PROFILE: Morris Grant, kilts and communism
A 52-year-old man emerges from a black cab in London's Hoxton Square, wearing a tweed waistcoat, kilt and sporran.
This is Morris Grant, former PR adviser to the Chinese government. Just in case you did not notice, he is Scottish.
As Grant pays for his taxi, he grins and booms at the driver: ‘This is my family tartan, you know. It is called "Hunting Grant". Very appropriate for a single man in London, don't you think? Now I've just got to find a lady! Ha ha!'
Even in eclectic east London, it is fair to say that Grant stands out.
In China, he says, his 6'3" kilted presence was ‘traffic stopping'.
‘I would go to the shops in my kilt at the weekend and the reaction was amazing - they had not seen a real Scotsman. I have never had so many people stroking my tartan and poking my sporran,' he chuckles.
Grant lived in Beijing for a year, working for the Chinese government's English-language website, china.org.cn. He was employed after he approached the Chinese embassy in search of pre-Olympic opportunities, leaving his Scottish highland hometown of Dingwall - population 6,000 - for bustling Beijing.
The site has the appearance of a news portal, covering most of the topics you would expect from a news magazine, but from a very particular point of view. Its aim, explains Grant, is to present a ‘broader' view of life in China to the West.
‘Now, with email, people can talk more easily between countries, so a decision was made by the government - in light, as well, of the Olympics - that they should encourage young people across the world to communicate with each other.'
Grant maintains that the site is not simply ‘China propaganda'. Rather, the priority was to ensure that the news would be of genuine interest to Westerners.
This meant that even stories that might be negative would be covered in a ‘tight, straight fashion'. Also, Grant encouraged the government to feature lighter topics, including the arts.
As news editor of the site, Grant was at the helm of an English-speaking team of 14 Chinese and reported to a board of ‘senior government officials'.
Compared with a Western client, Grant found the Chinese were ‘more thoughtful about what they might and might not say - it is the nature of the country to be careful'.
‘They were image conscious about their country, fiercely proud,' he says. ‘They would talk openly about many things, although they were reluctant to talk about things that had gone wrong.
‘Sometimes you had to fight your corner in editorial meetings, and justify why a particular item was worth including - but that is what you get in the newsroom of any newspaper. People who did not like it would say: "Why? What good is it? Who does it help?" But they were receptive,' he maintains.
‘I think people are pleasantly surprised when they go on the site,' says Grant: ‘Yes, there are heavy political messages, but also there is a mix of news, fashion, art, stuff that will raise a smile. A first-time reader would be intrigued by the content.'
The lighter tone is part of ‘a very determined effort' by China to ensure the West understands that within the country there are designers, artists, authors and musicians.
‘It shows a recognition from the government that cinema, fashion and so on, all have their place in the modern world. People should be aware of that. There is no point trying to hide anything,' he argues.
Grant says his biggest success was convincing the editorial board to accept his ideas for covering Valentine's Day.
‘I talked about the Western interpretation of life, and convinced them that we needed to do a video to show the West that Chinese teenagers are no different to teenagers in the UK or America,' he says.
So, Grant and his crew went to the Beijing flower markets and interviewed young people, showing that ‘although China is a very traditional society it has the capacity to accept ideas from an outsider, and to allow young people to enjoy Valentine's Day, just like kids in Inverness,' he points out.
Light touches aside, there is no escaping the fact that China's political views are staunchly reflected in the site. Grant looks uncomfortable when asked if he agrees with the politics.
Eventually he offers: ‘I do not think I was there to believe or not believe. I was there to assist the government of China, to ensure that information was out on the web, and people had access to it. And the news values were strong.'
But Grant is no stranger to the need for careful diplomacy, having spent five years as media, public and employee manager for the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), at the controversial nuclear reactor site Dounreay.
Appropriately, given his Chinese experience, he says there were ‘concerns about secrecy' when he joined Dounreay. While he was spokesman, the policy changed to one of honesty, which saw members of the site's workforce becoming its ambassadors.
At this summer's Beijing Olympics, Grant predicts Western journalists will be ‘pleasantly surprised' by the freedoms they are allowed when reporting on China.
‘They will find the government and the people accommodating - the Chinese will bend over backwards to ensure requests from Western media are met.'
This summer, Western journalists will hope Grant is right. If not, no amount of good news on china.org.cn will stop them from reporting otherwise.
2006 Newsdesk editor, china.org.cn
1997 PR manager, United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority
1993 Scottish editor, Noroil Publications
1989 PR manager, Babcock Thorn
1985 European PR manager, SDA
1972 Junior reporter, The North Star
What was your biggest career break?
The editor of my local newspaper, The North Star, contacted the head of English at my school, asking if he could recommend a pupil with journalistic potential.
What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?
An ability to identify potential difficulties, spot opportunities and produce budgeted documentation are hugely important to those you work with, particularly if clients are unaccustomed to PR.
Who was your most notable mentor?
Lloyd Fraser, the marketing director with the government-funded Scottish Development Agency (now Scottish Enterprise). The SDA was a complex organisation with fingers in all sorts of pies throughout Scotland and abroad. It was initially difficult to understand how it fitted together to form a strategic pattern, but Lloyd shone bright lights into many dark corners.
What do you prize most in new recruits?
They should recognise that by being fresh they have an immediate advantage. Very often you cannot see the wood for the trees, and new faces are not loaded down with this baggage. Do not be backward in coming forward - have the confidence to express an opinion, to disagree, to question, to bring new ideas to the table.
This article was first published on PR Week UK
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