Driving a PR Business in China

In this article, Jim James, Founder & Chairman of EASTWEST Public Relations, discusses the importance of public relations in his quest to importing cars in China.

This article was first published in the Orient Magazine, 25 September 2017.


By Jim James, Founder and Chairman, EASTWEST Public Relations

Back in 2011, after having run EASTWEST PR for more than two decades, I decided to begin importing British hand built sports cars to China – a project I was immensely passionate about. It was quite a jarring switch, with many new challenges to be grappled with – one of them being the legislation relating to cars in China, as it was new to me.
I had moved to Beijing in 2008 to open the offices of EASTWEST PR in response to a growing number of requests from clients post the accession of China to the WTO in 2001; and met a media landscape undergoing a sea of change from Government owned publications making the transition to commercially viable companies. At the same time, digital media channels were on the rise, posing complications to traditional publications. 
Clients were unsure of the best strategies and agencies were still offering ‘red packets’ to journalists to attend events. Well known global media outlets had yet to establish a presence in the country, but the rapid adoption of the internet meant that sites like CNET or Bloomberg were held in high esteem. However, the real scale of influence was to be had with Ministry owned publications. Local public relations agencies were proliferating as it was then considered to be more lucrative to sell the story instead of tell the story. 
As a foreigner myself, navigating the best ways to both build a business and to communicate on behalf of clients, China was a demanding task. With budgets set aside for publicity work still playing catch up to the scale of scope, and with clients fresh to the market yet to firmly establish healthy profit margins. I rapidly assembled a team of former journalists. Whilst they were skilled at the craft of authorship and business strategy, the transition to a digital focused knowledge economy meant the need for a very different set of skills in the public relations industry. 
Selling handmade low volume luxury British sports cars seemed like the ideal antidote to an always increasingly competitive world of business-to-business public relations. It took a year and 13 ministries to receive the license to import Morgan sports cars. The business started because I imported a Roadster 4 seater to China, and whilst parked one day, I met a journalist who worked with a famous car magazine. It seemed only logical for us to take my British racing green convert¬ible to the Forbidden City for a shoot. Within minutes, a crowd was blocking the passage to one of China’s great monuments, until the police moved us on. Ironically, the car business started because of PR.
As we started building the brand in China, my complete lack of car industry experience was just one of many handicaps, but what the brand needed was a strong communications strategy. Media contacted us to take more photos on many locations both within and outside the city. And within months, we had enquiries to our Mandarin language website from potential customers. The training of building messaging, establishing proof points and finding key opinion leaders was just the right mix of skills to accompany the legal and commercial activities of brand protection, foreign exchange management and showroom construction. The opportunity to take this heritage brand, localise the messaging and build a 360 degree profile both online and offline was the perfect outlet for the twenty years of communications work which I had been doing. The key difference this time; I was spending my own money, not earning fees.
Thinking like a client is the best discipline that an agency consultant can have. It is not difficult to conjure grand ideas for a client. What is hard is to make them appropriate for the client and deliver a return on investment. Most consultants have worked either as journalists or always in an agency and think in terms of time and billings. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but connecting PR to sales leads is a key deliverable that is often missing in the quest for brand awareness or impact via a Corporate Social Responsibility initiative. 
In the last 3 years, we have seen the migration of search from desktop to mobile, and this is creating both location based marketing opportunities and m-commerce transactions. In 1995 when EASTWEST PR first started, we used to send transparencies to the media and posted releases, which in an emergency were sent by fax. We would then wait a month for the magazine to be delivered, or to the next day for newspapers. Today, the entire lifecycle and sales cycle can be completed within 24 hours. The challenge for a business like Morgan, is to continue generating content to remain within the search pages or news streams of the multitude of media which customers are either subscribing to or generating themselves. The public relations agency comes back centre stage again as the source of key messaging, facts and strategy as the stories unfold about the brand. 
I recently became the importer for a British active lifestyle drink called ‘WAKE,’ and again, it is the public relations firm which is driving the forward part of the business by arranging key opinion leader tastings, media reviews and product placement at events. Most businesses start thinking of channels to market, stocking those, and then activating the marketing mix including social media, advertising and events. Now that supply chains have become so quick, it is becoming clear to me that demand is what must come before supply and that PR is a low cost and effective way to drive demand to the sales management tools being used by the company. 
Over 20 years ago I started a public relations agency in Singapore, and although I am now also importing British sports cars and sports drinks to China, the necessity of getting noticed explains why there is always going to be a role for public relations. In the digital age, getting noticed takes focused and consistent generation of engaging content which includes a call to action by viewers who are online 24/7. Each market and each company will require a unique strategy, but communicating ‘why the brand exists’ is just as important as ‘what the product does,’ because alignment with values secures a customer’s loyalty much more than a simple set of features.


About the author

Jim James is the Chairman of EASTWEST Public Relations pte ltd, Singapore. Established in Singapore in 1995, clients of the agency include Avnet, Ieee, Irdeto, Telegent and Morgan Motor Company. Jim is also the Managing Director of Malvern Morgan Cars Beijing (limited) company. For more information about Jim James and EASTWEST PR, visit their website.