Western PR Firms, SCMP, and China’s Story Abroad

At Reuters, Engen Tham and Matthew Miller report efforts by China’s State Council Information Office to recruit a Western PR firm to help promote China’s image abroad. Hill+Knowlton, Ketchum, Ogilvy, FleishmanHillard, and Edelman are all said to have auditioned for the role. None would comment.

China’s President Xi Jinping, who has called for Beijing to take a bigger role in a global governance system, has cranked up the state machinery to project China’s “soft power” and better communicate China’s message to the world since taking power in November 2012.

China’s leadership recognizes it needs to communicate more effectively to Western audiences, said an executive at one of the agencies that made presentations.

“They feel they’re being unfairly treated by ,” the executive said.

[…] The asked the firms to give presentations, in separate meetings, on China’s most pressing image problems and demonstrate their expertise on managing new forms of media, according to an internal email and sources.

[…] At the SCIO presentations in February, government officials showed more interest than in previous engagements with foreign PR agencies, said one executive familiar with the meetings. He did not elaborate. [Source]

The meetings appear to have roughly coincided with Xi Jinping’s call for state media to better tell China’s story to the world and build “flagship media with strong international influence” while acting as the Party’s “throat and tongue” at home. Twitter’s new managing director for Greater China sparked near panic among the service’s Chinese users this month when she appeared to offer help in this global mission.

Efforts in this direction have already been underway for some time, however, predating Xi’s leadership. (Read more from media commentator Chang Ping in light of the Twitter controversy, translated at CDT.) In December, they gained a boost from e-commerce giant , which announced its plan to acquire the English-language Hong Kong-based . The news aggravated longstanding concerns about Beijing’s editorial influence on the newspaper, especially in light of Alibaba’s ties to mainland ruling elites and executive Joseph Tsai’s comments that “mainstream western news organizations cover China […] through a very particular lens,” which “taints their view. We see things differently, we believe things should be presented as they are.”

In an interview with the Post this week, published two days after his appearance at a symposium on Internet development led by Xi Jinping, Alibaba founder Jack Ma addressed the question of the Post’s future editorial direction. His vision, he explained, is to make the paper “a global media outlet through [Alibaba’s] technology and resources,” enabling it to “play the role of a connector between the West and the East.”

Alibaba said the Post should offer readers a narrative of China that is different from that offered by other Western media. What narrative will this be?

I think first of all, it is important to be fair to the reader. Readers have the right to know what’s happening in China in a factual and objective way. I’m lucky that I have the opportunity to travel around the world. The more I come to know about the outside world’s perception of China, the more I feel there are all sorts of misunderstandings and, to a certain extent, people do not get the full picture from the media. A lot of foreigners have few opportunities to visit China, and a lot of Chinese people do not have the chance to go to Europe or to the West. There is an immediate opportunity for us to bridge this gap as a responsible media outlet. What a publication can do is to help people get a clearer picture without jumping to any rash conclusion. I’m very happy that the Post can take the responsibility to report on China in a broader and deeper way. I believe the Post must be fair to our readers. We should let our readers see China from more angles and perspectives.

Some commentators reacted to the statement by speculating that it means the Post’s China coverage will become more positive or even gloss over some tough issues confronting China. What would you say to these speculations?

I’m not a journalist. But I think if we come with a predetermined angle in our coverage, be it positive or negative, the final report will surely become one-sided. I don’t see it as an issue of being “positive or negative”. It is about being impartial, not one-sided. The paper’s China coverage should be objective, reasonable and impartial. If people really want to understand China better, we need to provide media [reports] that can be easily understood by readers in both the East and the West. As I’ve said, we should offer a fair chance to the readers, not only a fair chance to China and to us.

[…] I have neither the experience nor desire to interfere with the newsroom operation. I will not take part in the editorial decision-making. The media has its own professional rules and standards. For me, maybe I will give input on the business side of the operation and the future business model of the paper. I can also participate as a reader and give feedback on how to improve readers’ experience. […] [Source]

Rebutting complaints about the Post’s initially low-key coverage of the Panama Papers leaks, senior editor Yonden Lhatoo recently attacked “the fringe narrative, much of it perpetuated by butthurt ex-Post employees with axes to grind, about this newspaper avoiding stories that show China in a bad light.” Writing at The Financial Times last week, former Post reporter Tom Mitchell argued that “Mr Ma cannot win. Even if it is not his intention to do Beijing’s bidding, he will always be suspected by some of doing just that. [… The] SCMP runs so many stories about the country — both positive and negative — that its critics and admirers can simply highlight those that prove their point about its alleged pro-China bias, or lack thereof.” If the actions of China’s web censors can be taken as evidence, they do not seem to have found its content consistently acceptable to date: according to GreatFire.org’s monitoring, SCMP.com has been inaccessible from mainland China since the start of this year’s Two Sessions political meetings in Beijing, following a nine-month block that ended last summer.

In the interview, Ma also offered his opinion on the differences between Western and Eastern cultures, and a sunny forecast for China’s economy. He addressed the question of “why there are so few American internet companies becoming successful in China,” suggesting that “doing business in another culture and another country is always difficult [….] You need to learn how to understand and appreciate local culture. That is the key to success in today’s globalized world.” The role of political controls and Internet blocking did not arise. Ma also said that problems facing Hong Kong—which many in the city would argue include mounting threats to press freedom, apparent abductions of publishers, and perceived erosion of the “one country, two systems” arrangement—are “self-inflicted,” not of China’s making, and that the city “has become intolerant.”