PR boom in China. Let’s wake up before we make ourselves ridiculous..

There is much talk about the booming Chinese public relations sector. Some say that by 2010 there will be one million (!) Chinese professionals with a college degree. Here is an article from yesterday’s South China Morning Post heralding Hong Kong as the ideal ‘hub’ for this bursting expansion. True or not, it is beyond doubt that most international pr agencies are doing well in China and that public relations is seen as an essential ingredient of any success. Ipra is organizing it’s world congress in Bejing in 2008. Senior practitioners are moving back and forth and establishing contacts…. My question then is: when will the Global Alliance decide it’s time to abandon the balking approach it’s had sofar over the issue and overtly invite the Chinese PR association to become an active member? And.. by the way…are we still waiting for Castro to pop off before we include our cuban colleagues? Your opinions please??South China Morning Post

November 4, 2006 Saturday


LENGTH: 852 words

HEADLINE: At your service;

Demand for PR professionals is growing, especially in the booming mainland economy, writes Tim Metcalfe Public Relations key playersjargon


THE ICONIC Absolutely Fabulous television sitcom that parodies public relations through the champagne lifestyles of Eddy and Patsy bears only a passing resemblance to the reality of the industry in Hong Kong. Commonly known as “PR”, the business is dominated by women, with a survey by the Hong Kong Public Relations Professionals’ Association finding that women outnumber men by four to one. Public relations involves a fair level of entertaining, but life is not one long party.

“I wish there was more champagne, but the reality is that business growth does not come from party planning, but very established and serious issues – such as ensuring that firms meet corporate governance standards, report financial results transparently or engage government regulators, customers and various special interest groups on environmental issues,” said David Ketchum, chairman of the Council of Public Relations Firms of Hong Kong. Every sizeable local company has at least one staff member dealing with public relations, with duties ranging from dealing with the media and sending out press releases to organising brochures and websites. Bigger firms and corporations have entire PR departments. Many others are represented by specialist firms. The principal objective of all is to promote the corporate brand, image and product. According to Fortune magazine, public relations will be one of the world’s fastest-growing professions over the next 10 years and, as one of Asia’s most sophisticated economies, Hong Kong is not surprisingly brimming with PRs. Demand is growing especially fast for PR services in booming mainland China, which traditionally regards overseas consultants as more worldly and effective than its domestic talent. David Croasdale, business director of Newell Public Relations, said: “We are seeing a very strong demand for Hong Kong PR expertise in China both from multinationals and Chinese companies wanting to reach the rest of the region.” “We have doubled our staff in Beijing and Shanghai from 10 to 20 over the past two years, and the number of retainer clients has grown threefold.” Mr Ketchum, who founded his own company, Upstream Asia, six years ago, is also expanding. He has 60 staff in offices in Taiwan, Singapore, Sydney, Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo. In October the firm was listed on the London Stock Exchange’s Alternative Investment Market (AIM) with a view to funding growth. “We want to keep building in Asia,” he said. The industry is not only profiting from multinationals converging on China and setting up headquarters in Hong Kong. Mr Ketchum said: “The retail sector is healthy so we see a lot of production launches and branding campaigns. More visitors from the mainland are driving the tourism sector. The financial sector is seeing more Chinese firms listing on the local stock market than it has in many years.” As chairman of the PR council, which represents 35 leading consultancies, Mr Ketchum is pushing Hong Kong as a “regional leader” for the industry. Grebstad Hicks Communications (GHC) is a leading “home-grown” independent Hong Kong PR consultancy specialising in travel, hospitality and lifestyle-related brands. Co-founder Lynn Grebstad said: “The past two years have been great.” Turnover has grown by at least 50 per cent a year and with profitability also up, the company has “reinvested substantially in building up the company”. “We have grown from a team of just 11 two years ago to 20 now and we are still expanding,” Ms Grebstad said. “We have also established satellite presences in both Singapore and Shanghai this year. “After some rather difficult years for Hong Kong, the business is now really beginning to fulfil its potential. In the past year or so we have successfully expanded our initial travel and tourism niche to encompass a much wider consumer and lifestyle area.” The latest boom has seen the company retained by two major new Hong Kong tourism attractions, the Ngong Ping 360 cable car on Lantau and The Peak Tower, as well as launching Hong Kong’s first boutique hotel, JIA in Causeway Bay, and several top restaurants including Aqua at One Peking Road. But, Carole Klein, director of PR and communications at the InterContinental Hong Kong said it was not only during booming economies that the industry came into its own. “All companies need public relations in some form, both in good times and bad,” she said. “A company should not use PR just to deal with a crisis or launch a product. They should consistently have someone representing their product to the media and public whether business is flourishing or in times of crisis. “It is important to have a consistent and recurring message to build relationships with the media and sustain coverage needed to create a successful brand. You have to keep getting your message and name out there.” The industry is therefore more resilient to downsizing than most, while in a strong position to enjoy the fruits of economic upturns. Mr Ketchum said: “It is a very good time for the public relations industry, with a strong demand for staff at all levels, from the experienced to fresh graduates.”

