Difficult, but not Impossible

Image-Building and Media Strategy in China


von Dr. Evelyn Engesser, veröffentlicht im German Chamber Ticker 06/2016, Business Journal of the German Chamber of Commerce in China


China remains a driving force for the global economy, even as its recently lower growth rates have somewhat tarnished the public perception. An ever-growing middle class fuels domestic consumption, which currently accounts for 73.4 percent of the country’s economic growth, according to official numbers. Per-capita income is increasing rapidly, offering western companies high sales and growth potential on the Chinese market. The amazing development of the last few decades makes China the most important single market of the world, with outstanding potential.

Western companies have made significant inroads into China by learning, adapting, and cooperating. As the Chinese market matures, corporate strategies need to, and are becoming ever more sophisticated. Research by media intelligence company UNICEPTA suggests that insecurities remain when it comes to addressing Chinese stakeholders. How to best reach the target audience? How to establish and hone a reputation?

There are numerous challenges western companies are facing when it comes to professional communication in China: The country is home to the world’s largest media market, with the most rapid shifts in media consumption. Media diversity is growing on a daily basis. In avoiding the complex, confusing media market, foreign firms often forego major chances for growth. As domestic competition intensifies, it is crucial for western companies to boost their image, as well as position themselves and their products in the world’s most populous country in order to secure future business success. Therefore, one of the major keys to success of foreign firms is to understand the Chinese media landscape, identify the relevant players and channels, as well as the latest trends in media use.

China’s Media Landscape

With more than 2,000 print titles, 3,000 TV channels, 345 news portals and almost 700 million internet users: China is the biggest global hub for information. Chinese media companies are facing the same challenges as their western counterparts – but they are facing them in “fast forward.” A brief overview of the Chinese media landscape already gives ample proof of the complexity of this media market, but also highlights the great opportunities in addressing the stakeholder groups efficiently.

Core to the Chinese information policies are the two official news agencies, Xinhua and China News Service, which are ministry and deputy ministry-level institutions, respectively. Alongside providing news stories, audio-visual products and comment pieces, the agencies are also expected to publish articles that reflect the opinion of the central government and its communication targets. When it comes to controversial stories, most media have an obligation to simply publish reports by the news agencies, particularly Xinhua.

Among newspapers with nationwide reach, there are only a few with large circulation, such as People's Daily, Economic Daily, and Guangming Daily. Print media with a local or regional focus also play an important role. Beijing-based newspapers tend to be more political and normally report along the official party lines, while titles from the major city of Guangzhou in South China have a reputation of being more controversial.

China’s broadcasting system has two state-owned broadcasters, China National Radio (CNR) and China Central TV (CCTV) that broadcast a large number of programs nationwide. There are furthermore thousands of local and regional broadcasters run by local governments or city administrations. They mainly provide competition to CNR and CCTV with entertainment shows – alongside soap operas, the most popular TV content in China.

It is scarcely surprising that online media in China have fundamentally changed the rules of play for media communications. 345 online portals have an official license to publish the news. The internet portals with the highest reach are completely privately owned – although they don’t have a license for independent journalism from the government. While online reporting about sensitive political topics is under special surveillance, corporate communication initiatives are normally not affected. In general, Chinese portals primarily focus on entertainment and consumption.

Company Reporting in the Media

Company reporting is mainly shaped by the news and products it supplies, while adverts and cooperation with the media also play a role.

Chinese journalists like to frame their reports on companies and their products in a broader context, with the focus frequently being on local, regional or national economic targets. The benefit of any action for China and the Chinese people is of highest importance for the newsworthiness of any piece of information. Reporters therefore examine a company’s contribution to the strategies of local authorities or state economic policy, or whether it can be seen as a model to follow.

As such, companies attract more positive media attention if they can make it clear that their business is in line with government plans and contributes to social progress in the country.

Media Consumption in China

From an economic view, growing online media poses a threat to traditional media, which have seen declining circulation figures and advertising revenues for years. By contrast, users are increasingly demanding online sources of information with advertising revenues. Currently, China is home to 700 million internet users. So far, 50.3 percent of the Chinese population have access to the internet – strong growth can be expected in the coming years, offering new opportunities for companies to reach their target groups. 

However, the traditional, state-controlled mass media have maintained their influence, as most newspapers, magazines and TV broadcasters also run successful online portals. State media control and licensing issues mean that private internet portals are still forced to take their journalistic content from traditional media sources.

Around 90 percent of Chinese online users are also active in a social network, significantly more than in Germany or the US. It is the preferred channel for younger generations. China has developed its own social media formats like the micro-blogging service Weibo, and instant messaging services like WeChat, which have a high level of adoption. People in China communicate with a lot more emotion and patriotically online than foreigners are used to.

Overall, the Chinese are well on track to catch up with other countries in terms of media consumption. Chinese adults spend 368 minutes per day using all forms of media, while the international average is 492 minutes.

Practical Advice for Corporate Communications in China

Respecting all these facts, trends and peculiarities of the Chinese media market, it is possible to draw some practical advice for communicators.

1. Choosing the Right Media

Aside from advertising, as a company, addressing a wide audience in China is largely achieved with the help of high-reach media. TV stations and regional evening papers are a suitable option in this respect. However, people who are interested in business can be addressed more effectively via business papers and magazines.

Generally speaking, new digital media, such as WeChat, are a more effective image-building tool for companies than traditional mass media. PR agencies like to offer their clients campaigns on social media.

2. The Language Barrier

Only a small portion of the Chinese public can be addressed in English, with this group largely comprising of business people and those with a high income and good education. The language used in advertising and PR is primarily Mandarin, although Cantonese and the Shanghai dialect play a significant role locally. Great attention should be paid to the intricacies of the Chinese language – small differences can not only change the meaning of what is said, but can also lead to serious misunderstanding and cause financial damage. This starts with the brand. Phonetically converting the company’s name into Chinese can lead to completely wrong connotations.

While, by now this is widespread knowledge among most foreign companies, the messaging part is part of the language barrier as well. Especially since German companies tend to live by the proverb: “Underpromise and overdeliver”. Within the Chinese communication world, pride about achievements and contributions to the general growth of the economy are equally important. Thus, non-Chinese companies often have difficulties in overcoming the socio-cultural language barrier.

3. The Power of “Guanxi”

Personal relationships play a much bigger role in China than they do in the West. Establishing a stable, beneficial contact with unknown individuals is only possible with the help of “Guanxi”. You need somebody to vouch for you with their reputation.

“Guanxi” is not a one-way street. People who use it commit to providing something in return. Journalists therefore don’t want to be seen as just reporters. Instead, they expect you to also be interested in them as people. Good and sustainable media relations therefore require regular contact and visits. Western PR officials in China are frequently under the false assumption that every encounter with a journalist will lead to a report, and a positive one at that. Regular face-to-face meetings are required for reliable “Guanxi.”

When trying to build up a close relationship with journalists, it may help to share interesting information with them – not just about the company in question, but about the industry as well. Many journalists have not undergone extensive training, and they are therefore very keen to talk to foreign companies.


Dr. Evelyn Engesser ist Leiterin von UNICEPTA China und Co-Autorin des “Kompendium zur Medienlandschaft China". Die promovierte Publizistikwissenschaftlerin verfügt über mehr als 20 Jahre Analyseerfahrung in Theorie und Praxis.


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