How to avoid the media handout

Since we opened our doors in 2006 in Beijing, we have refused the temptation to pay journalists to cover our client stories – it means that some clients don’t want to work with us and some journalists, but only a few, have been disappointed. The nature of the PR industry is changing, but slowly, from one based on bribing journalists to attend events, to one based on the proper etiquette of treating them as professionals in search of the truth, and the role of the PR practitioner to assist them in that role. This article was written by Nellie Wang, former journalist and EASTWEST consultant, and appeared in Marketing Interactive response to an article in the FT which exposed the practice of paying journalists. Nellie wrote: In the recent past  all media, including newspapers, magazines, broadcasting and television media, belonged to the Chinese government. The government paid the journalists a fixed salary and in return they reported what the government wanted them to report. However, after economic reforms, Chinese journalists were forced to survive without governmental handouts and had to find other ways to supplement their meager salaries. Journalists turned  to PR firms, asking for nominal fees to attend events or conferences. The firms reluctantly agreed, justifying the handouts as “transportation fees” to and from events, even though these fees are often five times more than the average cab fare. Average fees range from RMB 150 for one sentence in a story to RMB 1,000 for a column. Most PR firms pass the transportation fee expenses onto their clients, hiding it in the out-of-pocket expenses. Does it have to be this way? My company does not think so. We have found that for every journalist that refuses to cover our stories without the payout, there are many journalists that love what they do and want to cover the news without the bias inflicted by accepting transportation fees. After adopting our no-pay policy last year, EASTWEST has built up a solid media database of serious journalists that look forward to our press releases, take notice when we call, and give our clients coverage because it is news, not because we have paid them. The process was not easy, but it was the best decision for us and our clients, trying to find a footing in the Chinese market the honest way. So how does a PR firm with a no pay policy avoid alienating the media? How do you get coverage without taking a ride on the media Ferris wheel? For events and media conferences, we present small but tasteful corporate gifts. Popular ones have included compasses, small writing pads, and computer mice. We also try to schedule events around a meal, providing a nice buffet or sit down meal for the journalists. Finally, hosting a media mixer, such as bowling or karaoke nights, can be a good way for journalists to get to know your company while having fun. Above all, be upfront with your clients about your policy and the positive and negative aspects of it. Often times, a company executive is flown over and impressed when he walks on stage to find hundreds of Chinese journalists sitting in front of him. What he may not know is that they were paid 200 RMB to be there and may not be the most relevant journalists to cover the story. Finally, set your guidelines up front with a client. If they want to pay the fee, let them pay, but warn them that not all coverage they receive will be directed at the right audience. For example, if you are targeting Chinese CEO’s, why invite the editor of a parents and kids magazine? What value is added by one more clipping, if it is not the right coverage for your company? By being upfront and honest with both the media and the client, expectations on both sides are managed. Unfortunately, transportation fees are the name of the game when working with the Chinese media, but experience has shown that you don’t have to play this game to win in China. See more posts about PR and digital marketing on: www.eastwestpr.com

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