Posts on the craft of writing and communications

PR World

Over the past four years I have discovered that there is an implicit belief among many US public relations (PR) practitioners – especially in the large global firms – that PR around the world will develop to become similar to what it is in the US, and will follow the US lead as the profession evolves.

Axiom: it will not. If the PR industry manages to rise above its straightjacket of inertia and hubris, it will find itself changed by forces from India, China, Latin America, Russia, and Africa.

What keeps me awake at night is the fear is that ethics in the name of expedience will be the first sacrifice in that process.

When Lux and Tech Collide

However, the cost of providing customers with devices and gadgets to gain access to new tech and maintaining them is not a small expenditure for most luxury fashion businesses. What’s more, when a customer is enthusiastic about testing a hi-tech headset in a store, it does not necessarily guarantee that he or she has the desire to purchase a $1,500 handbag.

Source: Village: How to Combine Tech and Luxury Fashion in China the Smart Way | Jing Daily

I confess that when I began my career thirty-odd years ago, I saw the luxury fashion industry as an easy target for ridicule: alien rituals and strange affectations aside, I found it hard to give credence to a group so focused on the capricious whims of the planet’s most pampered posteriors. That perception was both short-sighted and immature.

The opportunity I had to watch China’s luxury market sprout and blossom has given me a different perspective. Luxury consumers are an informal yet exacting standards body. I have found that the more that we can conduct any consumer-oriented business or marketing activity in accordance with the standards of this rarified niche, the better we can serve all consumers.

That’s why I was fascinated by this London panel talking about the use of technology (specifically augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)) to sell more luxury fashion.

One truism I’ve never forgotten about luxury customers: they all want the most fulfilling possible experience delivered with the least possible friction. The gratuitous application of kludgy technology (and, let’s face it, while AR and VR are getting better, neither are ready to fulfill their promise) seems to be a guaranteed way to chase luxury buyers out of your store.

Which leads to a second truism: The well-to-do are not early adopters. They’re the demanding knife-edge of the mainstream user, the guardians of the far side of the chasm twixt “niche product” and “widespread adoption” into which so many promising inventions fall.

If you can tweak a technology or product to the point wherein you can match the exacting standards of the luxury consumer, the big-time awaits. Smartphones went mainstream when the iPhone passed the lux test; satellite radio went wide after Damlier, Toyota, Nissan and BMW were able to make them accessible to finicky upscale buyers; and electronic cars went mainstream when Tesla introduced its luxury roadster and Toyota made the Prius hip with the well-to-do.

China is no exception to this rule. The Chinese luxury consumer often shares as much of her psychographic profile with her counterparts in Europe and North America as she does with her home-girls in Shanghai or Bengbu. Until you can offer her a great experience with the minimum of friction, forget about being first-to-market: go back to the lab.

Huawei’s PR Struggles

And so within the space of half an hour the Financial Review was shown the new and old face of corporate China.There’s paranoid Huawei that will not answer questions and refuses to explain itself in any detail to its stake holders around the world. Then there’s the likes of Green Valley, which represent a new, more open face to corporate China.

Source: Huawei’s epic PR fail | afr.com

This is an oldy but a goody, and I do not mean to pick on poor old Huawei: the organization is led by people for whom transparency and engagement are just not a part of the plan. This is not an especially Chinese failing: I have watched American, European, and Japanese companies build public relations organizations that were little more than beautiful stone walls.

I agree with reporter Angus Grigg completely: let us hope we see more openness from Chinese companies, rather than less.

What concerns me, though, is that for every wise, open, and transparent company that I encounter, I still come across a dozen more who believe that that the “new” face of corporate China is not private, independent, or entrepreneurial, but government-owned, government-subsidized, and expert at blowing smoke up the hindquarters of foreign journalists.

And of course, that’s not new: that’s a giant leap backwards in China’s evolution into a nimble, innovative, and commercial economy.

Which is why I talk so  much about public relations in China here. The degree to which a nation, and organization, or a company is prepared to institutionalize an ongoing, open, and wide-ranging conversation with its stakeholders has great predictive value about its success, and the degree to which we should feel comfortable dealing with it.

