The Outsider: Leveraging Foreign Media in China

I have been a journalist or media executive for most of my two decades in China. So I view public relations from the media side of the fence. The government is secretive, and its media handlers push foreign journalists toward positive stories and try to block access to anything negative. The business community, both local and foreign, often adopts the same mentality. The result is that business and government alike hold foreign journalists at more than arm’s length.

This hit me when I arrived in Beijing in 1990 as The Wall Street Journal’s bureau chief. Tiananmen less than a year in the past, and the Chinese were hunkered down waiting to see if the country would keep its doors open or revert to old isolationist habits. Hardly anybody in the business community would talk to me. One IBM executive simply hung up the phone when I called to introduce myself.

In my previous posting in Taiwan I was a member of the American Chamber of Commerce. I joined to mingle with the business community to develop personal rapport and trust. But a controversy erupted when I tried to join AmCham in Beijing. One board member threatened to quit if they let a journalist join. But the board decided to let me join if I would agree to stay away from the U.S. ambassador briefings where business people discussed their problems.

China has changed dramatically over the years, but the business community’s attitude toward journalists persists. However, for PR and business executives who are curious and flexible, there are still opportunities to leverage foreign journalists. Here’s how:


Sharing information “on background” opens doors. Regular private lunches with carefully chosen journalists can be very effective. Clarify beforehand what is “on background” and “off the record.” You may be surprised how much information not sensitive to your business is still valuable to a journalist.

Most foreign journalists in China speak the language, travel widely in the country and have very fresh and insightful views on politics, society, culture and the country’s ongoing transformation. But they seldom penetrate business circles and regulatory agencies. So these exchanges can be a real win-win. The business person gets beyond their industry channels to gain a big-picture understanding and context. The journalist learns about the inner workings of industries and regulators.


It is probably best to work with foreign journalists on three levels. The first is the PR staffers who solicit journalists to attend events or report company announcements. The journalists will pick and choose what interests them. But there are too many eager young PR staffers in China who pester the journalists and can turn them off to anything that comes from an agency or an organization.

Secondly, PR executives need to build credibility with the journalists. Be as open and honest as you can be with them. Instead of getting together only when you want to spin a story, it is best to set up regular coffee or drinks confabs, at which you ask them how you can help them.

And third, once you understand their frustrations, and what kind of information they are looking for, you can establish regular information exchange relationships with the journalists.

When the stars align and you have clients who are savvy and secure enough to handle open and thoughtful discussions with journalists, the PR person should bow out. Leave the client and journalist alone to talk so they can build trust. With the PR person at the table, the journalist may feel that manipulation is the main menu item.


Is this effort worth it? Yes!

Foreign companies in China are always in somebody’s gun sights: competitors, regulators, local media, nationalist bloggers and persnickety customers, just to name a few. And the regular flow of new regulations and restrictions creates new obstacles for business, and huge opportunities for media disinformation. Foreign journalists can get caught up in the local media hyperbole, so companies must quickly get their own story out. These days China’s strong economy is providing a significant percentage of global growth for many multinationals. Bad news from China can easily hammer a company’s share price. This is where this hard work of relationship and trust building pays off. PRN


Jim McGregor is a senior counselor for APCO Worldwide based in Beijing. He is also former CEO of Dow Jones & Company in China. He can be reached at [email protected].