He’ll Just Have to Wait

Everyone is all smiles on stage at this press conference in China’s equivalent of the White House Press Room.

We were only a little bit happy.

Minutes earlier, the four people you see in the front of the room were sitting in stony silence, broken only by the occasional call from China’s Minister of the State Council Information Office to ask why we still hadn’t started.

For weeks, the Fortune Magazine communications team had negotiated, requested, cajoled and asked nicely for the several hundred foreign press attending the Fortune Global Forum receive equal treatment to that afforded to the domestic press.

This was the inaugural press conference. A very big deal. In the next few days, 500 foreign CEOs would be in town, President Hu Jintao would give his first speech to a foreign corporate audience, Premier Wen Jiabao, Beijing Party Secretary Liu Qi and 14 other top officials would participate.

In another part of the city, foreign press were in a tangle of lines, with “technical problems” at the credential station where they were to check in.

The domestic press counter was empty. They had come, done their business and left.

Now here we sat in the holding room getting ready for the press conference, our vice president of communications, the director general of the State Council Information Office, the head of communications for the Municipality of Beijing, and me.

After polite chatter, with these people who had become good friends over the past year, I raised our issue:

“We cannot start until the foreign press are credentialed. I’m not asking to wait for them to arrive here from the Peninsula Hotel, but I need assurance that whatever technical issue has been resolved and that they will be credentialed.”

The vice president of communications, was a seasoned journalist having come to Fortune after a stellar career as a Time Magazine journalist – no stranger to international media, or to China. Her fingernails were chewed ragged from the stress. She had been on the phone all morning with her team, the PR agency and members of the media who were angrily asking for help.

Our partners didn’t believe we would delay the press conference. They offered the usual explanations that there were “technical issues”. I responded:

“Then move them to the domestic check in. It’s empty as of 2 minutes ago when I received my last update.”

They informed me that the counter needed to be left clear for any domestic media who showed up. What I knew was that they were still running extensive background checks on every single journalist coming to cover the Forum. They had even made me sign a document taking personal responsibility for every journalist, including our own, who entered the country to cover the Forum. For those three days, they all reported to me, as far as China was concerned.

I reminded them of that fact. Then sat silently.

Their unease grew. I could see panic setting in. The phone kept ringing. Texts kept arriving. The Beijing press person kept her earphone in with an open line on her phone to her boss, who reported directly to the Party Chairman.

We sat.

“It’s a simple request. We won’t walk to the stage until we resolve it.”

Starting time came. The phone rang.

Our SCIO friend: “The Minister wants to know why we haven’t started. He’s in his office watching the closed circuit.”

“I assume you’ve told him the problem. I’m very sorry, but I cannot declare the success of the preparations when I know the foreign media will take my comments and quote them in articles about the mess they’re experiencing.”

I was being a jerk, but I had a point. Besides, I was exhausted, 20 pounds heavier than 16 months before, and so stressed, my hair, perennially dry as straw wouldn’t lie flat. In short, this was satisfying in a perverse way.

The clock kept ticking. The texts and calls continued, increasing in frequency as time went by.

Finally, my phone rang. Credentials had begun printing.

Ten minutes late, an eternity by the reckoning of a Chinese official whose boss demands punctuality for such a public event, we walked to the stage.

We declared the success of the preparations, praised each other for our smooth collaboration. My statement included a line stating that I knew that regardless what obstacles we faced, together we would find our way through.

Then we did questions and answers afterward. When asked why we had started late, I apologized and said the American side had a small problem, and our Chinese partners had sorted it for us. Overall about 40 minutes of mutual love.

On the way out the door, my phone rang.

On the other end of the line: “There’s a technical problem with the credential machine. We still have about 50 foreign press waiting.”