Standards of Influence

One of the early chapters in my book Public Relations in China focuses on the importance of the government as a stakeholder, and the means by which a non-Chinese firm could make its influence felt in the policy-making process.

In a time when the collusion between moneyed interests and government power has become a challenge in countries around the world, we have to ask, “is there any circumstance in which it is right for a commercial interest to influence policy and regulation?”

My answer is a qualified “yes.” There is no shortage of companies that have proven themselves to be bad actors, wielding a degree of influence far out of proportion to that wielded by other stakeholders, and too often acting in ways that undermine the popular best interest.

At the same time, there are occasions when it is proper for a company to make its point of view known to those proposing regulation, and, indeed, there are circumstances in which a company’s decision to withhold its expertise from the regulatory process represents an abandonment of the firm’s civic duty.

What we need is a standard, a framework within which companies can offer their input in the regulatory process without drowning the popular interest. In an effort to incite a discussion on the topic, I’ll suggest the first six criteria.

  • For those questions of regulation where a commercial entity has, by virtue of its collective experience or expertise a clearer understanding of a problem than a legislature or executive agency, and the commercial entity has nothing to gain or lose from the resolution of the question, that entity is obliged to offer its information and analysis to influence policy for the greater good.
  • For those questions of regulation where a commercial entity has, by virtue of its collective experience or expertise a clearer understanding of a problem than a legislature or executive agency, and the commercial entity stands to gain or lose from the resolution of the question, that entity may to offer its information and analysis to influence policy provided that it is open about its interests.
  • At no time should a commercial entity use its influence to mute or silence other voices, even those in opposition.
  • At all times the information provided to the government agency must be factual and presented in as clear a manner as possible.
  • At no time may any commercial entity provide direct or indirect payments to any government official or agency that would serve to influence the resolution of a regulatory question.
  • All efforts should be publicly disclosed in real time.

Arguably, China’s central government has never been as open to outside (and particularly foreign) influence as have those of the West. Looking at the lobbying-industrial complex that has turned entire neighborhoods of the US capital into ghettos of influence peddling, that is not entirely a bad thing. But the nation needs legitimate pathways to allow an appropriate degree of input by all stakeholders, and foreign companies are no exception. Those pathways should never be closed to companies that adhere to a clear and publicly-acceptable set of standards.

On Ending Media Pay-offs in China

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On Monday Advertising Age published my editorial calling for an end to the common practice of paying journalists in China for coverage. You can read the editorial here.

Early reactions are mostly supportive, but there are a number of people who believe that the problem will never be solved. I respectfully disagree. Historically the media in every society have gone through a corrupt phase. Current journalistic practice and standards in the developed world did not suddenly appear ex nihilo: nearly all were created to address an extant practice rather than to anticipate one that might arise.

Viewed against the canvas of history, China’s media are relatively young, and the industry has experienced profound disruptions in the past 70 years. There has been too little time for standards and high-minded practices to develop, and we are probably a generation away from seeing Chinese journalism rise above the shackles of propaganda, yellow journalism, and corruption.

But rise they will, and the sooner we discard the notion that there is no hope for these practices to end, the sooner the problem gets fixed.

The True Measure of Urban China

On the Hutong Express
Somewhere in Central China
1123 hrs. 

As I hurtle through 2,800kms of Chinese countryside, a question occurs to me about China’s massive urbanization. The shift is unprecedented, and for that reason alone begs for close examination.

The truth is, we are not examining the scale of urbanization as closely as perhaps we should. Is China urbanizing as quickly as statistics suggest? Or are we – at least in part – witnessing some statistical sleight of hand?

The thought that provoked me on this trip was the villages. Admittedly, my survey was back-of-napkin and limited to those villages alongside the high speed rail lines, but there seemed to be more building, more development, and little blight. That made me wonder. Are people really leaving their villages and heading to the Big City, or are they staying put, and statisticians taking villages and towns previously designated as “rural” or other non-urban areas and predesignating them as “urban?”