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9 Replies to “PR boom in China. Let’s wake up before we make ourselves ridiculous..

  1. Toni and Julia,

    I am sure Julia will agree that practices change rapidly and I would agree that the profession is becoming more startegic because of the way education has influenced this outcome. There are differences practising in Bejing ( more strict) Shanghai ( less strict) and HK ( much more like any western city ) for practising PR.
    Given what I have just said and my preceeding post about freedom of expression within and outside of CIPRA members- FYI There is a large national PR association in China but they are forbiden from contact with the outside world- only CIPRA can do that and they are not able or unwilling to respond.
    To be blunt, you cannot have a dialogue one on one with designated leaders in Bejing. Only offcial and formal communication. Debate? forget it unless you have personnal contacts who are not afraid of speaking their minds. I am sorry to be pessimistic but all of my recent attempts to engage in email exchanges with CIPRA leaders have been left unsanswered.
    Yes it is changing and the Olympics will accelerate change, but there are strong fundamental communication issues that will remain intact. Namely the ability to have a dialogue with anyone who is in an official capacity on current affairs affecting our profession, unless it has been pre-approved by the state. We may have a better chance with colleagues who work in Honk kong or perhaps Shanghai. I will keep trying to communicate but it takes two to tango.

  2. Very interesting discussion and hopefully a useful one.
    We all seem to agree that it is essential to be continuosly updated on professionals dynamics which appear to be very powerful and fast in the world’s most populated and fastest growing country.
    May I suggest that the Global Alliance decide to dedicate a special monitoring project by opening a continuos channel of discussion, debate and exchange of experience with our chinese colleagues (professionals and scholars) who operate in that country?
    This would of course privilege dialogue with CIPRA but also with the many concerned and competent individuals who operate in national and international agencies and companies in that country.
    Certainly we cannot ignore this change process which everyone recognizes is going on simply by saying we tried a few years ago without much success.
    Jean, do you agree?

  3. Toni, I was over in Beijing and Shanghai in November for two weeks and met up with a number of practitioners there as well as CIPRA. I think you’re right – the situation is China is changing rapidly and it is important that this is kept in mind and the doors kept open to provide support and the exchange of ideas and knowledge. I’ve been visiting Shanghai regularly since 2003 and can see vast changes in the practice. Many of the issues practitioners are facing resonate with the situation in the UK and elsewhere – the issue on every managing directors’ mind seemed to be staff recruitment and retention linked directly to the difficulty in finding skilled graduates. There was also a concern regarding the practice not being regarded as strategic enough and being dismissed as a tactical publicity function. So some definite similarities to other parts of the world!

  4. Toni, PR in China is focussed on business needs for obvious reasons. Any otrher social or NGO sector of activity is subject to scrutiny because of the potentialy explosive nature of frank communication.
    So if you talk to consultants who do business PR it is pretty much the same except for the engrained practice of ‘guanji’ ?sp where journalists receive money to attend press conferences. And they don’t show up if you don’t pay. To be fair, a journalits’ salary is so low that they need this ‘transportation subsidy’ to attend the press conference and the rate of this fee is set by the state.
    So yes it may be much the same, but there is no freedom of speech, no transparency and a culture of watching over your shoulder and more importantly ‘watch what you say’.

