This case study research has examined the public relations practice of LinkedIn China and its sub-brand Chitu to determine whether the stakeholder and relationship theories from the Western perspective apply to organizations in China. This research went beyond examining previous studies on the applicability of stakeholder relationship management because it added more related theoretical explanations such as the Page Principles, Personal Influence and Issues Management, thereby, helping the reader understand more fully the reasons for Chitu's success in China when other western internet companies have failed. Moreover, through a deeper evaluation of the dimensions of Guanxi culture and relationship cultivation in China, this study sought to provide greater insight into how the combination of public relations practices and comprehensive understanding of cross-cultural issues can help foreign internet companies succeed in China. In this section, the researcher will discuss the theoretical and practical implications extrapolated from these findings, followed by an examination of limitations of this research. Finally, recommendations and future research are made.
This case study contributes to public relations research in a Chinese context. Though public relations practice is ‘‘well-established’’ in the West (Kirat, 2005), it has been relatively underdeveloped since it was first introduced to China starting with reform and opening-up policy in the late 1970s (Chen & Culbertson, 1992). Initially, mainstream Western concepts and models, such as the four public relations system models (Grunig & Hunt, 1984) and excellence theory (Grunig & Grunig, 1992) were borrowed to develop Chinese public relations studies (Hou, Zhu, & Bromley, 2013). This research found that the assumptions and predictions of stakeholder theory and relationship theory can be as well applied in Chinese public relations practice, thus, providing further support for these theories. Specifically, identifying and prioritizing stakeholders and publics, according to organizational goals and situations, are of fundamental relevance for managing strategically organization stakeholder relationships. Moreover, developing positive relationships with stakeholders is imperative. For organizations, additional implications were found as follows: (1) delivering value in relationship cultivation, (2) the application of theories within the evolving cultural context.
1, Delivering value in relationship cultivation.
Delivering values in relationship cultivation essentially means meeting the needs and expectations of stakeholders, which involves behavior in communicating strategically and promoting an organization’s value to the target stakeholders. Ledingham (2003) concluded that the building of organization–public relationships requires not only communication, but public and organizational behaviors, which is central to the relationship management perspective. He explained that “Communication alone cannot sustain long-term relationships in the absence of supportive organizational behavior” (p.15). Evidence from this study suggests that LinkedIn China and Chitu persistently focus on various public relations behaviors that not only communicate values to, but actually deliver them to the stakeholders, especially their customers and users. The practice of emphasizing the delivery of value in relationship cultivation could contribute to the relationship theory, discussed earlier, in that value can make a relationship endure and achieve long-term goals. Similarly this research has introduced and emphasized the Page Model and CEO communication and Personal Influence in order to address and mitigate the deficiencies of relationship theory, thereby, making it more applicable to different contexts.
2, The application of theories within the evolving cultural context.
The prominence of cultural factors in the conceptualization of relationship cultivation is revealing. This study has discussed the necessity of combining stakeholder relationship management theories with not only the salient features of Chinese culture, but also with the underlying cultural factors and dynamics that are integral to the ever-changing institutional environment, which includes policy changes, and societal trends.
The aforementioned “combining” is a possible area of research to be exploited, for any future researcher who is keen on contributing to the critical tradition of public relations research; for example, studying more in depth the evolution of Guanxi and theoretical models, such as personal influence and issues management. Moreover, many aspects of culture are rapidly evolving to keep pace with the accelerating changes of the modern world. This evolution is impacting all institutional environments in China, a nation that is experiencing the sometimes unsettling transitional changes from deeply entrenched traditional values to the increasing acceptance of those aspects of global culture that it finds most amenable to its goals. Therefore, public relations researchers and practitioners should, when applying relationship theory, or any other theory, keep in mind the underlying cultural factors that those theories might impact unfavorably, or otherwise.
The findings of this research also have practical implications about understanding stakeholder relationship management in China’s complex cultural contexts. After all, this research’s objective is to essentially answer the question: “What LinkedIn China and Chitu have done so far in terms of maintaining good stakeholder relationships to survive and thrive in China”?
This research has the potential of stimulating wider reflections among public relations practitioners on the stakeholder management idea. Moreover, the researcher also offers invaluable insight and guidance for foreign technology/ internet companies that are eager to initiate and maintain successful stakeholder relationships in China.
1, Focusing on strategic behaviors, not just communication.
In order to meet the expectations of stakeholders, it is necessary for organization practitioners to expend more effort on creating strategic and operational activities for the successful delivery of their vision, mission, shared beliefs and values. More importantly, organizations should quickly, and without hesitation, respond to changes in the business and institutional environment. They should develop a means of preparing for new competition, threats and, or, opportunities (such as Chitu’s identifying and making use of Guanxi’s essence); and finally, they must adjust to government policies and social trends. As is shown in the findings of this research, numerous public relations and marketing activities have been executed by LinkedIn China and Chitu to satisfy stakeholders’ needs.