There is more to this question than statistical nit-picking. If many people are urbanizing in place, this means that China faces a very different set of challenges in addressing urbanization, including rethinking the infrastructure that needs to be built and probing whether this means that more of the country’s shrinking stock of arable land is in jeopardy.

For marketers, it would mean that a growing percentage of potential customers are physically beyond the reach of their current advertising, retail promotion, and distribution infrastructure.

Either way, it is time we tarted probing China’s urbanization statistics rather than take them as gospel.

Concept of the Week: Urbanizing In Place

Urbanizing in placeconcept – the idea that China’s urbanization is not being driven entirely by migration from the countryside to the cities, but that large areas that Beijing’s statisticians might once have considered “rural” are now considered “urban.”

In-place urbanization could occur in one of three scenarios.

The physical area of a municipality has been expanded to include what was once surrounding countryside.

In the second scenario, a village that was once considered part of the countryside has now grown into a town that a demographer or statistician would now classify as urban.

In the third scenario, a group of villages in a given area are considered to be conglomerated as a single administrative entity and reclassified as a single town.

In these cases, China’s urbanization is taking place without migration, and presents a different set of policy, marketing, and personal challenges and opportunities than classical migration-based urbanization.

Shameless Plug Dept.: New Fast-Food Paper

Hutong West
Contemplating lunch
1253 hrs.

My most recent paper, this one on addressing the challenges facing fast food franchisors in China, “Jumping China’s Great Food Wall (pdf),” is now up on the Allison+Partners website.

Failing that, you can find the paper on Academia.edu here.

This is more of a practical paper than my last one, giving a quick overview of the uneven success enjoyed by fast food companies in China, and offering a series of prescriptions designed to avoid some of the more serious rocks and shoals, and mitigate the effects of many others.

Shameless Plug Dept: New Paper on Strategic PR in China

 

Hutong West
The cool before the heat
1855 hrs.

 

Public relations people have a word fetish. We invest the aphorism “words have meaning” with an almost scriptural infallibility. Yet when it comes to terms we use to describe our own capabilities, we become maddeningly imprecise, if not deceptively hyperbolic. The best (or perhaps worst) example of that is the word “strategic,” as in “strategic public relations.” In fact, we use it so much when referring to so many different things that the phrase has almost lost its meaning.

 

In a new paper published last month by Allison+Partners (“Strategic Public Relations in China: Actions, Behavior and Communications”,) I ask the PR industry generally and in China specifically to take a step back. I argue for a definition of strategic public relations that steps completely outside of the communications function: as it was originally intended by the founders of the public relations craft, PR begins with the actions and behaviors of a company, and the obligation of PR counsel to guide them. My point: it is time for all of us to become more strategic, and in no place more so than in China, where so many brands consistently fail to understand, much less live up to, the expectations of their publics.

 

For my fellow PR practitioners and anyone else who oversees a PR function, the paper is available for free download and review on academia.edu. It’s a fairly quick read.

 

 

 

Rethinking Mobile Advertising in China

Mobile Advertising Lags China’s Smartphone Explosion
Angela Doland
Advertising Age
January 24, 2014

Reporting from Shanghai, AdAge‘s Angela Doland writes a thought-provoking piece on how mobile e-commerce continues to outpace the growth of mobile advertising in the world’s largest smartphone market. As a percentage of all e-commerce, mobile is creeping into the double-digits, reaching as much as 21% during major holiday promotions.

At the same time, after years of effort, the most optimistic projections would have mobile advertising reach 3% of total ad spend in China this year. Given that Chinese users spend some 40% of their media consumption time staring at their mobile screens, you can understand the frustration of the advertisers.

Mobile Advertising Done Right

On the one hand, this trend should not surprise us. History teaches that effective advertising techniques for any new medium emerge only after an often extended period of trial and error. E-commerce initially grew much more quickly as a percentage of Internet-based revenues than advertising, and advertising was slow to find purchase in print news, radio, and television.

What this suggests is that the problem is not whether advertising can be adapted to mobile. The problem, rather, is that advertisers have yet to find an approach that makes the channel compelling.

