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The Public Affairs Asia Government Relations Forum, Beijing 7th JuneBy Emma Dale
Heads of Government Relations, Public Affairs and Corporate Communications of MNC's and senior practitioners of Global PR/PA firms gathered together in Beijing to share their knowledge on best practice and discuss the opportunities on government relations in China and how it is integral for global business. However, with this huge opportunity also comes challenges, China is complicated and can not operate in the same way as the West. Fact.
It is apparent that China is hugely important in global business and is a key part of business strategy. China used to be a nice business expansion to have, but now it's essential. But is the business environment getting easier or harder for MNC’s to expand in China? Many MNC's feel it is harder to break into China compared with the 80's when simply having capital was all that was required. Central and local government would welcome MNC's - there was a lack of talent, money and China would grab what it could. Nowadays China still encourages investment but just being a MNC is not enough. It wants to see the benefit and how this investment will actually help China.
With a new government entering into China, it is even more important to have people that really understand what is happening politically and help China become a key player in the overall global market. The issue is that China is very complex and difficult to understand. It is also hard for government relations practitioners in China to explain to their counterparts in the West why things can't be done in the same way.
Where government relations is positioned within a company is also up for debate. Where should it be placed in a company? What should it be called? Who should it report into? Over the years’ government relations has been re-named public affairs, corporate affairs, external affairs or policy communications. It has also been seen as a trouble-shooter, but it really needs to be seen as a business driver. This can be difficult to understand internally and therefore there are issues seeing how public affairs can connect and contribute to the overall business function. Therefore public affairs practitioners need to own local relationships educate internal stakeholders and show how the function can translate to benefit corporate guidelines. It is imperative that public affairs practitioners use tools to prove to internal stakeholders that public affairs/corporate affairs can be measured and how it effects a company’s reputation. The story needs to be told internally, often and consistently, and examples given of how it can add value to the business and improve their reputation.
The sheer size of China is hard to comprehend by the West. Shanghai's population is larger than the whole of Australia. It really is necessary to have local people dealing with local issues and problems, managing local relationships within the overall business strategy. However again the lack of talent rears its head constantly and prevents this from happening. There are huge differences between government relations activity in SOE's (state owned enterprises) and MNC's. SOE's have very smart business professionals who are very well connected within the government however this is not necessarily the case in MNC's and private sector companies who really do need to receive external public affairs/ government relations advice.
To be a successful government relations practitioner in China, you clearly need to be well ahead of the course with so many changes in policy. You must know what's coming up in government, therefore hold very close relationships with government ministers and solid contacts are essential -you need the information before you read it in the media. Influencing policy debate well ahead of schedule is essential; again you need to hire local talent that have excellent relationships with both central and local government.
How is government relations impacted by social media? Unlike the Western world, China has tight policies on social media therefore the social media is a channel that is impactful, but you have to find the right channel. Government officials in China are online and they communicate via Wiebo accounts. Everyone needs to be in close contact with Weibo - there's no other option.
So what will the new China leadership change mean? Will we see immediate change? Hopefully there will be time to see what direction the government will take economically, socially and environmentally. Is important not to predict what you think will happen as its unsure what the make up of the new government will be. Monitoring the situation as it develops and then putting together the strategies that will influence, is a far better approach.
So in essence, China is complicated. It's not back and white, and it appears to have many grey areas. This can be hard for government relations practitioners to manage and communicate this. However there is huge opportunity for the government relations industry to grow and become recognised internally and valued. We just need to find the talent- but that’s easier said than done.
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