Good Press in China for Those Able to Pay

By Barboza, David | International Herald Tribune, April 5, 2012 | Go to article overview

Good Press in China for Those Able to Pay


Barboza, David, International Herald Tribune


Though officially banned, the practice among news organizations of charging for positive coverage of companies and executives is widespread.

China is notorious for censoring politically delicate news coverage. But it is more than willing to let flattering news about Western and Asian businesses appear in print and broadcast media -- if the price is right.

Want a profile of your chief executive to appear in the Chinese version of Esquire? That will be about $20,000 a page, according to the advertising department of the magazine, which has a licensing agreement with Hearst in the United States.

Need to get your top executive on a news program on the state- run China Central Television? Pay $4,000 a minute, says a network consultant who arranges such appearances.

A flattering article about your company in Workers' Daily, the Communist Party's propaganda newspaper? About $1 per Chinese character, the paper's advertising agent said.

Though Chinese laws and regulations ban paid promotional material that is not labeled as such, the practice is so widespread that many publications and broadcasters even have rate cards listing news-for- sale prices.

And while Western companies and many Chinese journalists are loath to discuss the subject, public relations and advertising firms are sometimes surprisingly candid about their roles as brokers in buying flattering coverage, referred to in China as "soft news" or "paid news."

Ogilvy & Mather, one of the world's biggest public relations and advertising agencies, acknowledged that it had paid Chinese media outlets for client coverage in some categories.

"Our policy is to advise our clients to not participate in such activities," the agency's Beijing office wrote in an e-mail, in response to a reporter's questions. "However, in some industries, such as luxury, the practice of soft news placements is very common so this is something that we have also done before."

A Chinese account manager for another American public relations firm was strikingly frank about paying for coverage, although she spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid irritating her industry colleagues and her employer.

"If you want more media coverage, that's easy to do -- we have plenty of channels to get your company shown on television, and in top magazines and newspapers," she said by telephone.

Media specialists, and Chinese journalists intent on playing by ethical rules, deplore the paid placements they say are all too common in the country's news media.

"Corruption has become a lifestyle in today's China," said Sun Xupei, a journalism fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. "But when it happens in journalism it's even worse than other fields, because people feel there's nothing they can really trust."

Executives at the Chinese-language version of Esquire magazine say they regularly publish soft news features that are essentially ads masquerading as news.

One example was a feature about a European audio company, Bang & Olufsen, that supplies equipment to Audi, the automaker. Nothing in the magazine indicated that the Chinese Esquire had been paid to run it.

But the magazine received at least $10,000 a page for the five- page feature, according to the publication's executives, who e- mailed images of it as an example of the paid genre. They, and others who helped produce the article, said Audi had been involved in the payment.

A spokesman in China for Audi declined to comment. Cheryl Sim, a spokeswoman in Bang & Olufsen's Singapore office, said it was not the company's practice to pay for news coverage. "We certainly did not pay in this Esquire case," she said. "But we'll look into the matter." Hearst declined to comment.

Not all business and company profiles in the Chinese media are planted and paid for, of course. But even when they are not, the rules Chinese media organizations follow are often much more lax than those used by many mainstream Western journalists for accepting payments from sources for news coverage. …

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