  5. Jean, thank you for your quick, clear and transparent response. This would be a much better world and our associations nuch more effective if there were many like you amongst the leaders of the profession. Please continue to monitor the situation closely in both countries and to offer all the necessary support to our colleagues there. In my global relations course at NYU we covered a few weeks ago China fairly indepth, also with direct participation of a couple of chinese students, visited and heard very recent Weber Shandwick and Ogilvy podcasts on the situation there and, honestly, received the impression that the situation was somewhat different from what you describe…

  6. Toni, As you may know, relationships with Asians are based on personal contacts and mutual trust. We met their leaders to establish this link and offer our help. It was clear that they needed our help and we have obliged by offering training (the DM package developped by Gerhard Butschi) and our assistance to serve on advisory boards. However, for various reasons it is now apparent that the relationship would be mostly one-way, as getting meaningful feedback to the global issues we discuss with the rest of the world would be an insurmountable task because of state controls.
    The membership issue was explained to them including the requirement for signing on to the code of ethics which amongst other things includes transparency and openeness. It is obvious to anyone who has lived in China and to us after we met with expatriates who are in China as well as reporters we met who spoke openly about this: that openess and transparency does not exist unless it suits the regime. In fact, censorship and personal sanctions are the tools to ensure that everyone tows the party line. We were told this quite bluntly in private of course. Officialy our CIPRA colleagues were silent on their ability to conform to the code of ethics. But that silence needs to be interpreted in the context of what I described above.
    Same situation in Cuba where, while I visted the leaders of the Cuban association, I was told that they they would be able to sign anything that is required of them. I was contacted by one of their leaders once that person was ‘allowed’ to travel outside Cuba and, using someone else’s email account,was later told that there is no way they could meet that obligation but they had to tell us otherwise….
    This is the reality there Toni.

  7. Jean,
    thank you for this clarification which explains why the professional association of what is possibly one of the five major public relations market places in the world today, is not a member of the Global Alliance.
    A question for you, if you may: did the CIPRA say that they could not adhere to the global protocol before the end of this year or did we only presume they could not? If the correct answer is the first, then is it possible to say what motivations they gave? If the correct answer is the second, then is it possible to know on what basis we presumed this and on what basis we presumed that the other 63 members (Italy included of course)who signed the protocol (at what point are we, as the ratification process I believe was supposed to terminate at end 2006?)did not have difficulties?
    As much as all this may sound to you, as we say in Italy, ‘washing one’s laundry in the open’, in a moment in which some of our most distinguished members are openly accused of being opaque, I am convinced that such an exercise can only help in raising the credibility of the GA. Thank you.

  8. Toni,
    You know full well from your own involvement in the Global Alliance that the Chinese sitaution is not as simple as clicking fingers and inviting them to join us.
    Come on now!
    Are you suggesting the GA abandon its requirement for membership? More specificaly that we exempt the Chinese and Cubans from adopting and promoting the global code of ethics that we developped? We know full well that they can’t meet the requirement. So instead as you also know very well, we have chosen to engage them as best we can by offering our help and training. Already some of the members of the GA are on the advisory board of the Fudan university in Shanghai. That is so far the only activity that the control-oriented Chinese CIPRA leaders have allowed. The fact is this country’s active associations in Shanghai and Honk Kong are not free to join the GA on their own, even if we were to find a solution to the ethics requirement. When the GA and PRSA delagation visited China in 2005, we made instant offers to have the Shanghai and Honk Kong professional asscoations join the GA. There was keen interest expressed, but upon follow up when we got back home, there was …silence. An obvious denial by the central forces in Beijiong for engaging with an intrenational body without their express permission. And that central body is not going to join unless full membership is extended which means forgetting our ethics requirement in their case. I for one am not ready to toss out our integrity for the sake of getting another member. We have proposed an affilate membership to CIPRA and so far that has not been taken up. The market is huge and is developping and yes we should be helping- if they let us in and want to talk. It takes two for a discussion.

  9. First, a clarification for North Americans. “Turnover” as used in this article refers to revenue, and not the North American version of the word, which refers to staff leaving and being replaced. So doubling turnover is good in Hong Kong and bad in Seattle.

    IABC membership dues have been spent on several trips to China by IABC leaders — so we know that one international organization thinks the country is important.

    Readers here can go to and see just how good IABC’s Hong Kong chapter is. The web site has been updated recently, I note, but it was stagnant for years.

    Take a look at the board info; there’s a message from the current president, and then a list of the 2003 board of directors. Similarly, “Events” promots some non-IABC event next year, but has nothing there that is current.

    All of which leads to questions I have, far away in Canada, about whether the culture in China actually permits decent PR.

    Am I right in thinking the Chinese culture has a pretty non-existent view of intellectual property? I remember a great Busienssweek cover story about this.

    I was at a meeting a couple of months ago of automotive leaders. One of the cautions voiced by a man with manufacturing in China was to avoid joint ventures if at all possible, because of the need to protect trade secrets.

    Another of my occasional clients is a lawyer. He too urges caution in dealing with China,not just at the contract stage but at the going-to-court stage, too.

    More, later. Client just called.


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