Sun, Apr 08, 2012 - Page 13 News List

Positive news carries a price in China press

By David Barboza  /  NY Times News Service, SHANGHAI

A man reads a newspaper at the Hong Kong Jockey Club Happy Valley race course in Hong Kong on Jan. 26, 2011.

Photo: Bloomberg

China is notorious for censoring politically delicate news coverage. But it is more than willing to let flattering news about Western and Asian businesses appear in print and broadcast media — if the price is right.

Want a profile of your chief executive to appear in the Chinese version of Esquire? That will be about US$20,000 a page, according to the advertising department of the magazine, which has a licensing agreement with the Hearst Corp in the US.

Need to get your top executive on a news program by state-run China Central Television? US$4,000 a minute, says a network consultant who arranges

such appearances.

A flattering article about your company in Workers’ Daily, the Communist Party’s propaganda newspaper? About US$1 per Chinese character, the paper’s advertising agent said.

Though Chinese laws and regulations ban paid promotional material that is not labeled as such, the practice is so widespread that many publications and broadcasters even have rate cards listing news-for-

sale prices.

And while Western companies and many Chinese journalists are loath to discuss the subject, public relations and advertising firms are sometimes surprisingly candid about their roles as brokers in buying flattering coverage, referred to here as “soft news” or “paid news.”

Ogilvy & Mather, one of the world’s biggest public relations and advertising agencies, acknowledged that it pays Chinese media outlets for client coverage in some categories.

“Our policy is to advise our clients to not participate in such activities,” the agency’s Beijing office wrote in an e-mail message, in response to a reporter’s questions. “However, in some industries, such as luxury, the practice of soft news placements is very common so this is something that we have also done before.”

A Chinese account manager for another US public relations firm was strikingly frank about paying for coverage, although she spoke only on condition of anonymity to avoid riling her industry colleagues and her employer.

“If you want more media coverage, that’s easy to do — we have plenty of channels to get your company shown on television, and in top magazines and newspapers,” she said in a telephone interview.

Media specialists, and Chinese journalists intent on playing by ethical rules, deplore the paid placements they say are all too common in the nation’s media.

“Corruption has become a lifestyle in today’s China,” said Sun Xupei (孫旭培), a journalism fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. “But when it happens in journalism it’s even worse than other fields, because people feel there’s nothing they can really trust.”

Executives at the Chinese-language version of Esquire magazine say they regularly publish soft news features that are essentially ads masquerading as news.

One example was a feature about a European audio company, Bang & Olufsen, that supplies equipment to Audi, the automaker. Nothing in the magazine indicated that the Chinese Esquire had been paid to run it.

But the magazine received at least US$10,000 a page for the five-page feature, according to the publication’s executives, who e-mailed images of it as an example of the paid genre. They, and others who helped produce the article, said Audi was involved in the payment. A spokesman in China for Audi declined to comment.

Cheryl Sim, a Bang & Olufsen spokeswoman in the company’s Singapore office, said it was not the company’s practice to pay for news coverage. “We certainly did not pay in this Esquire case,” she said. “But we’ll look into the matter.” The Hearst Corp declined to comment.

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