Faaez Samadi
May 4, 2017

Foreign media in China: friend not foe

A few pointers to facilitate working with members of the media in China.

Luke Schoen and Thomas Howard
Luke Schoen and Thomas Howard

An increasing number of companies, both Chinese and foreign multinational corporations (MNCs), are recognizing the importance of working with foreign media based in China to build their international profile and tell their China stories to global audiences.

With China reclaiming a central role on the world stage, the majority of leading international media outlets have established a permanent presence in the region—particularly in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. For many of these media, despite many operational and regulatory challenges, there is huge demand from their overseas audiences to increase their focus on China.  

Yet, the approaches some companies are taking to engage with foreign media have, in many cases, proven ineffective. For example, some choose to overload foreign reporters with irrelevant materials, rely on flashy events with limited news substance and try to force positive coverage—all driven by the misguided belief that they can handle foreign media and Chinese media in the same way. In contrast, others decide to ignore foreign reporters all together, often due to a fear of negative coverage, lack of trust, language barriers or confusion on where to start.

It is no surprise some companies are frustrated when they identify negative coverage or fail to generate the traction they desire. This frustration is often shared by foreign reporters who encounter numerous hurdles in getting what they need to develop a compelling and newsworthy story. Left without direct sources, they often turn to secondary sources which creates a missed opportunity for these companies to tell their own stories.

Based on Burson-Marsteller’s significant experience working with foreign media and recent conversations with both clients and foreign reporters based in China, the following are a few pointers to help facilitate the process.

Respect the differences: Foreign and Chinese media typically operate very differently. What may work fine with one outlet may not necessarily go down well with the other. Foreign media typically value exclusivity, have less time and resources at their disposal, won’t reprint releases word-for-word and cannot promise positive coverage.

Tailored approach: There is no “one-size-fits-all approach” to foreign media. It is important to understand the specific beat, audiences, format, interests as well as the personality of each reporter and outlet. In addition, not every story is interesting for all foreign reporters, and efforts should be made to filter out those that are irrelevant. Overloading foreign reporters with poorly prepared content will not help generate coverage but it is likely to secure direct access to their spam box.

Give access: Perhaps the most common challenge arising from conversations with foreign reporters is their struggle for timely access to spokespeople, executives or facilities. This denies them the material they need to make stories credible and interesting and, in turn, significantly reduces the chance of anything being published.

Provide proof points: Hyperbole is the worst. Words like “innovative,” “largest” and “global” are frequently thrown around with little tangible evidence to back them up. Grand, unsubstantiated claims will lead to a loss of credibility in the eyes of reporters.

Build collaborative relationships: Before diving in with a hard pitch, try investing time in building a rapport with foreign reporters and making a genuine effort to understand their interests and requirements as well as the stories they have in the pipeline. By helping to make their jobs easier you can nurture a mutually beneficial relationship.

Be responsive and honest: Deciding to ignore foreign reporters is sometimes a viable option but overall it is counter-productive. A dead phone line and unanswered emails sets a bad tone for any relationship. Where possible, a response, even if very brief, is appreciated. In addition, don’t over-promise or try to trick foreign reporters to secure their attendance at media events. No one likes the feeling of being deceived and this can seriously harm the potential for a longer-term relationship.

Measure success correctly: When it comes to foreign media coverage, it is best to prioritize quality over quantity. In some cases, a dozen in-depth and on-message pieces each year will be much more valuable than frequent but minor mentions. This should be reflected in the KPIs that you are working toward, which should be tailored for your specific circumstances and goals.

Foreign media can be valuable partners in communicating with international audiences, but relationships with these reporters should be built on a solid foundation of respect and mutual benefit. It is impossible to expect that 100 percent of coverage will be positive or completely accurate—but taking time to work with and, most importantly, understand foreign reporters will help push the odds in your favour. 

Thomas Howard is Burson-Marsteller associate director, corporate & public affairs and China specialty group. Luke Schoen is manager, corporate & public affairs and global energy practice at the agency.

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