A new front
Mei Yan brings her formidable journalistic nous to PR firm Brunswick’s China coverage
Mei Yan, the new senior partner for China at global finance and corporate communications company Brunswick, has lived every journalist’s dream. She was there when the Berlin Wall came down, she witnessed the fall of communism in the erstwhile Eastern Bloc, covered the Gulf War, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Somalia and the Iraq War, for which she and her team won three Emmy awards.
So how did a young girl from Beijing studying Russian language and literature get to work for such media giants as UK’s Independent Television Network (ITN) and CNN?
“Basically, I was very lucky,” says Yan, during a recent visit to Hong Kong. While studying at Columbia University in the US in the 1980s, she met a producer from ITN at a Christmas party who was doing a documentary on then Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to China.
With her dissertation knowledge and her ability to speak Russian and Chinese, Yan was the ideal person to help do the documentary.
“The day we went back to Beijing was on April 15, 1989 [the day former Communist Party general secretary Hu Yaobang died, shortly before the Tiananmen Square crackdown]. So we stayed on because things just happened with such a force – it was unimaginable,” Yan recalls.
“Reporters were pouring in and suddenly I became translator, guide, producer, and everything else [covering the event for ITN]. So again, it was not by choice. Things just happened and I was just drawn into it,” she says.
Then momentous events started to unfold in Berlin and Nik Gowing (currently BBC presenter but then an ITN Channel 4 News international correspondent – and Yan’s mentor into journalism) said: “You speak German, so come with me.”
So Yan ended up covering the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yan recalls the announcement that they were opening up. “We quickly ran to the gate and people were flooding over to the west [side of the city],” she remembers.
As there was no satellite then, Yan (with her Chinese passport) shuffled between east and west, so her passport ended up with many Checkpoint Charlie stamps.
One advantage of having a Chinese passport is that no visa is required for Hungary, which is where Yan headed next. By 1989, the communist systems were already collapsing, and she was there to cover it.
Based in Budapest, Yan covered Bulgaria. When the Romanian revolution happened in December 1989, she headed there. On a train from Sofia in Bulgaria to Bucharest, border guards questioned the many Checkpoint Charlie stamps in her passport and took her to an army garrison.
“It was a little shack on the border. There was no heat and these soldiers stood around a big stove. They put me in a basement in a small room with no heat. No explanation – no conversation. None of them spoke Russian,” she recalls. “No one talked to me and I was shivering and cold to death. These guys were eating peanuts and wearing big coats, and I was shivering.”
At 5am, without a word, the guards let her out and put her on a train back to Bulgaria.
Witnessing the violence, darkness, suffering, poverty and anger of the people in the Eastern bloc had a lasting impression on Yan. “It was time for change,” she says.
Yan went back to Columbia University, but found it difficult to settle. When New York Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury asked her to help him with research for his book on the Long March in China, Yan accepted. “He listened to my stories of what happened during those times, and he told me I should be a journalist,” she says.
Yan’s own father was a journalist in the 1930s. He was a pioneer of China radio and became the first minister of Chinese broadcasting. He was imprisoned for nine years during the Cultural Revolution. “The one thing he didn’t want me to do was become a journalist,” says Yan.
However, unbeknown to Yan, Salisbury had sent a letter to CNN about her. Soon, she was invited to Atlanta for an interview. “They put me up in a hotel, and it was then in 1991 that the first Gulf War broke out.”
Yan was promptly hired to work on coverage of the war for CNN. She moved to Atlanta from New York, and became head of CNN’s Asia desk. Her last stint as a journalist was in 1999, when she became pregnant.
“I didn’t know I was pregnant. I just thought I was just busy,” she says.
After giving birth, Yan decided to move back to Asia to be closer to her father. “After you have a child, you have a different perspective. It’s not that you want to slow down, but you want to stay more with your child and enjoy your child,” she says.
In 2005, Yan moved to News Corp, where she worked until 2009, when she joined Viacom, which includes MTV and Nickelodeon. Going from hard news to entertainment was a big but enjoyable change.
This year, at the pinnacle of her career, Yan made the move to public relations.
“All my friends said ‘Why change? You’re on the throne.’ But it’s not my goal. I want to enjoy what I’m doing. I want to have the last challenge of my life. Maybe it will make a change,” she says.
“Brunswick provides me with the horizontal platform to use all the experience, knowledge and networking I have gained in my 25 years of working in the industry. And now I can serve more people, advise more people strategically and also more companies. More people can benefit from what I know.
“I want to do more, I want to use my experience to serve a variety of people rather than serving one company. That thought made me change my career,” says Yan.
For Yan, traditional PR involves window dressing, something she is not interested in.
“Brunswick is well-positioned to be a strategic adviser in terms of communication and helping China to breach that communication channel,” she says.
Yan admires the Brunswick team, citing them as an intelligent, thoughtful group of people who are well-positioned to be involved in strategic thinking.
Yan says she does not have a management style. “It’s more persuasive. I never like to be boss or to be bossed around. From my background, I still think humility goes miles. And that will win respect rather than bossing people around. I like to make a friend, and Brunswick will give me that platform to strengthen that friendship and camaraderie that I really enjoyed in my journalist years.”
Looking back at her own life, Yan has this to share with career women: “Be yourself. Believe in yourself and be confident. Constant observing, picking up advice and lifetime learning will bring constant growth in your life and career. Don’t be fixed and unchangeable – be adaptable and flexible”.
LEARN CHINESE, KNOW CHINESE
Mei Yan’s tips for doing business in China
Learn Chinese “It’s never too late to learn a language, but it is essential. It will lead you to learn the culture, and to appreciate and respect the culture. That will let you understand better, and change your views and be more adaptable and appreciative.”
Make friends with the Chinese people “It’s a different culture and different values. Subconsciously, you will appreciate the culture when you do business with them. I really don’t like people who go there and criticise everything – the pollution, the food. Of course, nothing’s perfect. If you want to feel, think and do business, and really thrive in China, you have to really [know China], regardless of all things that may not be good.”