SHANGHAI—Chinese companies need public relations counsel to help them overcome a western media narrative that seeks to reinforce stereotypes about low quality goods and poor service, Huntsworth founder and chairman Lord Chadlington told the ThinkTank Live conference in Shanghai today.

Chadlington, who has been visiting China for more than 40 years and spoke of his admiration for its economic success and workforce, made the case that Chinese companies need to understand the more hostile media environment in the west, and to work hard to build brands that are about quality and innovation.

Recalling a recent discussion with a Chinese government official, who asked him to read western coverage of Chinese business from a Chinese perspective, Chadlington explained much of the hostility and skepticism toward Chinese companies.

“In two decades, the Chinese economy will be larger than the US and the EU combined,” he said. “People of my generation did not expect that kind of change…. Much of the west is virtually bankrupt. Western Europe is dreadful. Europeans do not feel confident about their future. And in those circumstances they look at China and ask “How is China doing so well when we are doing so badly?’

“To explain that, they create a picture in their heads that says successful Chinese brands must have some kind of government support, they must not be subject to normal market forces, they must not be subject to the same kind of scrutiny. The media publish stores that support those ideas, and they ignore stories of innovation and hard work that contradict those ideas.”

As a result, 94 percent of western consumers cannot name a single Chinese brand, and only 2 percent say they would prefer a Chinese brand given the choice.

Chinese CEOs, he says, are often unprepared for a western media that asks “unpleasant and sometimes rude” questions, and need advice from PR firms that understand both the media and the broader culture in western markets.

He is confident that Chinese companies can overcome these obstacles, however.

“This is exactly the position Japan was in 30 years ago,” he says. “One company changed the entire perception of Japan: Sony. And I can see emerging from this current group of Chinese company a similar company.” He cited Lenovo and Air China as just two examples of Chinese companies successful in overseas markets with the potential to change perceptions.

“We have to make sure we use our PR skills in support of these trailblazing companies to add to their success,” he added.