By Annemarelle van Schayik, Content Manager at Telum Media

Once known as the copycat of the world, China has increasingly become a leader in innovation. With 115 Chinese companies listed in the 2017 Fortune Global 500 list and with 52 of them having their HQ in Beijing, China is constantly in the spotlight. And that means that communicators in the region are expected to step up. Telum attended IABC’s 2018 Symposium on China on 7th May to hear concerns and views from leading communicators across Greater China.

Corporate image
As China gears up to branch out across the globe with successful brands like Huawei, Alibaba and Tencent, the underlying message is “We’re here to stay”. China and its President Xi Jinping’s vision for the Belt and Road initiative, is just one of many schemes to solidify its position as leader in innovation and globalisation.

But with many of China’s leading companies being involved in the tech space come new challenges. How to convince a global public that its products are safe and free of Chinese spyware? And how to handle alleged violations by Chinese companies of US sanctions against Iran which may well spell the end of a brand? At the root of it all, how to avoid cultural or organisational mishaps when doing PR for a Chinese company

That said, pushing comms outside of China isn’t enough. As Carmen Yu, Vice President of FleishmanHillard Hong Kong, says China isn’t a homogenous entity either and there is an increased need for localisation across the country. With social media, especially WeChat, being all-encompassing in Mainland Chinese life, brands will have to make sure they’re tuned into customer feedback. And while Consumer Rights Day goes unnoticed by most consumers worldwide, in China it has brands shaking in their shoes - though 2017 was relatively subdued. Employee whistleblowing is also on the rise aided by social media. In 2017 one employee’s photos of mouldy flour and mildew stains led to the arrest of a bakery’s owners.

Digital first
Across the globe traditional media is facing a crisis. In China, at the end of 2017, 14 Chinese newspapers announced their cessation. Aided by technology an increasing number of new media has opened up. At times this means just running a WeChat channel.

Wendy She, Vice President of IABC HK and Head of Internal Communications, Corporate Affairs, Hong Kong at BUPA, agrees that China is on the forefront of a comms revolution. “It is clear that digital is on the rise in China and the way business is done is ever changing as China revolutionises into one of the most influential economies in the world. This is an exciting time and particularly thought provoking for communicators who look to engage stakeholders, the media, customers and employees effectively to drive business success in this dynamic country.” As such the comms landscape is being propelled by a dynamic media landscape.

Digital not only impacts PR professionals, but also internal communicators. In China, intranets are a thing of the past as WeChat has become the top workplace communications app, with close to 90 per cent of workers using it for daily work communication. And that requires companies to jump onto the bandwagon. As Lisa Sha, Vice President of IABC HK and Associate Director, Employee Communications, Asia Pacific at Fidelity International acknowledges, “With educating stakeholders, leveraging technology and recruiting talents as the top three challenges for employee communications in China, we can learn to establish a systematic approach based on best practices.”

Asia Pacific President and CEO of Ogilvy Public Relations Scott Kronick told CNBC that it will take “every single bit of communication” to change the “Made in China” brand image. And as such, communications can no longer take a backseat in China. Genevieve Hilton, Vice President of IABC HK and Head of External Communications, Corporate Affairs Asia Pacific at BASF, agrees that business leaders are embracing change.

“I’m surprised and gratified to see how quickly the full range of communications expertise is being adopted, and appreciated, by business leaders in China. It is also clear that there is still a great deal for all of us to learn. We need cross-industry collaboration platforms to continue developing this level of expertise for leading companies doing business in - and out of - China.”

Simply put, China is a copycat no more. In the words of Virginia Chi, President of IABC HK and Senior Manager at the Hong Kong Construction Arbitration, “The business and stakeholder environments have become so diverse that communicators today need to explore different approaches and strategies to drive effective leadership communications in this huge market.” A new era has clearly begun.

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