8 Things Any Small Business Must Know Before Jumping In 

China has become THE place to be and I often hear from U.S. and European small business owners that it seems like every company, big and small, is already there selling a product or service. The worry being, ‘Am I too late?’ The good news is that as fast as your competitors enter China, there are scores of Chinese businesses and customers coming online just as quickly; meaning there is more than enough to go around and the potential profits are sizable. So how do you break through the clutter to grow your customer base, build effective partnerships and get the media’s attention – all while not breaking the bank?

In my 20 years of working and living in China, I’ve come to appreciate the dynamic and fabulously complex place that is modern China; and I’ve learned some surefire methods to getting the biggest bang for your PR spend.

GETTING STARTED

  1. Choose a local PR agency. Now this sounds pretty obvious, and by “local” I don’t mean the Beijing office of one of the top global “full service” PR agencies like (Hill & Knowlton, Edelman, etc.). Small businesses do not need, and likely can’t afford, to spend big bucks on monthly retainers with these guys. What they don’t want you to know is that if you are small you won’t get the best talent working on your account. Sure they might send in the VP for the pitch, but in the end you’ll have an Account Executive or lower. Don’t be concerned with their title. Be concerned if the person really working on your account has the media relationships, knows all the universities and best venues for events, and has relations with the most popular (and affordable) local celebrities.  They will also need a real understanding and appreciation of what your company is all about – because they will become the de facto “face” of your business to the Chinese public.
  2. Go ‘native’. China is all about relationships, face-to-face interactions and respecting China. Going in with the wrong attitude can spell disaster. If you find a match with a small agency, they will help you navigate the local business customs and garner you the right kind of press. One challenge will be language. Many, not all, of the smaller Chinese boutique agencies spend all their days speaking Mandarin and while they do learn English in school, finding someone that you can really communicate with may take time. Take the time.
  3. Get the right kind of exposure. What is the ‘right exposure’? If you are in transportation, pharmaceutical or banking, for example, and looking to make the right impact to your business, I’d prioritize government relations over traditional public relations. There are some great government relations agencies that are worth every yuan spent! But if you are in consumer goods or IT, I’d focus on finding a small agency that is working or has worked with companies you admire within your specific industry.
  4. Be clear and meet the team. When looking for an agency, be sure to send out a well written Request for Proposal (RFP) and specifically ask for bios of the real team who will work on your business along with their hourly rates. Meeting the agency’s team in-person is the absolute best case scenario and one that I highly suggest. You really need to see China to truly comprehend it and as previously mentioned, personal relationships are critical to success so TAKE THE TIME AND GO TO CHINA. But if you can’t for whatever reason, then definitely use a webcam to see the proposed team. Be prepared for awkward silences, because this happens when junior staff is sitting in front of their managers. Here’s a tip to getting around that – send your questions in advance, in writing and specifically ask for certain people on the team to answer them. This may seem strange in Western cultures, but it allows non-native English speakers time to digest the question and prepare a well thought out answer that best represents her or him and his firm.

NOW YOU HAVE AN AGENCY, WHAT NEXT?

  1. Beyond press releases. If you only have a small budget, and as a small business owner I’m assuming you do, you want to make the biggest bang for your buck. Real engagement with press and potential customers is essential to building your brand and business, and that’s not going to happen as quickly as you need it to by sending out press releases in China. There are hundreds of journalists, at almost as many publications, and they get bombarded with press releases hourly. Journalists in China want face-to face time to meet with executives and appreciate tours of offices, factories and stores to learn first-hand about your business. So why not hold a summit or luncheon or roundtable and bring existing customers in with new prospects and media and hold a conversation about a trend or issue that relates to your business offering. This is a great way to promote your company as a thought leader.
  2. Funny thing about titles. While you shouldn’t be worried about the title of your account person at your PR agency, you do need to be concerned with title when identifying spokespeople in your company. When it comes to Chinese media, they will always want to meet the CEO, then VPs, so make sure someone senior is available when doing press tours or large PR activities.
  3. What doesn’t work at home, works in China. While today in most Western countries, press events are no longer the norm and most journalists prefer to simply speak to you via the phone to save time and money, events and press conferences are a must in China. Press events around things you’d never imagine doing at home, like office and store openings, really work. Small events can run around US$10,000 for most agencies to support, plus out of pockets. The price rises depending on size and complexity of the event.  The old adage ‘to make money you need to spend money’ is true when it comes to publicizing your business in China.  Perception matters and photo opportunities (so you will need a colorful backdrop) and even finding a local celebrity to come to your event works extremely well. When done right these can garner a lot of buzz for your company.
  4. Forget Twitter, try Weibo. Mastering social media is a challenge for any business in every country, but when getting started in China you need to know that both Facebook and Twitter are blocked by the government and therefore can’t be leveraged like in your own country. Knowing the local versions of both of these is a must. Your agency needs to able to use these tools to get the word out. Volume matters; literally hundreds of millions of Chinese use social media every day, so ignoring it is not an option. Make sure your agency is thinking about multiple audience categories also, like students and NGOs, as well as customers to speak on your behalf. One thing to remember – focus on your products and their benefits and stay away from anything controversial or critical of China itself.

Using PR to building your brand in China doesn’t have to be a daunting task. And in fact, it can be a lot of fun. The above tips are just to get you started. I’m eager to hear your comments and help point you in the right direction.