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.
a profile of your chief executive to appear in the Chinese version of
Esquire? That will be about $20,000 a page, according to the advertising
department of the magazine, which has a licensing agreement with the
Hearst Corporation in the United States.
Need to get your top
executive on a news program by state-run China Central Television? Pay
$4,000 a minute, says a network consultant who arranges such
A flattering article about your company in Workers'
Daily, the Communist Party's propaganda newspaper? About $1 per Chinese
character, the paper's advertising agent said.
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.
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."
& 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, 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
American 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.
specialists, and Chinese journalists intent on playing by ethical rules,
deplore the paid placements they say are all too common in the nation's
"Corruption has become a lifestyle in today's China,"
said Sun Xupei, 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
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 $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 Corporation
declined to comment.
Not all business and company profiles in
Chinese media are planted and paid for, of course. But even when they
are not, Chinese media organizations often have much laxer rules than
many mainstream Western journalists for accepting payments from sources
for news coverage.
The highly regarded Chinese newspaper, 21st
Century Business Herald, which is better known for its investigative
reporting, recently ran an interview with Christophe Navarre, chief
executive of the French wine and spirits maker Moët Hennessy.
article appeared after the company, with the help of Ruder Finn, an
American public relations firm, agreed to pay the airfare, lodging and
food costs for nine journalists, including one from the 21st Century
paper, to visit Moët Hennessy's chateau in western China. Of the media
organizations that rode along, only the international news agency
Reuters paid its own travel and other costs, Ruder Finn said.
Hennessy and Ruder Finn, however, insist they did not make any other
payments to entice coverage. "Although we know it's a normal practice in
China, we never pay the media," said Jean-Michel Dumont, chairman of
Ruder Finn Asia.
China is not alone in bending boundaries. Media
outlets in Europe, Japan, the Philippines, Latin America and even the
United States may venture into various gray areas, encouraging companies
to pay for journalists' travel or underwriting favorable reporting or
agreeing to take out advertising packages in exchange for coverage.
(Mainstream American journalism ethics, including the ground rules of
The New York Times, prohibit such practices.)
specialists say nowhere are such quid pro quos as common and as
aggressively pursued as in China - to the frustration of Chinese
"If one of my companies came up with a cure
for cancer, I still couldn't get any journalists to come to the press
conference without promising them a huge envelope filled with cash,"
said one Shanghai-based private equity investor, insisting that he not
to be named because he feared journalists would boycott covering his
Six big American companies that operate in
China, including Ford and General Motors, declined to comment for this
article about the Chinese practice of paying for coverage. So did the
American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, which represents many of the
biggest United States companies operating in China. None of the six
companies have been accused of making the payments.
multinationals made off-the-books payments directly to Chinese
reporters, editors or producers, rather than simply buying space or air
time through media agencies, the American companies could be at risk of
violating the United States Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The law
prohibits people working for American companies that operate abroad from
paying bribes or making corrupt payments to foreign officials to obtain
or keep business or obtain other business advantages.
It is unclear whether any Americans have been prosecuted on suspicion of paying journalists in China or elsewhere.
are considered government officials because generally all the press is
government-controlled in China," said Lesli Ligorner, a Shanghai-based
lawyer at Simmons & Simmons, an international law firm. "So making
an illicit payment to a journalist would be an FCPA violation."
payments also violate Chinese law. China's propaganda authorities
prohibit news outlets and journalists from accepting payments to cover
news conferences or to publish news. Accepting secret payments can also
be prosecuted under the nation's laws against bribery, and some cases
have been. Convictions can result in prison sentences.
much money is sloshing around, analysts say, that enforcement is rare in
China. Instead, the government occasionally issues general warnings,
which go widely ignored.
Newspaper and magazine advertising
departments continue to openly discuss their rates - even when a
researcher making inquiries identifies herself as working for The New
"If your company's boss wants to be shown twice, in
an audience seat, for a total of five seconds, the average price is
$5,000 on some popular news programs," said Wang Limin, an account
manager at Yashi Media, a Beijing agency that helps companies obtain
coverage in print and broadcast media.
"If your boss wants to
comment on something brief and we shoot him in a news program for 15
seconds, it would be $9,000. And if your boss wants an exclusive
interview for 10 minutes, the rate is much higher.© 2012, The New York Times News Service