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Pay to Play: Bribing Your Way to PR Coverage in Asia

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You’re the head of communications for a Silicon Valley networking company. The company has done extremely well in Europe, and you’ve built a strong communications program in the U.K., France and Germany to support that growth. Now that your CEO has decided to expand into Asia, you’re going to need to craft a plan of attack for a region that operates very differently. And in doing so, you must decide how to deal with the widely entrenched “envelope culture” that exists there.

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What does this mean? In many emerging Asian economies, companies and the agencies that represent them use incentives such as cash, gifts, meals or travel to get journalists’ attention and motivate them to write favorable coverage. The archetypical example is China, where companies might slip a cash-filled red envelope into a press kit as a “transportation fee” for a journalist in return for attending a press conference. Others will go further, plying the media with a trip to a briefing at a chic hotel or treating them to dinner at a trendy restaurant to drive the coverage they are looking for. You’ll see such “greasing the skids” in action not only in China, but also in Vietnam, Korea and elsewhere in Asia. And you are going to need to decide where your company draws the line as you operate in this new environment.

As you think about how you’ll walk the ethical line in Asia, you’ll have people who tell you you’ll get nowhere if you don’t play such games. In a New York Times article titled “In China Press, Best Coverage Cash Can Buy,” a Shanghai-based private equity investor is quoted saying, “If one of my companies came up with a cure for cancer, I still couldn’t get any journalists to come to the press conference without promising them a huge envelope filled with cash.” Sure, you could opt to pay off journalists like this. But if you do, you’re reinforcing a sketchy system and sabotaging the emergence of a strong, independent media, one in which journalists produce content that is truly newsworthy.

We have a clear point of view here, which is to buck the “envelope culture” in Asia and focus on delivering tailored, quality story ideas to your priority news outlets. Yes, you may see less coverage if you take the high road. But the stories you do land will be meaningful ones. And by refusing to bribe your way to success, you will be promoting the development of a global media corps with a strong ethical foundation.

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