Scarlett Zhao is a PR professional with experience in technology, media and retail sectors. In February 2020, she transferred to London from Beijing to join the International Corporate Comms-EMEA team. In her current role, Zhao drives customer communications, content creation and social media in the European region. She has worked in Alibaba’s comms operation for six years.
Before her career in PR, Scarlett Zhao worked as a journalist following the study of journalism and communication in two of the top universities in China. Fluent in English and Mandarin, Zhao wrote and edited for leading business publications such as Bloomberg Businessweek (Chinese edition).
From her career as a PR professional and a journalist, Scarlett Zhao has established great knowledge of the business landscape in China, especially in the tech sector and she has shown success working cross-culturally.
Describe yourself/your background in 5 words max?
Former journalist, Beijing to London
How did you get into PR/communications?
I felt that I needed a career path that can offer better professional development after being a journalist for over five years, but I wasn’t done with my interest in good content. From journalist to PR, it was a relatively natural transition for me. I was good at copywriting, I knew how reporters work and I spoke their language which made media relations management much easier for me. Funnily enough I wasn’t a journalist who cared about maintaining relationships with PRs back then, thus I was always mindful that I needed to come up with interesting angles and good material when speaking to journalists.
What do you love about your job?
I love that I can still be creative, I can still listen to and work on great stories and that there are new tasks and challenges all the time. Every job has its ups and downs but in PR it rarely gets boring. I also love that being in PR allows me to gain knowledge of many aspects of a business that I have always been interested in.
What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of accomplishing everything I truly put my mind to. By this, I don’t mean there’s a long list of things, but when I dedicate myself to something I feel passionate about, I get it done.
What’s been the hardest lesson to learn?
To let it go. There’s always room to improve when writing an article, editing a video, creating a deck, etc. It never feels 100% as the best as it could be, but every project has to come to a close. Let it go and move on, take the lessons learnt to the next project.
Who are your favourite people in PR and why?
PR, to my mind, is all about communication and consistently being true to your message. There is one person that truly delivers on this the best, at the highest level imaginable; Barack Obama. Obama consistently managed to combine his vision for the world with a hugely accessible, often mesmerising delivery that left the viewer/reader in no doubt as to where he stood. He managed to drive a movement of millions behind his vision for his country. The enthusiasm and dedication he inspired in both his followers, the wider American public and people all over the world was something to behold. Whether you agree with his politics, or whether you rate his achievements as President are not the point here. In the world of PR, and promoting, managing and communicating a message, I think his abilities were remarkable.
What skill do you think every PR/comms person has to nail?
Business perspective. No resources will go to proactive PR/comms if it doesn’t serve the right direction of the businesses. I think we should understand the business as clearly and deeply as possible.
What is your favourite social network and why?
Instagram. It’s highly visual. A strong message would jump out to you in one glimpse. It’s less chaotic. You only see who you follow (and some ads).
What’s your favourite podcast and why?
I religiously listen to a Podcast called Hidden Brain. It used to be from NPR in the US, but now it has its own media company. This podcast is truly wonderful! The premise of the program is to do a deep-dive into one facet of the Human Being; trying to understand our inherent behaviours, how we think, and how society affects us. A typical episode will focus on something like ‘cultivating purpose’ or ‘the influence you have’. The charismatic interviewer (himself a Social Scientist of some repute) will discuss with another expert in that particular field about the topic, usually involving stories from members of the public to make it as accessible and as engaging as possible.
I love this Podcast because it consistently delivers a high standard of show. It never fails to wrap you up in the topic they are discussing – ensuring that you question your own predispositions and potential assumptions (both positive and negative) – and ends with a satisfying conclusion that often stays with you for days or weeks afterwards.
Plus, it always calls out unsung heroes at the end of each episode. It could be anyone who worked on the show. It’s just such a lovely moment.
Who is your favourite journalist and why?
Peter Hessler, who writes for New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and National Geographic among many other publications as an investigative reporter. However, his “China trilogy,” covering the decade in which he lived in the country, from 1996 until 2007, is what drew me to his work.
He focused on less developed areas in China that were going through drastic changes. His works centred on the huge issues in China with links to history but through the perspectives of individual Chinese. His innate understanding of Chinese culture comes through in his writing. His love of the country also comes through in his work, which is more representative of those westerners that have lived in China than the criticisms and fear often stoked in the news.
Coming from China and now living in the UK, it is clear that there is a significant gap between the two countries in terms of deep understanding of one another. This is perhaps especially the case for Britons (and Westerners more generally) understanding China. There are numerous reasons why this is the case, but I feel that bridging this gap is really important work.
Moreover, Peter Hessler is an excellent narrative nonfiction writer. His stories are to sink into.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
I was told by a professor at University in Beijing, ‘Don’t say no to yourself before others say no to you.’ This means that you should believe in yourself and don’t talk yourself out of a challenge because of a fear of rejection.
Biggest PR campaign fail and yay of 2021 so far?
One PR campaign that caught my attention as a yay was Microsoft Teams “Where there is a team, there is a way”. As a legacy B2B brand in the industry, this campaign put customers to the forefront. It used stories of small businesses and organisations who use Teams to stay connected, to work efficiently, to better serve consumers and to grow during the global pandemic. It showed the power of Teams in a very subtle and humble way which made it more memorable for me. Besides, it resonated with how lots of people have worked in the past year. One plus point is that they did improve the product while putting the campaign out.
The biggest PR fail of 2021 in my mind would be Tesla in China handling a consumer claim in April. First, a consumer protested about product quality at the highest-profile auto show and got dragged out by security. Then Tesla comms VP in China blamed the consumer for generating negative coverage for Tesla and commented with “no compromise to unreasonable request” and said that “90% of Tesla consumers still would repurchase” to the media. Such an arrogant response made the audience on social media furious and quickly led to scrutiny of its product safety. The company’s stock price plunged and its order numbers in China dropped. After that, repetitive apologies and a pledge to carry out a third-party investigation couldn’t quiet down the reputation crisis for months. It’s just so bad.
Finally, on the D’ word… What can the sector do to encourage diversity?
Diversity is a key issue in every workplace and in every sector. To achieve real diversity, people of different backgrounds need to be able to see people that represent them visibly working confidently and securely in that sector. There need to be those shining lights that press ahead into environments where they are outnumbered so that they can blaze a trail for all of those people who don’t believe their face will ‘fit’. To help facilitate this, PR needs to find and nurture those role models that say to others, “you belong here too!”. Genuinely celebrating great work by those already achieving great things in our sector can really inspire those looking at this work from afar. Utilising profound research on unconscious bias during selection phases can help ease access into our profession. Finally, ‘be in the game so you can change it!’
Connect with Scarlett Zhao on LinkedIn.