BRICS Spotlight Series: Near Sights on the Far East
In 2001, investment banking firm Goldman Sachs issued a report predicting global economic power gradually shifting from the G7 nations toward the developing world. Jim O’Neill identified Brazil, Russia, India and China – coined “BRIC” – as countries with enough economic growth to become major players on the world’s industrial power stage. South Africa was later added as a viable power to observe. A decade later, these countries continue to be watched and discussed by the media for their potential. And as the media pay attention to the BRICS group, so do public relations and advertising professionals seeking to enter or strengthen their organizations’ presence in these markets. As such, the Cision Navigator presents a new four-part monthly series offering insight into the culture and atmosphere that can impact your communications efforts in these nations. Journalists and industry experts share their first-hand experience working in these countries, in addition to advice on hot topics, major industries and the most effective means of pitching and promotion. Whether you’re engaging in business in the BRICS nations or considering an overseas position as a journalist, this series aims to provide you with useful knowledge as you pursue opportunities abroad.
For Michael McCune, director of global advisory services for consumer research firm CEB Iconoculture, a near decade of living and working in Shanghai was a matter of course after earning a college degree in Asian Studies, with a focus on Chinese language.
“There was no question that I would head to China after graduation – I was incredibly excited to start interacting directly with people there and start making my own interpretations of how the country would continue to evolve,” he said. “It wasn’t hard to convince myself that a country with over 1 billion citizens would have some impact on our future – I just didn’t know what that was at first.”
The world’s most populous country undoubtedly teems with demographics holding significant buying power. And from a marketing standpoint, McCune sees the consumer needs of independent aging Asians as a particular market to watch.
“Seniors are expected to remain integrated into the lives of families and communities, which fosters a better environment for healthy and diverse consumption by retirees that have more means to act on their interests,” he explained. “Also, as we’re all living longer now, the concentration of aging populations in China translates into a large market for assistance products that help seniors maintain independence.”
McCune also foresees urban design best practices originating in Asia, a trend of niche brand scalability and a consumer force among the affluent in China that he said exemplifies “the Chinese becoming more Chinese,” instead of western.
“Simply displaying ownership of Hermes, Porsche or whatever brand just isn’t enough – they’re willing to pay top dollar to artisans who can create one-of-a-kind pieces. I believe this is driven by many consumers’ needs to express personal expertise and learning through a type of brand or product connoisseurship that can then be related to other wealthy peers.”
While this mentality might sound like a basic marketing principle, McCune noted that this trend has only recently started happening in China, and went on to explain, “This is spawning truly innovative design of Chinese origin. Not all of it translates to mass appeal, but it inspires other designers/manufacturers who infuse their mass products with elements of the artisan efforts.”
Whereas McCune’s intrigue about China led him to work in business, Paul Mooney’s Sinophilia led to journalism, through what can be called a very intense cultural immersion. A freelance writer who has reported on China for more almost 30 years, he developed a deep interest in Asian history and politics after serving in the Vietnam War. He’s borne witness to some of China’s major historical events in the past decades, such as the student protests in Tiananmen Square, and written for high-profile publications such as Newsweek, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the International Herald Tribune, the South China Morning Post, the Wall Street Journal Asia and US News and World Report.
His perspective on journalism in China speaks to the country’s reputation for strict media policies. Having faced numerous government hurdles in traveling to write his articles, he said most of his experiences have included some level of intervention on behalf of local officials who were made aware of his interviews. Yet with this major difference in government’s role in media versus that of the United States, Mooney has seen some change.
“Prior to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, foreign journalists could not leave Beijing unless the local foreign affairs office in the place they intended to report gave prior approval, which was often difficult to obtain,” he said. “This has improved a lot since 2008. Now journalists can travel legally as long as someone – whether an official, businessman, scholar, citizen or farmer – agrees to be interviewed.”
While noting that certain topics such as politics are still very sensitive and in some cases off limits to report on in China, Mooney went on to praise the determination he sees in today’s aspiring journalists.
“Younger journalists are much braver and daring than say a decade ago, but there’s an invisible circle drawn on the ground. They’re stepping up to that circle and toeing it, but they’re careful not to go too far because of risks involved.” But he noted, “There are an increasing number of investigative journalists in China and that’s a very positive sign. I’m also impressed by China’s citizen journalists, who go out with an audio recorder, video camera, or still camera and report on things that the mainstream media cannot touch. This has completely changed the scene here in China.”
Mooney credits this rise in part to the power of social media, which has been utilized to work around government policies and distribute news through a “man on the street” voice. He witnessed a particular experience in which AIDS patients he reported on communicated and organized protests all through QQ, a local version of Skype.
“Today many things get wildly reported via Chinese microblogs and Twitter. Although the latter is blocked here, more and more Chinese reporters are finding free software that helps them jump over what’s known as the government’s Great Firewall,” he said.
McCune echoes this sentiment, and notes the burgeoning presence of alternate forms of social media such as WeChat (also known as WeiXin in Mandarin), a voice and text messaging service that supports social networking via shared streaming content feeds and location-based social plug-ins. In just two years, the service has grown to 300 million users.
“At its core, it fills the gap around personal asynchronous dialogue, as opposed to broadcasting through Weibo or SNS,” McCune explained. “It reflects the dynamism of the Internet everywhere as well as the uniqueness of life behind the Great Firewall, demonstrating not only the ability to disrupt, but also how unique forms of services and products are generated in China. Of all the interesting particulars about WeChat or any online service in China, one key thing to look for is if they can go global – we’ll see.”
Whether pursuing business or journalism in China, both experts play up the importance of interaction and immersion in the culture. McCune classified himself as a life-long learner of Mandarin Chinese, having put forth a great deal of effort to attain a decent fluency. Mooney, who also studied Chinese language academically, read and watched as much Chinese media as possible. He also advised journalists to make contacts with people and organizations, such as the Asia Society, prior to traveling to the country to build a network of good resources.
And regarding China’s political structure, both experts said it hasn’t had any negative bearing on their personal connection with the country.
While reflecting and advising on the intricate process involved in obtaining a journalist visa (applications can take anywhere from three months to a year), Mooney’s found contentment as a freelance writer. “The craft can be very trying and without much institutional support. At the same time, I wouldn’t change one thing. Being a freelancer has given me the freedom to report on a wide variety of issues. I’ve been fortunate to meet and write about incredibly courageous people and to witness the great changes that have taken place in Asia during the past three decades.”
Journalist restrictions aside, McCune added his thoughts on working in China from a business perspective. “I’ve seen plenty of folks sweat about what they should say, or how they should ask questions, and it creates a lot of anxiety for them, and for the Chinese they interact with. Crafting marketing messages does take preparation, experience and forethought. But you should feel free to be yourself, ask questions about topics that interest you, and answer their questions as you would anyone else. Most folks appreciate sincerity, and it fosters better individual relationships that matter in China.”
Michael McCune; director, global advisory services, CEB Iconoculture
Paul Mooney; freelance writer
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