually no one does any credibility check on soft-articles, unless it gets way too funny. Even if you invented a whole story out of thin air, as long as it sounds serious enough, it might just be published. To change this, the business model of Chinese media must be corrected first. Or else it’s very hard to blame PR firms when they use a legal (or not illegal at the very least) channel to meet the demand of clients who usually prefer soft-article over standard advertizing.

3. See my point #2.

4. Yes, this is way out of the line. “Entertainment” to journalists and editors must be called to a halt before this becomes yet another “industry standard”. The process is already in motion. Continue doing so is nothing but trying to further corrupt a corrupted media industry, and bring even higher business cost as well as lower ethics to the whole PR industry.

5. Also sounds very much like standard soft-article agreement, only the reporter/editor backstabbed his/her employer.

6. Obvious bribery, or even media blackmailing. It’s not normal even by Chinese standard. Could be brought to the court maybe.

7. “He who gets the deal made gets the commission” is a common rule in many Chinese media companies. Sometimes the editorial department is also allowed to get into the chain of interest. However, paying publications to *not write negative about them* again is more like blackmailing. Must be stopped.

8. Well, yes, this is very common. It’s what Mengniu did, what 360 Internet Security and QQ are probably doing right now. And I know a pretty big website boasting “word-of-mouth determines the purchasing power” playing the media, the commentor and the PR firm to clients all by itself. The only quick solution is to do what Yili did, catch the bastards with evidence cast in steel. For the long term good, all PR firms in China should think twice and stay away from such deeds. It’s all down to ethics and good business sense. These two are a bit hard to come by in China though.

Summarized there are about 4 real problems in the plate:
1. Media low wage facilitating the legalization of small bribery.
2. Media business model “soft-article” corrupting PR but not against the law.
3. Potential media blackmailing.
4. PR firms manipulating “grassroot opinion” in whichever way they want and smearing competitors.

It’s an entagled mess. Unless the state law gets clearer sometime soon, there’s little hope of turning better. Ethics might be the only guideline. And it’s all down to individual PR firms to keep it or not.

As for me, I used to get “transportation fee”, never collected a cent of “soft-article” money, and my current PR employer honors profesional ethics over everything. I do wish PR and media of China get into a more efficient and low cost relationship. However, given the complex nature of the problem, I’m taking a relatively forgiving attitude and hope for all the best.

David Wolf

Chassit, thank you for your superb comments. I’m going to handle the whole issue of “transportation fees” in a separate post, both because it is the most common of these practices and because it is the one most defended by PR pratctitioners.

To your points.

First, I don’t consider any of these practices to be the “fault” of PR agencies or practitioners. They all emerged for a host of complex reasons. But PR professionals are in the best position to end them by refusing to engage on those terms. There are other ways to gain and hold media attention that do not place us or our clients in ethical dilemmas, and it is our obligation to use them, or to create new ones. We do bill ourselves as “creative,” do we not?

Second, soft articles and direct payments to reporters may not be illegal, but they are ethically wrong because the reader – the public – is deceived into believing that the article is actually a piece of journalism. If you disagree with that point, let’s discuss it. If you agree, let’s talk about how to either end or at least avoid the practice.

Equally wrong is having reporters sell advertising to companies they cover. It is a blatant conflict of interest. Any reporter who sells advertising is an ad salesman, not a journalist.

Forgiveness is a wonderful thing Chassit. But I wonder how forgiving the Chinese people will be on the day they are told that we had an complicit, indeed active role in undermining the independence of the media? For that day is coming unless we start doing something about it, and I mean right now.

We cannot wait for the law to change. We have to take the lead in order not only to enhance the practices and reputation of our profession, but also to serve the best interests of our clients and support the healthy evolution and development of Chinese journalism.

Especially the latter. The future of the nation depends on all of us supporting the professionalization of journalism in China, even where it demands a short-term sacrifice.

Here is the principle we should follow: the only monies a journalist should take should be from his/her employer and only for the job of reportage. He/she must be be adequately compensated (if not well paid) by his employer, compensated for reasonable expenses, and rewarded based on the quality of journalism and how that in turn supports readership and attracts advertisers/subscribers. Professional communicators operating on behalf of corporations, organizations, government, or individuals are ethically bound to do everything in our power to advance this principle, at the very least refusing to contribute to the continued compromise of journalists.

It is a complex problem to change practices so ingrained. Let’s take the first step to changing it.

Lou Hoffman

David,

We worked with HP on its campaign built around the World Cup in France in 1998.

As part of this effort, the company picked up the tab to fly a number of reporters from the U.S. to France to cover the games. No one ever told the reporters the all-expenses-paid trip was in exchange for writing about the game’s IT infrastructure (which happened to be from HP).

The invitation was packaged as “relationship building.”

This “tug-of-war” between companies and journalists with money in the middle isn’t a China issue.

It goes on everywhere.

David Wolf

Lou, thanks for the comment and for your candor. Readers of this blog should know I consider The Hoffman Agency and you personally to be practitioners of extraordinary integrity.

I have no doubt there are ethical problems in relationships between public relations professionals and journalists everywhere. I argue not that China is an exclusive member of this club, only that the scope and scale of the ethical crisis in China’s PR business is so large that it threatens to permanently damage or even destroy the industry in this country.

Whatever the origins of some of these questionable practices, public relations agencies abet and even drive their continuation. And this is not the case of a few bad apples spoiling the bunch, but of a few good apples sinking in a vat of spoiled applesauce.

Individually, as agencies, as a consortium of practitioners, and as an industry we have to end this all and start demonstrating that public relations can lead the way in ethics and transparency, not simply preach it for a fee. As international practitioners operating in this market, we bear a special burden to set the example, rejecting the imprecations that we behave like Romans simply because we are in Rome. I say when in Rome, do as the Jews: integrate, do not assimilate, and let your behavior align with your values rather than short-term expedients.

One last thought: if this kind of thing goes on everywhere, to whom do we ascribe the fault?

Michael A. Robson

Fascinating post.

“Corporations and their public relations firms paying reporters a “transportation fee” of anywhere from RMB 200 – RMB 700 simply to come to a press conference or an interview.”

This kind of thing is totally brilliant and totally dirty. Reporters don’t make a lot of money, but a free 700RMB for doing nothing means you’re never going to bite the hand that feeds you. Stuff like this is why reading a Chinese newspaper makes the world sound like such a happy go lucky place. 😉