Career Opportunities after China.

The journalist’s emailed questions were mostly straightforward. She was writing a report for a European recruitment firm specialising in expatriate assignments that wanted to expand its business in China.

“How difficult had it been to find a suitable apartment?” “Had it been easy finding a good international school?” “How were we coping with(out) the language?” “What did we miss most about life in the UK?” (our local Chinese takeaway in Kent, I was tempted to respond). But the final question threw me. “How did I think the assignment in China would benefit my future career?”

From the headhunter’s first call, through the teleconference interview with the aid of an interpreter and throughout the discussions that followed with family and friends, I had become been very clear on the reasons for moving to China.

China's 1.35 bn people make up the 40% of the world's population. Global communicators can benefit from time in Asia.

China’s 1.35 bn people contribute to Asia’s 40% of the world’s population. Global communicators can benefit from time in Asia.

First was the opportunity to experience the world’s second largest economy and one of its most dynamic markets first hand and unfiltered at a pivotal point in its development. What makes China tick? What does the shift from communism to state-controlled capitalism feel like? As with everything in life, you can learn from books or media reports but there is nothing quite like experiencing something new with you own eyes, ears and nostrils.

Second was to let our children soak up a different culture, learn a new language, meet different kinds of people and develop an appreciation for a world that, despite the increasing uniformity of globalisation, still offers fragments of diversity. Had the children been five years younger, the experience would have meant little to them; five years older, and it’s unlikely they’d have wanted to come.

Finally, was the opportunity to support a company that I had come to know after almost a decade of periodic collaboration, with an enigmatic founder who was 44 years old when he created a technology start-up that he had grown into a $ multi billion global business. It was, however, struggling to understand the rules of the global game as it expanded internationally and was paying a high price for its inexperience in managing international media and other stakeholders.

Nowhere on my list of pros and cons was anything about how the assignment might benefit my future career. Living life ‘in the now’ has always been more appealing than ‘in the future’ and it wasn’t a consideration. Now, almost two years after my arrival, I think I can answer the question.

Rediscovering simplicity. The seldom-questioned intuition that comes with experience plays little or no part in developing communications strategies and implementing PR programmes in China where international communications is a relatively new concept, both among executives and communications departments. Making and keeping things simple – both strategically and in the words used – takes on a profound importance here. All comms teams know that complexity impairs understanding but we forget sometimes. Living and working in China reminds us to strip everything back to the bare essentials, to eliminate the unnecessary and the industry speak.

Managing the bias of experience. It’s amazing what can be achieved with a communications department staffed by smart people who, despite their lack of experience, are eager to learn and self-develop. It really is possible to deliver remarkable results quickly with a team of individuals that are unencumbered by the cynicism, conservatism and bias that experience very often puts in the way of new ideas and new ways of doing things.

Becoming a global practitioner. China is home to 1.35 billion consumers and the rest of Asia combined is home to a further 1.3 billion people. All told, almost 40% of the world’s population lives here. With rising prosperity and sustainable economic development, how can any of us call ourselves global communicators with little or no knowledge of the region or exposure to it? Global communications leaders cannot be developed behind a desk and an Internet connection. If our role, in part, is to help build understanding, having a first hand understanding ourselves is a major enabler to doing our jobs well.

Finally, I think that sometimes we should accept opportunities that help us to learn more about ourselves, that challenge us as people and not focus simply for the calculated, tangible benefits those opportunities may also represent.

But for anyone with aspirations to develop their global career, an assignment in China will do nothing to undermine your future prospects.


Bridging the Language Divide

A successful American businessman generated news headlines this week when he delivered a 30 minute speech and then took questions from an audience. The speech took place at Tsinghua University, one of China’s foremost seats of learning in Beijing. Reporters reported, commentators commented and people around the world remarked upon the ‘awesome’ nature of the speech on various social media platforms, including the businessman’s own.

Facebook's CEO speaks in Mandarin in China and the English speaking world is wowed.

Facebook’s CEO speaks in Mandarin in China and the English speaking world is wowed.

A Chinese businessman generated news headlines a few weeks earlier when he also delivered a speech and took questions. People in the audience tweeted and retweeted and ‘liked’ elements of what the executive said. The event took place in Hong Kong, at the Economist magazine’s annual Innovation Summit.

The thing that makes these seemingly similar events different is that the interest generated by the Chinese businessman’s talk was about what he said; the headlines generated by the American businessman were about how he said it: he spoke in Mandarin. Not a single media report or tweet expressed amazement that the Chinese businessman spoke in a language not his own.

Mandarin Chinese is a difficult language for a native English speaker to learn. My own progress is painfully slow despite living here so I respect Mark Zuckerberg’s effort and achievement. I’m reliably informed that English is no easier for a native Mandarin speaker to master than Mandarin is for an English speaker.

Interest declared: I helped the Chinese businessman to write his speech and coached him on speaking in English. While the ideas were all his, my job was to ensure all the words chosen came easily to him, that the ideas were clear and that the structure of the speech made it as easy as possible for the audience to follow. Had the press stories led with the line that he’d spoken in English, I’d have been disappointed: the important thing for both he and I was that his message was heard and understood.