Mobile Ad 1.0

There are three ways to approach mobile advertising. The first is to approach it as another channel for online advertising. This is where you talk about text-based advertising, display banners sized for the mobile screen, mobile search-based advertising, and ways to insert clever ads into music, videos, books and games consumed on a phone or tablet. Let’s call this “Mobile Advertising 1.0.”

My experience is that this has been the common approach in China, but that the challenges involved in making it work across three carriers, a half-dozen operating systems, hundreds of devices, and thousands of apps have made it difficult to get economies of scale. This alone might, in fact, explain why we are yet at such low numbers. Would it be easier with one carrier, one phone, and one operating system? Indeed. But I suspect that is not the real problem.

Perhaps, instead, we are misunderstanding the channel, and need to rethink how we do things. Back in 2006, I was in the room when my friend and former client Ian Chapman-Banks explained to a Japanese reporter that the reason that mobile advertising was having so much trouble was that we had failed to understand the value proposition.

Mobile Ad 2.0

Ian’s point (and I am paraphrasing heavily here) was that advetising as we know it was based on reaching out to chunks of people with similar characteristics at a given point in time. Mobile, Ian noted, had the ability to enable us to deliver a specific message to a specific person at a specific location and specific time.

In other words, what was keeping mobile advertising from being effective was that we were not using what made it fundamentally better than mass media advertising. This is the first time in history that advertisers could reach a person of their choosing at the time and place of their choosing, and all advertisers seemed to worry about was where to stick the banner on a small mobile screen.

Mobile advertising would be effective, Ian implied, when we figured out a way to make these capabilities work for the advertiser. Clearly, we are still looking for that combination, yet given the speed with which mobile is evolving and the innate conservatism of the advertising industry, this should come as no surprise. The key was to experiment and to keep experimenting.

The Mobile Ad 2.0 argument, then, is that if we want to figure out how to make mobile work for the nearly 1 billion mobile users in China (not to mention the rest of the world,) we have to experiment. Ian, who at the time had a generous marketing budget at his disposal, had allocated 10% of it to what he called “R&D:” money to try new channels of advertising and marketing that would not be evaluated alongside traditional channels, but that were just there to make sure that when something new worked, the company would be ready to exploit it.

So we aren’t at Mobile Ad 2.0 yet, but if we stick with it, we will get there eventually.

Is there a Mobile Ad 3.0?

Late last year I wrote a post that summarized why there are a number of ways to approach social media, each of which is guided by the marketing or technology silo from which one has emerged: practitioners who come out of advertising see social media as an advertising medium; people who come out of direct marketing see it as a direct marketing channel; PR people see it as a means of delivering messages; and so on.

What is different with mobile is that, in part because the challenge in putting mobile to work is, at the moment, much more technically intensive, the companies, departments, and agencies playing in that field have been those with lots of money. In short, it has been the advertising people. For that reason, we tend to talk about mobile as an advertising platform.

That exposes an assumption that is not necessarily supported by the facts. Zooming out of our ad-focused myopia one step further, then, we have to ask this: does mobile marketing need to be advertising-based, or are we missing something?

It’s Mobile Marketing, Jim, But Not As We Know It

In addition to allowing us to target an individual based on habits, time, and location, mobile also allows us to engage that individual in a conversation at a specific time and place. Mobile market research is based on that premise, and some of the early results hae been promising. As long as market researchers do not bombard us to the point of insensitivity with intrusive polls, and provided that we make it worth someone’s while to respond (good information is never free), this is likely to be a fruitful channel for some time to come.

Mobile has great value for point-of-sale applications based on near-field technology that go beyond completion of a sale. I walk into a hotel, and I am already getting notes on Foursquare about specials in the coffee shop. That’s a good start: it would be better if those specials were relevant to my dietary needs (e.g., “hi, David! We have great vegetarian options for you today!”)

Or how about direct-response on demand? When driving from city to city, I could tell Google’s Waze app on my phone that I needed a Sinopec station, and it would tell me distance, directions, prices, and offer me a coupon for stopping in.

