During his official visit to Beijing last December, Japan’s new Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda played catch with his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao.
Dressed in baseball uniforms, the two leaders smiled at the cameras and exchanged a few polite lines coated in diplomatic poetry. Just before the visit, Chinese media coverage of the 70th anniversary of the Nanking Massacre was relatively muted.
“I was surprised that the media didn’t really play it up; maybe it’s the Olympics factor,” said Masashi Nonaka, a consultant at public relations firm Weber Shandwick in Beijing. “This means things could always turn the other way after the games.”
For Japan, the corporate risks of doing business in China are likely to remain high – although this is a potential boon for PR firms keen to help the country massage its image.
Prap Japan, the public relations consultancy reputedly instrumental in the landslide election victory of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 2005, has seen yearly growth in China of 15-30%. Given the waves of unpopularity that intermittently engulf Japanese brands in China – sparked by anything from defective laptop batteries to car recalls – the company has had much to work with.
Relations reached their most recent nadir in 2005, supposedly as a result of the publication of a Japanese school textbook that made light of the country’s military past.
“The anti-Japan mass protest in 2005 was a real turning point. It signaled the emergence of a PR market for Japanese companies in China,” said Nonaka. “It got a lot easier for me to market crisis management programs.”
Open for business
The Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE) is also looking to win friends in China. It recently opened an office in Beijing with a view to attract listings from Chinese companies to the world’s second largest bourse by capitalization, according to Yasuyuki Konuma, director of the TSE’s listings department.
But any Japanese company looking to enter China has to appreciate the need to be on a constant PR alert, even when there is no obvious diplomatic tension between the two countries.
“Chinese consumers may be enthusiastic about Japanese products much of the time, but that sentiment can turn very quickly when relations turn sour, for instance at the time of Asian Cup in Beijing three years ago,” said Will Moss, a senior manager with PR firm Burson-Marsteller in Beijing.
To best prepare for the unpredictable, David Zhao, managing director of Hill & Knowlton China, suggests that Japanese companies get more media training so they are able to react more effectively to changes in the political landscape.
However, all this hinges on convincing Japanese companies that such specialist PR services are worth it.
“Only a small portion of Japanese companies, including listed ones, seek PR advice,” said Yutaka Sugahara, Shanghai general manager of Kyodo PR, Japan’s largest listed PR consultancy.