I’ve been presenting my firm’s research and insights on Chinese business and the economy to the media since 1999.
Besides reaching out to reporters from international media based in the region, I also regularly reach out to members of the Chinese-language press in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
From the hundreds of interviews I’ve organized and participated in over the years, I’ve gleaned a few lessons about what works — and what doesn’t. Here are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind if you want your story to resonate with Chinese media:
1. Global news penetrates Chinese media very quickly.
Chinese media follow international media very closely. They’ll pick up stories and translate them on the same day they appear in a major international news outlet. Most Chinese media have departments staffed just for the purpose of grabbing global news and feeding it into their local news stream. Hoping to announce that hot new product or publish that groundbreaking study a few days or weeks after the news has already saturated the international press? Maybe not. Chinese media are likely to be less motivated to run a story that has already been translated and circulated widely.
2. Media are censored.
When describing state-run media, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. But even the slicker, more commercially-oriented media outlets still need to run their stories through the vast government censorship apparatus. If your story fails to get any coverage, this could be one possible reason, though you’re unlikely to know why a story was chosen not to be published.
3. Media like stories that are aligned with the government’s economic agenda.
This is the flip-side to point two. Stories that are seen as supporting the government’s economic narrative — “fostering indigenous innovation”, “building global champions”, “stimulating domestic consumption” — have a higher chance of landing on the pages of a publication or website.
4. There are three “flavors” of written Chinese.
In Mainland China, media use the “simplified” Chinese character set, which contains many characters that differ substantially in how they’re written in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which use the “traditional”, or “complex”, character set. And Hong Kong does not use exactly the same set of characters that Taiwan uses, resulting in three different “flavors” of written Chinese across the region. For example, the Chinese word for “internet” is different in Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Why does this matter? Besides being incomprehensible, content that is presented in the “wrong” character set betrays a lack of cultural sensitivity and basic knowledge of what works in what market. It also means you should budget extra time and money to translate and edit your content so you’re using the right character set, grammar usage and vocabulary.
5. Editorial standards are rising fast.
While some less industrious reporters still publish only a cut-and-paste version of your press release (which is not necessarily a bad thing from a PR perspective), Chinese media — both the frontline journalists and especially their editors back at the bureau — are getting more demanding when it comes to determining what meets their bar for news. Pitching a story they’ve run recently? Probably not interested— unless you’ve got a fresh angle, a new development, or new data to share.
6. Chinese journalists value personal relationships.
I’ve found that Chinese journalists, while still placing a heavier weighting on the inherent newsworthiness of a story, nonetheless still place a high value on getting to know the in-house and agency PR folks they deal with day-to-day. They want to have a consistent and reliable window into your organization, and prefer to work with someone they know and trust.
7. Off-the-record can easily become on-the-record.
Like good reporters anywhere in the world, Chinese journalists are always on the hunt for credible sources. Editors are more likely to chop material from a story that isn’t supported by a quote or data point from a trustworthy source. If you’re hoping to be helpful to a reporter while keeping your company’s name out of the story, don’t count on it. It’s possible you’ll be identified in one way or another. It doesn’t always happen, but the chance of this happening in China is higher than elsewhere.
8. Chinese media will read quotes back before publishing.
They don’t always do this, but in general, their willingness to read back quotes before publishing for fact-checking is fairly high. In the not-too-distant past, they would even show the entire article in advance of publication— something unheard of in most other markets (and now rarer in China these days).
9. Most reporters don’t speak English very well.
This means you need to make sure you deliver your message in Chinese. Having native speakers of Chinese deliver a presentation at a media briefing or answer questions during an interview is ideal. If you must rely on an interpreter — as is often the case with global companies — make sure she is briefed in advance on the content, especially if it contains technical terminology or industry jargon. And double the time you budget for the interview, since you’ll need to allow sufficient time for the interpreter to translate.
10. A growing number of Chinese reporters speak English extremely well.
They’ve probably earned degrees abroad, or belong to that class of remarkable people who mysteriously master English without ever having stepped foot outside of China.
Is this consistent with your understanding of Chinese media? Did I leave anything out? I’d like to hear from you in the comments.