I could go on, but you get the point. If there is a Mobile 3.0, and I think there should be, the opportunity is to start from the targeted user’s wants, needs, location, situation, and time, and work backward to the advertiser. This demands an intermediary who can make the match, of course. That’s why I think services like Criteo are going to translate well into the mobile space, and, in the long run, so will Baidu and possibly Tencent. The real gold rush will be for those companies who have the mass of advertisers on the one hand and the mass of users on the other.

Hence, Baidu’s ongoing interest in mobile. IF there is a single Chinese company that should make mobile advertising 2.0 or 3.0 happen, Baidu is it.

No PR Playground

What I am still trying to figure out, though, is where public relations has room to play in mobile. I have heard a few ideas, but I don’t see anything compelling so far. Classic advertising and classic PR don’t yet have roles to play in mobile to the degree that advertising does with online and PR does with social.

Yet every time I sit down and watch another compelling mobile technology demonstration, I am reminded that the tools we are creating today will be hopelessly antiquated, irrelevant, or both in five years. At some point, we are going to figure out how to make a connection between a company and a mobile user work out well for everyone. But we aren’t there yet.

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Branding and BRICs

“Brazil leads in BRICS’s brands”
Jerry Clode

Added Value – Source
March 17, 2013

BRICS summit participants: Prime Minister of I...
BRICS summit participants: Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh, President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev, President of China Hu Jintao, President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff, President of South Africa Jacob Zuma. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a thought-provoking article in AddedValue’s Source blog, Jerry Clode notes that Brazil’s brands are going global while China and India’s brands seem mired at home. Clode probes why, and believes he has found the answer: Brazil’s brands do well because they have creative Brazilian people who are confident enough in their culture to it in a way that is meaningful to people overseas. And, by implication, China does not.

He notes:

Looking at the two Asian BRICs, China and India, we see increasingly discerning and globally literate middle class consumers who are placing increasing expectations on local brands. But a lack of concomitant confidence to tell local brand stories that move beyond quixotic foreign stereotypes seems largely absent.

The answer to creating Chinese brands, he suggests, is simple: Chinese companies just need to be more confident and down-to-earth when presenting narratives to global customers.

It’s an interesting argument, but I am not sure it would do the trick. National provenence carries different baggage for Chinese and Brazilian brands. Chinese companies must operate against the unappealing background of China’s messy national emergence. China’s assertive geopolitics, cultural differences, and a reputation for producing poisonous foods and questionable quality in toxic sweatshops have left a deeper impression on the world’s consumers than panda bears, kung fu, and calligraphy.

This is a problem that extends far beyond the ken of marketers to solve. The status quo is our canvas, and the aura of Chinese-ness is and will be for the foreseeable future more a curse than a blessing for all but the most extraordinary of Chinese brands.

At a more immediate level, uncertainty around company ownership in the PRC means that Chinese brands are assumed to have some affiliation with the Chinese government and, by extension, its activities. Meanwhile Brazil carries much more positive images for global consumers, it’s government is not perceived as threatening, and it can capitalize on the common European cultural origins of its primary audience.

For the time being, marketers for China, Inc. must address this with the grand strategy followed by Japan’s most successful brands: deodorize. Back when Japanese brands began their global breakout, they did their research and discovered that their “Japanese-ness” was a liability, and behaved accordingly. Nissan used the “Datsun” marque in the US from 1960 to 1980 to avoid being associated with the brand name used on trucks the company made for the Japanese army in World War II. Matsushita picked out the name “Panasonic” for similar reasons.

Most Japanese brands did not go so far as to change their names, but their Japanese origins and essence were played down in all aspects of marketing and sales. Origin was incidental, neither positive nor negative. What was important was the product and the credibility of the company that stood behind it.

Until such time as China’s companies no longer struggle to free themselves of the constraints of the nation’s global image, they can rely only upon their own good work. For most, if not all, that will mean leaving Brand China behind in their quest for global markets.

Branding from the Ground Up

In the Hutong
Surrounded by snow
1721 hrs.

I am usually suspicious about “thought leadership” pieces on marketing that come out of the major management consultancies. These firms have proven strengths in organizational design, operations, production, logistics, and strategy, but when they venture into marketing they tend to stumble for a range of reasons that would fill a book.

