China, with the world’s largest Internet population, and the second largest economy, is an emerging market with a rapidly growing number of SNS users and a booming public relations industry. Its numeric and economic power is not to be neglected. According to Yeo and Li (2012), the Chinese internet is “one of the most vibrant economic and social cyberspace in the world” (p. 7). A survey has indicated that SNSs is playing the prominent role in Chinese users’ lives. Chinese spend more time on SNSs than American users (Chu & Choi, 2011; Ji et al., 2011). Also, Chinese users’ self-presentation strategies and electronic word-of-mouth (eWOM) engagement in SNSs are quite different from those of their American counterparts; this difference in user-habits reflects the distinct cultural orientations on individualism and collectivism and many other cross-cultural factors (Chu & Choi, 2011). Therefore, it follows that empirical investigations dedicated to the SNS phenomenon in China are needed since more and more multinational companies, which are based in Western countries lack local knowledge and cultural sensitivities, and this unawareness affects these companies’ abilities to craft the appropriate communications strategies to match Chinese social media.
Men and Tsai (2013) researched the types of public engagement with corporate pages on leading Chinese SNSs as well as the motivations and antecedents that drive such engagement. They found that SNSs have become a powerful galvanizing force for social change and grassroots activism and that their utility extends beyond the common purpose of relationship formation and maintenance, though, however, the literature and the empirical studies focusing on Chinese social media are still limited. Activists in China assign greater importance to SNSs than traditional media in promoting political and social debates (Harp, Bachmann, & Guo, 2012). Additionally, users have appropriated SNSs as an effective collaborative manhunt tool to identify, expose, and chastise the misconducts and crimes of social wrongdoers, from child molesters and corrupt officials, to restore public morality (Cheong & Gong, 2010). Men and Tsai (2013) summarized the motivations of Chinese publics’ use of corporate SNS pages, and the effects of multiple relationship-oriented factors, social media dependency (a key antecedent inducing users to adopt SNSs to achieve their goals), para-social interactions (audience’s illusion of having an intimate and personal relationship with media personalities), perceived information credibility (credibility of the information available on corporate SNS pages) and community identification (participation in group conversations and activities, to strengthen users’ community engagement).
Despite these significant investigations, researchers have yet to systematically explore the sundry factors influencing netizens’ engagement; among these, however, could be the notion, that “Culture is generally defined as a constellation of loosely organized values, practices, and norms shared by an interconnected group of people in a given community” (Chiu, Leung, & Hong, 2010, p.9). Whereas SNSs can be similar in terms of their overall goal and functionality, the study of Qiu & Leung (2013) showed that users of different SNSs display different online practices.
Though excellence in public relations demonstrates shared general principles, public relations practitioners should, nonetheless, use the strategies that are adapted to the values and local culture, the media and political systems, as well as the levels of economic development, this concept is called specific application (Verˇciˇc, Grunig, & Grunig, 1996) or localization (Molleda, Kochhar, & Wilson, 2015). Cooper-Chen and Tanaka (2008) claimed that public relations practice is often influenced by culture. A typology of high-and low-context cultures was developed by Hall’s (1989), and it is widely adopted as a valuable theoretical framework for distinguishing differences between western and eastern cultures (An, 2007; Kim et al., 2009). Based on the degree of context dependence, Hall categorized cultures into high-context and low-context. In high-context communication, “most of the information is already in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message”; whereas a low-context communication or message is “just the opposite; i.e., the mass of the information is vested in the explicit code” (Hall & Hall, 1990, p.8). The United States is a low-context culture; therefore, information in this kind of environment tend to be in a clear and straightforward manner; however, marketing communication in Asian culture (especially East Asian) presents more emotional and harmony-seeking appeals (Miracle, Chang, & Taylor, 1992) by choosing an ambiguous and indirect manner (Cooper-Chen & Tanaka, 2008). Men and Tsai (2012) made an empirical study on how companies cultivate relationships with publics on social network sites from China and the United States. There are several identified significant differences in terms of specific tactics, compared with American culture, and there is “a more indirect way to engage consumers and a relationship cultivation strategy based heavily on entertainment and socialization in the high-context Chinese culture” and “publics rely greatly on extended social networks for emotional exchange, and they value trust and the relationship with the company more than explicit product information” (p.7). By capturing the essence of SNSs, and comparing it with companies on Facebook, who are more likely to post messages directly and explicitly related their product, promotions, and corporate achievements, they are less likely to engage in non-brand-relevant discussions. Chinese companies emphasize being personable, and acting like a caring friend, as their strategy for interacting with the stakeholders, which better show the essence of SNSs.
In terms of online sharing, Jiacheng, Lu and Francesco (2010) reveal that Americans tend to engage in knowledge sharing to establish a sense of individuality, while Chinese tend to do so to enhance group harmony. The results from Men and Tsai’s (2013) research confirmed there is a greater dependence on social networks for information, as well as less complaints and criticism in the collectivistic Chinese culture, which reflects an emphasis on group harmony culture, and shows quite a significant contrast with those what companies do on SNSs in the United States. Zhang and Wang (2010) suggested that the way a social network site is designed strongly suggests the formation and maintenance of different types of social ties. The social networks formed among strangers who share common interests imply different types of collective action, compared to the social networks that aim at the replication and strengthening of off-line relationships.
The content above is derived from Chapter 2 of my master's thesis - A Case Study of LinkedIn China and Its Sub-Brand Chitu - with a focus on Public relations and social media strategies. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Li Yingying and www.liyingying.us with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.