2, Partnering with government.
Though it might be sensitive to mention, government relations with public relations practitioners, could be strengthened by the latter following government policy, instead of attempting to skirt or interpret government policies in a manner that would benefit their self-interest. Nonetheless, it is recommended that an effective strategy for organizations, especially tech and Internet companies, would be to seek mutually beneficial partnerships with government (on shared tasks) by implementing environmental scanning, as well as, researching social and economic policies; the entire focus of this partnership would be on problem solving.
3, Educating consumers.
Public relations practitioners should take strategic initiatives in educating consumers; education serves an important role in building successful relationships with stakeholders. This is especially practical when it comes to bringing in new cultural concepts and products. Take LinkedIn China’s Chitu product—a professional social networking app, as an example; to a certain degree, online professional networking among strangers is an “imported concept” which is foreign to Chinese users; hence, Chitu has to assume the responsibility of introducing the idea, arousing public interest, and advertising itself through strategic communication and branding tactics. This requires practitioners to understand the full scope of issues management, while exercising cultural sensitivity; to have an extensive knowledge of the organization and its environment, and be skilled collaborators equipped to communicate within and across organizational boundaries. Meanwhile, because of the enormous size of the Chinese consumer market, with its different regional and classics of preferences, it is imperative that practitioners’ efforts to educate consumers not only target the high-to-middle class, but also individuals who are at the lower-socio-economic levels. This effort requires that Chitu, is itself, informed as to the particular economic strata of millions of potential consumers, so that it may tailor its information strategies to meet the needs of consumers ranging from the uppermost echelons of society to the grass-roots level.
4, Positioning the CEO with localized approaches.
The public relations influence that CEOs’ frequent presence, direct contact and communication with stakeholders generate is indispensable. In this study, the CEO of LinkedIn China has tactically positioned himself as an entrepreneur, who started from scratch. His humble origins not only arouse a shared belief with many stakeholders, but also creates an effective branding strategy for the organization, in a country/market and era that is keen on embracing entrepreneurship. Furthermore, it has been illustrated in the discussion chapter that Chitu’s CEO communication has been applied with localized approaches. This means LinkedIn China’s CEO does not regard himself as a professional manager of a multinational company; instead, he considers himself a leader of a local startup with support and trust from the headquarters and investors. This approach gives the CEO more freedom and executive power to communicate to stakeholders, LinkedIn China’s image. Foreign companies desiring to do well in the China markets, would be wise to follow the already proven example of Chitu’s CEO.
5, Making both employees and consumers relationship-building advocates.
As illustrated in the results and discussion sections in the earlier blogs, by providing ownership or empowerment, or by using the Page Principle and Personal Influence discussed, employees and consumers should be encouraged to get involved in an organization’s public relations efforts.
6, Focusing on cultivating relationships first, instead of making profits.
Organizations should prioritize the building of trust and loyalty with customers, rather than trying to turn quick profits. For example, from its very inception, Chitu's focus has been on patiently building its customer base, to the exclusion of raking in profits. Chitu believes that by first emphasizing the dependency of its services and products to consumers, its consumer base will appreciate the fact that the organization has their best interests at the forefront; they will very likely inform their relations and acquaintances of the organization’s approach to business, and in time not only will the customer base grow, but with time, profit should follow. Chitu’s customers are very aware of this approach, which puts them before profit, and as a consequence, Chitu has been enjoying enviable success.
7, Thinking locally and acting locally.
Finally, this study not only discusses public relations practices in China, but takes the necessary steps of shedding light on how foreign internet companies attempt to succeed in China by cultivating and maintaining good relationships with their stakeholders. Accordingly, the researcher has found that foreign internet companies, true to a variation on a popular adage, should not only think locally—but act locally, as well. This case study suggests that to succeed in China, in these globally competitive times, international companies’ public relations strategies, rather than implement the customary business practices, which might have served them well in their native countries, must be locally adaptive and responsive to local norms and needs. In other words, before international companies even enter China, they should study Chinese business methodology, and incorporate into their native methodology those elements that would be conducive to achieving success in Chinese business, social and cultural environments. This incorporation would result in a “hybrid methodology,” which means that international companies might, if they believe it in their best interests to do so, follow the Chinese method of selecting leaders and executives, building local teams, and creating products that are modified to meet the Chinese consumers’ needs. These companies need look no further than LinkedIn China and Chitu, to find a model of how to enter into and maintain a foothold in Chinese markets.
The content above is derived from Chapter 6 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. And please feel free to leave your idea, comments or questions, I'd be happy to exchange with you.