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Print Edition> Business
UPDATED: September 30, 2011 NO. 40 OCTOBER 6, 2011
The Future Is Social
China's PR industry embraces social media

LIFE OF A SURFER: Staff members browse the Internet at a hi-tech company in Shenzhen (LIANG ZHIWEI)

Inevitable trend

"[Social media PR] is happening now, and it's happening to some extent from customer demand, but it's also happening because people understand that it is necessary," said Woolf. "I think the great thing about all this is that it's forcing change, it's forcing conservative companies to realize that they've got to change, which is great for PR industries."

"Although we have a whole bunch of tactics to use—posting visa BBS, creating word of mouth to share online, optimizing press releases for search engines—we still need to answer three fundamental questions: Who do we want to influence, when and how?" Woolf said.

According to Woolf, there are several key trends for social media marketing.

First is communications in real time.

One of the biggest challenges from Twitter or Weibo is the immediacy of communication. "One of the challenges I suggest for communicators is to adjust not only your behaviors in terms of monitoring and observing but adjust your ability to react in real time when something breaks," said Woolf.

Second is creating compelling content.

"News releases are often just printed on plain white paper. Every company must publish and create interesting, compelling content for the people they want to influence to share," said Woolf.

He cited Alizila.com, the news blog of China's Alibaba Group, one of the world's leading e-commerce companies, as a good example. The website provides interviews with people within Alibaba, video contact, high-quality reporting and breaking news.

Third is thought leadership. "Usually we mould CEO or managing director of a company into a thought leader. In PR we create messages for them, to train them how to speak and distribute messages," said Woolf.

Fourth is community building. For a brand it is important to have the ability to build a community around that brand.

"People who are passionate, people who care and people who are actually interested in your interaction are ideal for your brand," he said. "What we should do is to build a community by putting up a page for those people in Weibo or Renren or Facebook and have interactive communication."

Challenges remain

Lack of talent has become the biggest handicap on the rising PR industry in China.

"This is a brand-new industry and the skills we are talking about are new to PR. Young people are good at using the new type of technology and have their own Weibo or blog. That doesn't necessarily mean that you can use them professionally, you still need to understand the communications, the principles," said Woolf.

Finding people who are able to walk in both worlds is hard, he added.

China is in serious shortage of high-level PR talent, said Sun Chuanjun Deputy Secretary General of CIPRA. Few Chinese universities offer PR courses, Sun said.

While embracing the era of social media, some negative sides began to cloud the waters. Recently a new job was created as social media develops. Known as "water armies", they are people hired to promote a product under the guise of being genuine customers.

But this is not something unique to China, Woolf said.

"I'd like to think that the online community knows when somebody is not telling the truth or when a campaign is just for show. One of the great things about the Internet is that it can be self policing," said Woolf.

He said Text 100 had a social media policy that governs the way they engage online on behalf of the company and some on behalf of their clients. Every company needs that type of policy, he said.

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