Edelman, Rui Chenggang, and China PR

Hutong Forward
In the Shadow of the Pentagon
1710 hrs

As more details about ties between the China operations of Edelman Public Relations and erstwhile China Central Television (CCTV) anchor Rui Chenggang are released, a wave of schadenfreude has risen amongst both Edelman’s rivals and the detractors of public relations. As happened when Edelman was caught in a similar ethical imbroglio when it hired ostensibly independent bloggers to post on behalf of Wal-Mart, PR‘s detractors believe that ethical lapses suffuse China’s public relations industry, while practitioners who don’t work for Edelman see this as a large, hubris-laden market monster getting its due.

Both are wrong.

Ethical lapses are common in PR in China, but “common” is a far cry from endemic. There are PR firms, executives, and teams in China who insist on the highest possible ethical standards. Rather than going broke, they discover that while some clients will shun them for these reasons, a growing number of clients, particularly MNCs, are insisting on high ethical standards and are willing to sacrifice short-term results for a clean reputation. Clean business is good: not only do these PR firms keep very busy, they have to turn opportunities away.

But while these firms are the future of the business, they are still the exception that proves the rule, and no agency executive or corporate PR manager should guffaw too loudly at Edelman’s expense. For far too long as an industry and a craft we have turned a blind eye to practices considered unethical, immoral, or even illegal in more developed markets, failing to see that China was developing and that a reckoning was coming.

Two issues prevent widespread improvement in PR industry ethics in China. First is a persistent exclusivist belief that because this is China, things are done the Chinese way, and always will be. Operating ethically is seen as naive at best, and culturally imperialist at worst (“how dare you impose your values on us!”)

The second issue is fear. PR executives and their agencies believe that if they don’t take advantage of every opportunity, however morally ambiguous, they will lose revenue and clients to competitors who lack – or opportunistically ignore – their moral compasses. The pressure is greatest among the larger agencies where the focus is exclusively financial performance. The accountants calling the shots in New York and London are not measuring ethical compliance: they measure revenues and profits. Faced with the choice of losing a sizable client or cutting some ethical corners, there is no contest.

But the persistent idea that China is an island untouched by ethical standards for the conduct of public relations is now demonstrably so much cow manure. Those who cling to such exceptionalism – and you know who you are – are dinosaurs whose time in this business is limited, regardless of the success they appear to enjoy today.

What happened to Edelman could have happened to any of dozens of local and international PR firms. Rui had made himself a target, and Edelman is the largest PR firm in the world. But the rest of us have now been given a shot across our bows. Either we bite the bullet now, change course and adopt ethical tactics and practices, or we leave our firms, our people, and our livelihoods at the mercy of government caprice. If we don’t, this will happen again, and when it does we will all find that it will not be a single firm in the spotlight – it will be every PR practitioner in China.