China is home to an estimated 1.3 Billion people, is the world’s second largest economy and has one of the one of the largest media markets in the world. Unsurprisingly, being able to tap into it is a highly appealing prospect for any higher education institution.
But, doing this from the outside is no easy feat. Whilst the country has the world’s largest online population (772 million users according to the China Internet Network Information Centre) government censorship has a severe impact on how the media operates, what is reported on, and how news is presented to and accessed by citizens.
But it’s not impossible. So, what steps can you take to give your institution the best chance at success?
1. Get to know the market
This is an important first step for any type of media engagement in any country, or indeed any sector. Before you attempt to distribute a press release, send a pitch, invite a journalist to an event or engage them over the phone, a PR professional must commit time to first getting to know where (and who!) they’re pitching to.
The media operates differently in every country in the world, is subject to different regulations, prioritises different topics and has its own etiquette when it comes to engaging with potential contributors and PR professionals. To gain the best response for their outreach PRs must be able to recognise this and react accordingly.
For working with Chinese media, this is particularly important. Familiarise yourself with the local news agenda to understand which topics capture public interest (and which you should avoid), and how the information you plan to pitch would fit best with this. Consider the angles would be the most appropriate for each media outlet and, most importantly, which would be the most appropriate for your institution to engage with in the first place.
Then, as all good PRs should, make sure you review both your pitch and your objectives. Consider, are they relevant for the local media base? If not, then there’s little point in you sending it.
2. Consider your outreach method – will it work?
Do not naively assume that the tactics you typically employ locally, or elsewhere in the world will have the same success rate.
China offers a host of unique challenges to PR professionals based overseas. Government regulations will not just have a significant impact on what you’re able to pitch but which outlets you wish to reach out to, and whether you can reach them using your usual tactics at all. Emails are closely monitored, firewalls commonly block attachments and hyperlinks, and unknown senders are often automatically diverted to junk mail boxes.
Furthermore, the main social media platforms used by the rest of the world; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. are blocked in mainland China, meaning you may need to familiarise yourself with local alternatives such as WeChat, Sina Weibo, Tencent and Zhihu to locate journalists with the right focus for your objectives.
3. Work with local time zones
It might be 3pm for you in London, but its 10pm in Beijing, so not the time to be trying to sure up last-minute press requests or arrange the final details for a meeting. To give yourself the best chance of success always consider how your correspondence will impact the person or outlet you’re engaging with.
For example, if you’re hoping for a journalist to attend an event or meet a travelling member of your faculty, timing is key. Pitch during sociable hours, give a journalist plenty of advance notice of your offer, make the necessary arrangements for a meeting as early as you can, and make sure that the journalist has a direct line of contact to the person they’re meeting/event they’re attending so that, if they have any last minute questions or problems, they don’t have to wait for you to wake up and get into the office for these to be answered.
Similarly, try to consider local geography when setting up meetings. Can the journalist feasibly reach the location you’ve suggested? Can your member of faculty travel between proposed media meetings with enough time to spare? If your proposition requires the journalist to extend a great deal of effort, the chances are they’ll decline your offer.
4. Be mindful of local culture
It goes without saying that language barriers can be the core problem with effectively engaging with media overseas. Whilst the vast majority of the world seems to speak at least some degree of English, it pays to ensure that the media you’re reaching out to can understand your communications fully if you do not speak the local language. The same consideration applies for setting up face-to-face meetings – will your institution’s representative be able to understand the journalist? And vice versa? If in doubt, consider having a translator on hand. Locally-based alumni make for great interpreters and can also provide an additional interviewee for the journalist to draw information from.
For China in particular, it’s not just making sure what you say is understood, but making sure you communicate in the right way. There are many cultural “do’s” and “don’ts” which, if adhered to, can make all the difference between receiving the response you want, or receiving nothing. For example, using people’s official titles and not being overly-familiar in your language is recommended, as are formal handshakes when meeting face to face. There is also accepted practices for exchanging gifts upon meeting – even if sharing a business card – which should be acknowledged. Always remain polite in all of your correspondence, punctual for meetings and gracious for any responses you receive. Developing relationships matters.
5. Follow up
It’s typical to cease engaging with a media contact once you’ve got what you need from them. In Western culture, the typical niceties of communication can often be viewed by journalists as unnecessary clutter in their inboxes. The same cannot always be said of Chinese media. Make sure you express thanks for their efforts and keep a line of communication open so that your future media outreach is much easier to tackle.
What markets does your institution need help in tackling? We may be able to help.