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Exclusive - Beijing auditions foreign agencies to polish China brand

By Engen Tham and Matthew Miller SHANGHAI/BEIJING (Reuters) - Five global public relations firms have made pitches to the Chinese government for a potential new campaign, four sources said, as Beijing tries to communicate more effectively with the West. The competition by the leading Western PR companies comes amid intensifying scrutiny of Chinese companies abroad, a crackdown on dissent at home and rising tensions in the South China Sea. The State Council Information Office (SCIO), the government's information and propaganda arm, has heard presentations from Hill+Knowlton, Ketchum, and Ogilvy Public Relations, according to four people and company communications seen by Reuters. FleishmanHillard and Edelman also participated in the audition, one source said. The presentations were preliminary. No contracts have been awarded, the sources said. They were not aware if any Chinese public relations firms were asked to make a presentation. China's President Xi Jinping, who has called for Beijing to take a bigger role in a global governance system, has cranked up the state machinery to project China's "soft power" and better communicate China's message to the world since taking power in November 2012. 'UNFAIRLY TREATED' China's leadership recognises it needs to communicate more effectively to Western audiences, said an executive at one of the agencies that made presentations. "They feel they're being unfairly treated by foreign media,” the executive said. China's SCIO maintains contact with foreign media, think tanks and public relations firms, aiming to encourage a better understanding of China, an official in its press department said when asked about the presentations. A spokesman for WPP, which owns Hill+Knowlton declined to comment. Ketchum also declined to comment. FleishmanHillard Inc, Ogilvy Public Relations and Edelman did not respond to messages requesting comment. The SCIO asked the public relations firms to give presentations, in separate meetings, on China's most pressing image problems and demonstrate their expertise on managing new forms of media, according to an internal email and sources. This isn't the first time the Chinese government has turned to Western PR firms to burnish its image. For instance, the Chinese government hired Hill+Knowlton to promote the 2008 Summer Olympics, amid an international outcry over China's handling of an uprising in Tibet. Protests dogged the traditional passage of the torch across the world that year. U.S. firm Weber Shandwick Worldwide also advised China during the 2008 Olympics. FACING SCRUTINY The proposed campaign comes at a crucial time for China's leadership both at home and abroad. Chinese companies, many of them state-backed are on an overseas buying spree. They often face scrutiny from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which is charged with assessing the national security implications of foreign acquisitions. China has been criticised internationally for not communicating clearly with financial markets, particularly in foreign exchange. Premier Li Keqiang has said China is working to improve its communication with markets. The PR campaign under consideration also comes as the government strengthens its control over domestic media and public speech at home. In January, ambassadors from United States, Canada, Germany, Japan jointly signed a letter expressing concern over a new counter terrorism law, and draft laws on cyber security law and management of foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which includes widespread censorship. At the SCIO presentations in February, government officials showed more interest than in previous engagements with foreign PR agencies, said one executive familiar with the meetings. He did not elaborate. (Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Bill Tarrant.)