China seeking help to improve its image

Tourists visiting the Temple of Heaven in Beijing on April 18, 2016.
Tourists visiting the Temple of Heaven in Beijing on April 18, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

Five PR agencies make pitch as Beijing seeks better communication with the West

BEIJING • Five global public relations firms have pitched to the Chinese government for a potential new campaign, four sources said, as Beijing tries to communicate more effectively with the West.

The jostling by the Western firms comes amid intensifying scrutiny of Chinese firms abroad, a crackdown on dissent at home and rising tensions in the South China Sea.

The State Council Information Office (SCIO), the government's information and propaganda arm, has heard from Hill+Knowlton, Ketchum, and Ogilvy Public Relations, according to the four people.

FleishmanHillard and Edelman also auditioned, one source said.

No contracts have been awarded, the sources said, and they were not aware if any Chinese PR firms were asked to make a presentation.

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 the country's message to the world since taking power in November 2012.

China's leadership recognises 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 foreign media," the executive said.

The SCIO maintains contact with foreign media, think-tanks and public relations firms, aiming to encourage a better understanding of China, an official said when asked about the presentations.

Ketchum and WPP, which owns Hill+Knowlton, declined to comment. FleishmanHillard, Ogilvy Public Relations and Edelman did not respond to enquiries.

This is not the first time Beijing has turned to Western PR firms to burnish its image.

For instance, Hill+Knowlton was employed to promote the 2008 Summer Olympics, amid an international outcry over China's handling of an uprising in Tibet. Protests dogged the traditional passage of the torch across the world that year. US firm Weber Shandwick Worldwide also advised China during the 2008 Olympics.

The proposed campaign comes at a crucial time for China's leadership both at home and abroad.

Chinese firms, many of them state-backed, are on an overseas buying spree. They often face scrutiny from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, which assesses the national security implications of foreign acquisitions.

China has been criticised internationally for not communicating clearly with financial markets, particularly in foreign exchange. Premier Li Keqiang has said China is working to improve its communication with markets.

The PR campaign under consideration also comes as the government strengthens its control over domestic media and public speech.

In January, ambassadors from Canada, Germany, Japan and the US jointly signed a letter expressing concern over a new counter-terrorism law and draft laws on cyber security and management of foreign non-governmental organisations, which include widespread censorship.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2016, with the headline 'China seeking help to improve its image'. Print Edition | Subscribe