“Yan has a sterling reputation in the media industry and commands a high degree of respect throughout the Chinese business community,” are the words of Alan Parker, founder and Chairman of Brunswick Group. Mei Yan joined Brunswick in 2013 after a successful stint at journalism. She is respected and commended throughout nations for her exceptional work being a journalist. Varun Vazir got a chance to interact with Mei Yan as she opens up about her successes and career choices.
Q1. You are an award-winning journalist and now a senior partner with Brunswick – how did you take to the transition?
Ans: Both jobs are extremely challenging and diverse but also very different. As a journalist I was driven by idealism – I wanted to change the world. And while I enjoyed it a lot, today I have to look after a company so pragmatism overweighs idealism. Where I was inquisitive before, I have to be rationale now and where my former thinking was editorial, I am now commercial. The one thing that never changed during my transition from a news reporter to a senior executive of international media organizations operating in China and later to an advisory role was my willingness to roll up my sleeves and jump into the trenches together with my comrades. In other words, as a journalist I have learned on the one hand not to be scared of landmines and to maintain levelheadedness and on the other hand, to identify potential danger and to avoid a head-on clash. At the end of the day that was my job. This unbiased approach is essential to being a trusted and senior advisor. My background in journalism also helps me in seeing our clients holistically rather than as an isolated entity and made this transition a rather natural process.
As a journalist I was driven by idealism – I wanted to change the world.
Q2. What’s your view about journalism in Asia and China in particular – what are the pluses and the challenges at the moment?
Chinese media have changed tremendously over the years. Chinese media today are more open, timelier and more critical than ever. Editorial and analytical capabilities have improved drastically. A new breed of journalists born and raised during the reform period, oftentimes educated in the West, has set new standards. They perceive themselves no longer as “government mouthpieces,” but rather as voices for the public and justice. And certainly social media has become an accelerator for social change—China is no exception to this trend. Instantaneous eye-witness reporting for example is common practice for many Chinese. Nevertheless, propaganda remains a key government priority and the leadership believes that media need to be managed tightly rather than kept on a long leash. Regulation, restrictions, and rules for journalists are here to stay.
Q3. As an award-winning journalist, would you say journalism world over is facing a shakeup thanks to digital?
Overall, in China as elsewhere, the Internet was the single most important disruptor of the media industry over the time of my career. But the disruption in China was even larger both due to the high penetration rate and the early stage of development of other media. While the news flow was previously purely top-down, i.e. government-driven, the Internet has enabled readers to state their opinions more freely and connect with each other more easily than before. And I don’t expect this process to be over anytime soon.
Q4. What are the core qualities of any good journalist?
Being a good journalist requires many qualities. Being inquisitive is the first priority. But a good journalist also needs to be resourceful and willing to make sacrifices. Finally, good journalists are fair and accurate in their writing. And in their very own interest, they should also have a thick skin when they need to stand up to defend their story both internally and in public.
Q5. How do you see journalism changing with the onslaught of brands and advertorials?
As Tom Forenski put it already ten years ago, “every company is a media company”. Businesses publishing their own stories isn’t new. What has changed are the channels. Companies now have access to the same distribution channels as mainstream media which gives them the chance to reach a broader audience. Anyone with a story to tell has the means to tell it – and to have it heard. I see enormous potential for companies to contribute to the narrative around their business. When companies accept journalistic standards, this can become an important element in an ever more diverse media universe.
Being inquisitive is the first priority. But a good journalist also needs to be resourceful and willing to make sacrifices.
Q6. Women in Asia are on the move and are a rising group – how do you perceive them going from strength to strength and how?
The role of women in business, particularly in China, is really encouraging. According to Forbes, more than 50 percent of senior executive positions in China are held by women. One important reason for this success is the mindset of Asian women. They have a can-do mentality. In China and elsewhere in Asia, no matter what industry you’re in, you can try something new and put all your thoughts into doing it, because very often you step onto unknown land. There is a spirit that everything is possible. To some degree, I also believe that wise flexibility in business and smart communication are very strong characteristics of successful Asian female business leaders and entrepreneurs. Both are qualities one finds more often in women than in men.
more than 50 percent of senior executive positions in China are held by women. One important reason for this success is the mindset of Asian women. They have a can-do mentality.
Q7. What inspired you to get into journalism?
Actually, after completing my post-graduate studies, I had all things set for a career in academic. As part of my dissertation research, in early 1989, I worked with British news channel ITN Ch4 News on a documentary series about the rapprochement between China and the then Soviet Union. The documentary will look into Gorbachev’s, the first Soviet leader in 30 years, visit to China and the differences between Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping. When our crew finished shooting around the country and returned to Beijing, it was April 15th, the day when the former Party Secretary Hu Yaobang passed away. That night, from the Beijing Hotel window we could see hundreds of people carrying wrath marching towards Tiananmen. So I recommended the ITN crew to stay a little longer instead of departing the next day, and to cover the news. As the student protests grew so did ITN’s team and my role evolved from a researcher to become a multi-task fixer, producer, crew manager, advisor and whatever I could help. I stayed until the late June when ITN had to pull me out to Hong Kong. After Beijing Tiananmen event, I continued to cover the fall of Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, The down of Romanian dictator Ceausescu and his wife, and Bulgarian quiet revolution. For me, the road to becoming a journalist is not by choice but by fate.
Q8. What was your turning point in your career?
There was not one turning point but many. I went from academia to media, from being a journalist to running the business of leading international media companies including News Corp. and Viacom in China, and from managing companies to advising companies. However, despite many turning points there is a common thread: media. Throughout my entire career, I have been working for and with media, even today at Brunswick.
Q9. How can the digital opportunity change the future of women?
One key advantage of digital technologies is how they allow people with similar interests to connect across borders. This applies to women, men and children. Any group with a strong cause can make their positions heard louder or just connect more effectively than before. That’s certainly a great opportunity for women, too.
One key advantage of digital technologies is how they allow people with similar interests to connect across borders. This applies to women, men and children.