Brand China: A Golden Opportunity for Public Relations

One of the characteristics of the world that motivates me is our “interconnectedness;” or our “interdependence.”  If you accept that people across the world – people like you and me – have many more similarities than differences, then inevitably you will find more opportunities than problems.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in China – driven home for me again in August during another visit to Beijing. The needs and opportunities there are huge – on many levels – and underscored by a new willingness among politicians to admit that the world’s interconnectedness with China is, in fact, a competitive advantage.

Social and intellectual advantages also will accrue for IPR as it reaches out to collaborate on research with counterparts in China.

While I was in Beijing, China Daily published in interview with Tony Blair, who was emphatic about the paradigm shift in the world from West to East. “There’s not a single global problem that can be resolved without China’s help and intervention and support,” he said.

“The big challenge is to make the West understand China and China understand the West. Otherwise what happens is that people in the West just get frightened of this new power, and people in China end up thinking we are just being negative about China because we don’t want it to do well.”

“And actually, all of it is really about understanding each other better.”

Similarly, Vice President Joe Biden, writing in the New York Times, reflected on his August visit to China, saying: “I remain convinced that a successful China can make our country more prosperous, not less. As trade and investment bind us together, we have a stake in each other’s success.”

“In the 20th century, we measured a nation’s wealth primarily by its natural resources, its land mass, its population and its army. In the 21st century, the true wealth of a nation is found in the creative minds of its people and their ability to innovate.”

Herein lies opportunity for those of us doing business with and in China – and for the Institute for Public Relations to work with allied organizations there.

A business or professional philosophy that seeks mutual understanding best characterizes the opportunities that we public relations professionals have in China. Building understanding cross-culturally, among diverse stakeholders, and facilitating communication using new channels is a fundamental skill set in our profession. When public relations also is innovative and is performed strategically and creatively, it tends to flourish.

My Chinese friends – whether industry, agency or academic – are quick to acknowledge they still have much to learn about public relations from American colleagues. True as this may be – and eager as we may be to share so-called “best practices” – Western-styled public relations practice can be only partially successful in China.

The great and interesting challenge is to define and articulate public relations practices that are uniquely Chinese; undoubtedly influenced by strategies and practices evolved over the last century in North America and Europe but that increasingly are completely Chinese creations, and hugely successful, without replicating US business models.

In China and elsewhere, there is a “golden opportunity” for the public relations profession to assist companies, clients and other organizations – including governments – into a better, more integrated set of social, economic and professional communities. For example:

  • Social Media: While we explore the mechanisms of relationship-building, trust, influence and the socialization of ideas across networks, Chinese colleagues and academics also are searching for broader context for social media and what it means to China’s advancement. While the range and depth of topics discussed publicly has increased substantially in China, numerous roadblocks to freer media remain, on- and off-line. The optimistic view is that with time, with intense competition in China’s media market and with public pressure, China’s censors will give more leeway. Nevertheless, many companies and clients are neither comfortable nor adept maneuvering through this digital landscape and are seeking our guidance.
  • Trust and Reputation: Mishandling communication around high-profile events – such as China’s high-speed rail tragedy or allegations of corruption in China’s Red Cross or response to natural disasters – illustrates the challenges that some organizations and government ministries face restoring reputations in an environment of extremely low trust. What reliable data exist to identify the levers that most influence reputation today?  What is the future of organizational trust in a younger, G-20 world? These are the questions being posed by IPR, and they apply equally to China, albeit in different cultural context.
  • Brand China: Chinese leaders have great sensitivity to how external audiences and foreign companies and governments perceive China’s growing economic strength. Communicating an authentic brand will require China to clearly articulate what kind of development path it is taking and to show what that means for China and the world. An effort in that direction (subject to interpretation) was made recently in a seminal new white paper published by the State Council Information Office. The party-state assigns great value to communication and public relations in seeking to shape the perceptual environment in which external audiences view China. How should our profession assist or respond?

My visit also revealed a keen interest in research collaboration, sharing white papers and standards for measuring the value of public relations – all of which are strategic imperatives for IPR.

Quite simply the visit reinforced that we public relations people are living in a world that our profession is perfectly suited to serve.

Nothing that I witnessed or discussed in China dissuades me from believing that to be true.

And all of it is really about understanding each other better.

Robert W. Grupp
Trustee and Immediate Past President and CEO
The Institute for Public Relations

President, Grupp Global Partners LLC
rwgrupp@aol.com

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