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Inside a Public Relations Machine: Meeting a Chinese PR Executive in Beijing

Maria Repnikova

I didn't know where Mrs Wu worked when I made an appointment with her. An old friend in Beijing introduced her as an expert in media and crisis management. It took a while to set up a meeting. Mrs Wu was changing times, or just not responding. I kept sending friendly reminders. Finally she agreed to 10:00am on Thursday morning.

I enter the reception of the company. Looking at the faded red carpet with the company's label on it, I wouldn't guess that I've arrived at Beijing office of a multinational public relations firm. As soon as I try to make myself comfortable on a square-shaped leather chair, I get a message from Mrs Wu that she is on her way. Ten minutes later a beautiful young woman comes to greet me. She is wearing skin tight black pants, pink shirt, and high heels. She is Mrs Wu's secretary. She leads me through many cubicles into Mrs Wu's empty office. “So sorry, she lives far away and is bad with keeping the time,” she says to me semi-apologetically. Ten minutes later she brings me water, apologising again. Other employees started peeping at me through the glass door, smiling curiously, then looking away. Mrs Sun is already 40 minutes, and there is no message from her.

I have time to observe my surroundings. Most of the employees are pretty young women in short dresses, or tight pants. It's like a PR army of models, contained within tiny cubicles. It's 10:30am, and everyone is chatting. Some walk around with stern faces, but others whisper to each other while tapping their shiny shoes. I've now been waiting for an hour and still no sign of Mrs Wu.

I look around her office. It's bare, except for a large wooden award on the wall. It's from the Harvard Alumni Club, thanking Mrs Wu for her great contributions. On the shelf, there is a postcard from Harvard. And on the other wall, there is a painting of Harvard. You certainly know that Mrs Wu attended Harvard as soon as you step into her office. There is also a label with her and position on the door: Mrs Wu is the director of communications. A serious job in a country where mis-communication is common between international companies and officials, as well as officials and the public.

As soon as I begin to leave, Mrs Wu softly walks into the office. Soft spoken and modestly dressed, she is quite different from her secretaries. “Tell me about yourself,” she asks, not wasting anytime on small talk. In Chinese she literally asked me to “tell her my CV”. So I began retelling my usual immigrant tale of Vermont-Georgetown-Oxford trajectory. She interrupts me from the very start. “Vermont? That's a nice place. My son is going to high school in Boston. I love Boston. I spent time at Harvard,” she says with a proud smile. “How could I possibly not guess that”, I am thinking to myself. Then she points to the painting on the wall and says that she painted it while at Harvard. I compliment her. She goes on recounting her CV.

When she hears that I went to Georgetown she asks why I didn't go to Harvard instead. Mrs Wu never heard of Georgetown. If it's not Harvard, it means little to her. Once the CV review was complete, Mrs Wu began to answer my questions. She spoke entirely as a PR manager. “What are the remaining challenges in training Chinese officials in crisis communication?” I ask. “In my view, Chinese officials are mostly elites, well-educated and smart. It's not challenging to teach them,” she responds. “I think Chinese officials' attitude to communicating with the public evolved in the past decade. They are now open on most issues following crisis events,” she adds. Her public relations persona faded somewhat when she compared mayors in America and in China. She noted that American mayors are more down to earth and serve the public, whereas Chinese ones are often removed from the public and highly corrupt. This diversion didn't last long though and Mrs Sun went on to say that in general everything in China has improved in the last decade. She didn't hesitate to take some credit for the improvement.

Towards the end of our talk she asked about my future plans. She wasn't impressed with my academic aspirations, but nodded with approval about me possibly applying to Harvard. She sees me out of the door as softly as she walked in. When I get home I find two messages in my mailbox from her: a selective CV and a compilation of media reports praising her efforts in training Chinese officials.