Do You Really Need to Pay Journalists for Ink in China?

MoneyGenerating media visibility in China has always been a priority for the institutions that I have worked with in the past. Throughout the years, I have developed some excellent rapport with Chinese media, which led to some nice placements. I never paid a single Yuan for this coverage, so I was confused when I heard this notion that you had to “pay to play”.

This New York Times piece outlines this practice of paying for coverage, and I have seen it done from afar on a few circumstances. But it has always been a bit murky to me about when you have to pay vs when you can legitimately pitch a story. So I asked this question of Tannia Xia, Deputy Director for Public Affairs at NYU Shanghai.

“It doesn’t happen everywhere,” she explained. “For different regions and different situations, this does happen. If it is interesting news, the media doesn’t necessarily expect payment.”

I like her last point – be interesting and then the media will cover it. As for NYU Shanghai, that is an interesting enough story that they don’t need to pay for ink, says Tannia.

“We have a policy – we will not make any payment to a journalist for coverage. Our story is very unique and attractive to the editors here in China and to the readership of their publications. It is up to me to ensure that I am writing an interesting news release and tying into the right angle.”

As is the case in other media markets around the world, it ultimately comes to down relations.

“It is about friendship and showing respect,” she says. “I focus on helping journalists to complete their work and therefore try think from their perspective. Working relationships should benefit both sides, and then you become professional friends. Consequently, journalists then come to you.”

Tannia advises that western institutions looking to build up their school’s brand presence in the media should leverage their students as ambassadors.

“There is no way Chinese media can get to London or New York to report about your schools and the details and culture of the institution. Therefore, your best chance is to nurture your students well so that they can communicate through social channels (primarily Weibo and Wei Chat).”

The focus on students also helped dispel initial negative suspicions about a western US school establishing new roots in China.

“In the beginning there were some doubts raised by the media,” explained Tannia. “These sort of remarks are always made when there is something new on the horizon.  But as students started coming to campus in 2013, journalists – and all people for that matter – were able to see something concrete and focus on our education. They were able to talk to and hear from students, which made a big difference.”

Of course academic freedom is a significant communications obstacle that US institutions need to grapple with in setting up shop in a place like China. For Tannia, it hasn’t been a major concern.

“Before we started, this question was raised. But there has not been any issue whatsoever since we have started classes and the only feedback I have heard from professors (who come from different countries) has been positive.”

Tannia informed me that there has been a shrinking of the media market in China. For higher education institutions, she believes the most important outlets are CCTV (equivalent of CNN in the west) and China Daily (equivalent of the NY Times).

So in conclusion, if China is an important market for you, don’t worry about paying any journalist and instead focus on the stories you are pitching, the relationships you are fostering and the outlets you are targeting.

For additional insights on reaching prospective students in China, see my previous blog post interview with Kevin Wang, Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at NYU Shanghai.

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