I have no idea whether Facebook’s comms department was happy with the coverage Mr Zuckerberg achieved or not. It’s difficult to find media reports about what he actually said. It’s entirely possible that Mark Zuckerberg’s key message was his outstretched hand to China’s elite. If the message was something different, it went largely unreported.

Facebook is blocked in China by the Chinese government, unavailable to anyone without the technical tools to bypass state censorship. Yet despite the block (Twitter, Instagram, Google, the New York Times among others are also blocked) that disables China’s 1.35 billion people sharing content on Facebook, the company generates significant revenue in China. Chinese companies are active advertisers on Facebook’s global platform, using ‘sponsored posts’ as an effective way to reach existing and potential customers around the world. If Mr Zuckerberg was simply building bridges to build future revenue, his objective was likely met.

What does the west’s reaction to Mr Zuckerberg’s speech say about English language bias in our multilingual planet? China is the world’s second largest economy and its population is almost double the United States and Europe combined. In today’s global market, maybe its time the English-speaking world embraced more openly China’s culture and language, alongside its commercial potential?

There is a deepening geo-political battle underway between the US and China, driven largely by mutual fear and mistrust, by unfamiliarity with the other side. The reaction to Mr Zuckerberg’s speech should act as a reminder of this enduring gap, while his efforts to speak in the language of his hosts serves as an example to others in bridging international relations.


Stop the unnecessary interruptions

There we were, sitting in the top floor bar taking in the last of the evening sun and the spectacular views of the Bund with the Pudong area of Shanghai lit up like a Christmas tree behind it. The cocktails flowed and cigar smoke – still allowed in most bars in China – swirled. Behind the Montechristo haze sat reporters from the Daily Mail and the Huffington Post. Left and right were journalists from the UK’s finest technical titles. All reporters were on good form and on their first visits to China.

After an exchange of views on everything from the impending Scottish Referendum to the problems facing UK supermarket chain Tesco, as well as what might best be described as ‘Fleet Street gossip’, the discussion turned, predictably, to PR agencies. A cringe-making list of crimes against common sense followed, each reporter offering an example to outbid the previous. I have had similar evenings on a regular basis for the last 20 years. I tried, half-heartedly, to introduce a little balance into the assassination of the industry I consider home.

The view, almost spoilt by tales of PR crimes against common sense

The view, almost spoilt by tales of PR crimes against common sense

A few days later and back in the office, I received an email, unsolicited, from a managing director at a UK PR agency. The agency, his email went on, had ‘an unrivalled reputation’ in the mobile technology industry and, lucky for someone, was in a position to add some new clients to the agency’s portfolio. He asked that I offer some times when the head of his telecommunications practice could call me to discuss my needs.

I responded by thanking him for his interest in adding us to his portfolio of clients and assured him of my excitement with any agency with an ‘unrivalled reputation’. But then I reminded him that he had written to me, again unsolicited, just a few weeks earlier (when incidentally the agency had an unrivalled reputation in broadcast technology) and that I had responded then saying  I was fully covered with existing agency relationships, a position that hadn’t changed in the intervening period.

In the interest of full disclosure, I may have challenged (a little) his assertion of his agency’s ‘unrivalled reputation’ as I had never heard of them before but I did wish him well in his new business quest. I might, to be honest, have also offered him a modicum of advice, explaining that in-house people are, somewhat self-interestedly, more curious about what the agency can do for them than how they might be able to help an unknown agency.

His response was a slightly terse note to the effect that “a simple ‘no thanks’ would have sufficed”. I then reminded him that I had done that just a few weeks earlier, yet he had chosen to interrupt me, unnecessarily, again and that maybe I was just too busy to play his email marketing game.

The exchange reminded me of many similar approaches over the years but one in particular still stands out. Almost 15 years ago, I had just finished a particularly long day at the office. The company had just issued the mother and father of all profits warnings, introduced a new Chairman and CEO and announced a plan for what was then Europe’s largest ‘debt-for-equity swap’ as the basis of a £multi-billion financial restructuring. By 6:30pm, and having completed 120 media interviews including with TV crews camped outside the company’s headquarters in central London, I was about to leave for home for the first time in 72 hours (these events take a little preparation!) when the phone rang. I assumed it was a final fact check call from one of the news desks on the nationals so reluctantly picked up the receiver.

The caller, who judging by the tone of his voice had enjoyed a better day than I, explained that in his opinion we’d had a bad day with the media and was calling to offer the services of his PR agency to restore balance. So I asked him to define what our challenges were.

“Eh, er, erm, you’re putting me on the spot now. Can I, er, erm, come back to you in a few days?”

I don’t believe for a second that either example is typical PR agency behaviour but it does happen too often and has been going on for too long. It’s not just journalists that have to suffer time wasting calls from PR types.

The basic skill that any PR needs is the ability to craft a message that meets the needs of the recipient and the ability to deliver it to them at a good time. Anything else is simply an unwelcome interruption to someone’s busy day at best, or the subject of a game of journalist’s anti-PR one-upmanship in a bar somewhere at some time later.

Please, please, please. If you do it, stop it. If you see someone else doing it, tell them to stop.

In the end, we all get tarred with the same ugly brush.