Public Relations in the People’s Republic

Related entries: Business Issues, General, Services

While PR is a much-maligned profession (in some quarters), most people like to have a bit of it from time to time – and it can be pretty useful. This is increasingly the case in China, where the public is very big, word spreads like wild-fire, and businesses have a lot to lose if the wrong message gets out (see “Small Email. Big PR Crisis”).

The demand for PR services is such that the sector has been growing at over 30 percent a year, according to a People’s Daily report quoting Li Daoyu, head of the China International Public Relations Association (CIPRA). The association’s estimates on the sector include:

    • 1,500 PR firms [in 2003, now likely to be around 2,000]

    • 15,000 people were employed in the sector [in 2003, now may be around 20,000)

    • Turnover was around RMB6 billion (about US$750 million) in 2005, up 33.3 percent over 2004.

As with China’s consumer market, the PR market also shows variations by region. For example, in Beijing the focus is on government communications (“public affairs”, “lobbying” etc.), while Shanghai and Shenzhen it is on financial PR. In Guangzhou, consumer brands have the top spot.

The rapid growth in requirements for specialist services in different locations and industries has put a strain on resources, as the sector (as with the service sector generally) does not have the number of experienced professionals it needs. However educational courses are being introduced to help remedy this.

Good local firms are emerging, while the big international ones are also there in force. The services are also becoming more accessible and sophisticated. From online press release distribution to integrated services with PR, design, advertising and events all in one place, the market is fast-moving, competitive, and consolidating.

According to, some of the leading firms in the market include:

    • Foreign: APCO Worldwide (which integrated lobbyist Batey-Burn), Burson-Marsteller China, Edelman China, Fleishman Link Consulting, Hill & Knowlton China and Ketchum Newscan.

    • Home-grown: BlueFocus, Broadcom, D & S, eVision, Genedigi Consulting, and PFT (now Shunya).

The foreign firms mainly take on the China business of their global clients – though Chinese firms have started to make use of international PR too (not least in relation to trade spats with the US). Local agencies have developed rapidly, often competing by offering specialist regional or sectoral services.

In a report on the PR sector, the China Business Review (CBR) provides some pointers for media relations in China. Companies should prevent and defend against bad press: Foreign brands make big, attractive targets, especially when sensitive nationalist feelings are hurt (and especially as there is mounting concern in the market about negative perceptions of foreign investment). Cases of MNC PR crisis have included:

    • Procter and Gamble: Disputed advertising claims over shampoo.

    • Nestle: Baby milk formula recall over excess iodine levels.

    • Häagen-Dazs: Faced problems relating to claims of poor sanitation.

    • McDonalds, Heinz and KFC: All felt the heat when the carcinogenic coloring agent, Sudan 1 was found in their products.

To counter the risks and maximise the communications opportunity, it is suggested that companies ensure they understand current perceptions in the market, have suitable Chinese-language information available (localized to the specific market/s as far as possible), and have a crisis plan that can be locally implemented should the worst happen. It is also recommended to engage in active corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes, as these can do a lot of good while also putting a company’s wider activities in a positive light. Needless to say, company representatives in China – and at head office – should also be sensitive about how they address China and China-related issues.

The complex and fast-moving nature of China, combined with ruthless competition, means that companies need to work hard to create awareness, differentiate their brands, and manage risk issues. The public relations angle is not one to ignore.

China Business Services has expert public relations resources in the main business centres, as well as associates all over China. Please contact us to discuss your public relations requirements.

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One Response to “Public Relations in the People’s Republic”

  1. Archive » Briefly…Top Ten Tweets (From Made in China, PR & A Peaceful Rise, To Myth-Busting, Spending & Shifting Sands)| China Business Blog Says:

    […] Comment: PR is an often under-rated service in China. We have used it to great effect for our clients. Will Moss (aka imagethief) does an online interview for those who may need the service, and for those wanting a job in the industry. See more on PR in China here. […]

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