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Can International PR Firms Crack The Chinese Client Conundrum?

Arun Sudhaman  03 Dec 2012

By all accounts, China’s public relations market is booming. The country’s PR trade body estimates that it is worth $4.4bn, fuelled by growth of 20 percent per year. Digital communications becomes ever more sophisticated, thanks to the rapid rise of QQ and Weibo, and the best of the country’s PR work - illustrated by the award-winning IBM Mr Bao campaign - is as engrossing as anything the world has to offer.

Why, then, is Johan Bjorksten, founder of one of the country’s most successful PR firms, unsatisfied? The Swede, once a star on Chinese TV, is simply not keen on working with local Chinese companies. It seems remarkable, given his agency’s growth, and the rise of Chinese companies like Lenovo and Huawei on the global stage.

“Why bother?” asks Bjorksten. “They are slow to pay and they have ridiculous processes. And they often have unethical demands.”

This is not idle chatter. Bjorksten founded Eastwei in 1994, turning the agency into one of the country’s fastest-growing local players before selling out to MSL in 2010. His agency continues to prosper, growing at upwards of 20 percent per year, and Bjorksten, with partner Par Uhlin, now oversees a formidable MSLGroup offering in China.

Most agency heads in those circumstances or, indeed, in circumstances much worse, would be unrelentingly ebullient. Instead, Bjorksten cuts a more pensive figure. Canvass other international firms and it appears Bjorksten’s concerns are not confined to him alone. For all of China’s explosive PR growth, most international firms are powered by MNC accounts. Chinese companies, by and large, prefer the counsel of local firms such as BlueFocus and D&S Consulting.

CIPR secretary-general Dali Zhao describes it as an “interesting” trend. “MNCs would prefer to work with MNC firms, whereas local companies prefer local agencies,” he explains. “Maybe there is a cultural gap.”

“I do think there are communication and trust issues between Chinese companies and their PR partners. Chinese companies would prefer to use PR companies with a similar culture and corporate structure.”

  D&S VP Bill Shan

Is money the issue? Not according to D&S Consulting VP Bill Shan, who says that domestic PR budgets are rising fast. Instead, like Zhao, Shan puts it down to a cultural mismatch.

“Their working processes and thinking are really different compared to international clients,” says Shan. “If international firms want to serve local clients, then need to overcome some barriers.”

For example, says Shan, Chinese companies are usually unwilling to pay by the hour, preferring a project fee once results meet their expectations. Often, furthermore, PR is relegated to a junior role within the organization, sometimes reporting into sales and marketing, without any clear influence over a company’s policies. And, of course, ethical issues hover over the entire equation, in a market where media corruption is rife.

For Bjorksten at least, it is simply not worth the hassle. “We’re still growing at 20-plus percent just from MNCs.”

Not everyone is as dismissive. Many international firms are focusing plenty of effort on building business with local companies, despite the challenges that exist.

“The reality is Chinese companies are becoming world beaters but need to raise their game in the communications stakes,” says Weber Shandwick Shanghai MD Darren Burns. “Why would you abandon this exciting opportunity? We are in China to serve all companies.”

For Bjorksten, there is no point in pursuing local Chinese companies unless his firm can become a genuine trusted advisor. To do that, he adds, requires a direct relationship with the chairman or CEO.

“You have to deal with senior executives who genuinely want to build their reputations,” agrees Burns. “They have to know they need help and be willing to invest and stay the course.”

    Huawei

Companies that understand this, says Bjorksten, are often those that are expanding internationally. Numerous Chinese brands now work with international PR firms outside China, including Huawei (Fleishman-Hillard and Burson-Marsteller); Lenovo (Text 100 and Ogilvy PR); Li Ning (Fleishman-Hillard); and Haier (MSLGroup, via local acquisition Genedigi). 

Another example is Suntech Power, which last year hired Weber Shandwick to handle its communications both inside and outside China. The energy company’s director of investor relations, Rory Macpherson believes that the advantages local firms may have once had are narrowing.

“Chinese PR firms may have short-term advantages of having stronger connections with local media and media influencers, due to a longer operating history, and potentially better understanding of local media  practices,” says Macpherson. “Though, in theory, these could largely be overcome as many international PR firms tend to shift to a high degree of localization by hiring the best local talent.”

For a company like Suntech, the benefits of an international firm are clear, particularly when it comes to their ability to understand different markets. Yet, within China, the situation is much less simple. “Maybe international firms can handle strategic consulting,” says Shan. “But for implementation, relationships and execution, they are not very strong.”

“Some Chinese companies expect miracles in a short space of time,” admits Burns. “They need to know that building a reputation is a process, not a one-off event.”

The CIPR’s Zhao notes that, for Chinese companies, the very concept of public relations is new. “The concept of PR entered into China with the entry of MNC companies,” notes Zhao. “So the Chinese PR industry has been evolving.”

 CIPR's Dali Zhao

However, Zhao believes that the emergence of Chinese companies will ultimately benefit international firms, pointing to the Chinese government’s decision to hire Hill & Knowlton for the Beijing Olympics assignment as a seminal event. 

The irony, perhaps, is that China’s local agencies have little trouble attracting international business. Indeed both D&S and BlueFocus count at least half of their business from foreign companies. And BlueFocus COO Peter Mao, for one, appears unconcerned about international firms eroding his domestic client base.

“It might be that international agencies don’t understand the operation in Chinese terms,” says Mao. “But we don’t see any gap between international and local clients.”

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