Taking a proper gander at PR
From JOHN KOHUT in Beijing
THE invitations had been sent out. The conference room at Capital Mansions was prepared with microphones and speakers. All the top members of the board were present, and the journalists had dutifully arrived with their cameras and notebooks.
It was supposed to be a big day. CITIC, China's largest investment company, was expected to announce details of its largest investment yet and one of the biggest undertaken in the country - the development of Daxie Island, off the eastern city of Ningpo.
The only problem was that the company had nothing new to say. ''We'll tell you all the details in a few weeks,'' said an exasperated Mr Wei Fuhai, vice-president of CITIC, after several questions about how the company would raise capital for what appearsto be a multi-billion US dollar project spanning 15 years The CITIC press conference was a classic case of the terrible state of Chinese public relations.
As China opens up its economy to the rest of the world, it has begun to realise it needs to develop a means of public communications which the rest of us can understand. Unfortunately, the message often comes out more in the style of old-fashioned propaganda than anything else.
Western public relations companies started setting up offices in China in the mid-1980s, and see China as a potentially big market with more and more Chinese companies floating shares on foreign stock exchanges and setting up operations abroad. But for the time being, most of the work these Western firms do is for foreign clients with operations in China.
''A lot of the Chinese companies say they don't have the money, without thinking that we can save them a couple of hundred thousand dollars by avoiding mistakes,'' said a Western public relations consultant. SOURCES say Chinese companies often prefer to bribe the press to write favourable articles about them - which works out far cheaper than hiring consultants.
According to Mr Wang Jiaming, head of the Public Relations Association of China, there are more than 100 Chinese public relations companies and offices in Beijing alone.
Some, though, still did not understand what it was all about, said Mr Wang. ''They think it means just having a few gongguan xiaojie [public relations girls] around,'' he said. ''And they misunderstand public relations. They think it just means guanxi [the Chinese term for personal connections].'' Apart from Beijing's bid for the 2000 Olympic Games, the only time the Chinese Government has resorted to Western public relations companies was in 1991, when the Washington office of Hill and Knowlton signed a six-month contract to help China get its Most Favoured Nation trading status with the US renewed.
But the Chinese did not extend the contract when the six months was up. Sources said many of China's leaders did not feel comfortable entrusting an American firm with national policy, and ignored some of the advice from Hill and Knowlton.
The Chinese Government could use some help with public relations. For example, its announcement of the release of student leader Wang Dan - a move aimed at swaying American public opinion - arrived in the US on the morning of President Mr Bill Clinton's State of the Union address. That meant the newspapers were full of Clinton, and China's human rights gesture was overshadowed in the US.
In the past, extracting information from Chinese companies has been difficult. ''If you want to get a company brochure, sometimes it's a nightmare. They don't want to tell you anything,'' said a Western public relations consultant.
That is not surprising, given China's past. Even today, many Chinese fear saying too much lest they inadvertently divulge a ''state secret''. Only a few months ago, the Legal Daily newspaper told Chinese managers to be more vigilant against leaking economic secrets to foreigners.
Moreover, until recently the economy has been dominated by big state-run enterprises who have not had to worry about competing thanks to government subsidies.
Many Chinese companies and government bodies have now begun to understand the importance of meeting the press, even if they do not then take the next step - namely, giving journalists adequate and accurate information.
Part of the problem is that those who handle day-to-day operations often do not get a chance to speak. Instead, a government official is called on to give the main address, even though he may know little about the matter.
Said one Western source: ''They don't really care about what the officials say. They care that the officials are there. It gives the whole event credibility.''