I was doubly suspicious of the McKinsey Quarterly article “Building Brands in Emerging Markets” by Yuval Atsmon, Jean-Frederic Kuentz, and Jeongmin Seong because their approach lumps all emerging markets together.  But while the article has its shortcomings, there are nuggets of critical insights in the paper for businesses operating in China.

China is Different…

The authors correctly note that Chinese consumers generally rely more on word-of-mouth to guide their purchasing decisions than do their counterparts in most other countries, especially the U.S. The in-store experience is also more important here. Chinese are more accustomed to changing their decisions at the point-of-purchase rather than leave a store if they can’t get what they came in to buy. Indeed, many consumer marketers find that point-of-sale is the second largest chunk of their budgets (next to advertising) because they will lose at retail what they won in advertising.

Finally, it is increasingly important in China to eschew a purely national approach to marketing and target consumers with a more local approach. China is a patchwork of local habits, climates, dialects, diets, and sub-cultures, and we are reaching the stage in the nation’s development where marketers can no longer afford to ignore that.

…But the Difference is Changing…

Aside from its geographic overreach (“emerging markets” are not all the same) and its broad-brush approach to consumer goods, I have two major quibbles with the article. First, the authors offer a snapshot of consumer behavior but ignore trends that might undermine their points; and second, apart from geography they treat all Chinese consumers as an undifferentiated mass.

First, where people get their advice is changing. While the authors state that only 53% of China’s consumers find online recommendations credible, they leave out the fact that well over half of China’s consumers don’t have access to the Internet.  If you are a company (like, say, Coca-Cola) who needs to reach most or all of China’s 1.2 billion consumers, the Internet is about half as important as friends and family. Conversely if, like a growing number of companies, your target consumer is likely to be online – that is, if she is young, urban, educated, and has money to spend – the importance of the internet is sorely understated.

What is more, as credible online resources emerge, there is mounting evidence that the 560 million Chinese who can get online are giving outside sources greater credibility. As early as 2009, Sam Flemming’s CIC Data noted that over half of online consumers actively sought online feedback on a product prior to purchase, and that nearly 90% paid attention to online buzz on a product whether they sought it out or not. In that case, the Internet runs a close second to friends and family in the purchasing decision.

The importance of the retail shop in the purchase process is changing as well. I spoke with a senior marketing executive for a consumer electronics brand last week who told me that online sales – e-commerce – had suddenly become more important than in-store sales. A growing number of consumers was apparently hearing about the product from advertising, checking with family, checking online, going to the store to look and feel, and then going home and buying the product online. China’s online retail business has now passed an average of $40,000 per second and continues to grow. If the final point of sale is online, how does that change McKinsey’s equation? We don’t know: McKinsey ignores the internet.

…So let’s not Whitewash the Nuances

Finally, the authors ignore the importance of several demographic factors, most specifically age. Although it should be axiomatic, a growing body of research in China delves into how differently the increasingly prosperous older (55+) consumers behave than their under-30 counterparts. Friends and family are essential to the elderly, but for most purchasing decisions the youngsters are relying on peers and the Internet. Older consumers are more likely to purchase in a store, younger consumers are more likely than the grandparents to buy online.

Perhaps I’m being overly critical of the authors: these are, after all, nuances that would not fit into a 3,000 word article. But these oversights point to the problem with taking the management consulting approach to marketing. Grand strategies and broad generalizations may make for mind-tickling patter with clients, but as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said, “God is in the details.” The day is long past when marketers can view Chinese consumers as an amorphous mass with uniform habits, and I would wager that applies in Brazil, India, and South Africa just as well.

For China, Inc., Naked Is Not Enough

Hutong West
Caffinated
1015 hrs.

There is a growing cohort of public relations firms that are opening practices focused on helping Chinese companies build better reputations among global audiences. This is a good thing: heaven knows, no group of companies is more in need of this kind of help than Chinese enterprises.

What is discouraging, however, is that many senior professionals in the PR industry continue to misdiagnose the problem. To take one example, in a pay-walled PRWeek article dated New Year’s day (“Chinese Companies Bridging the Comms Gap in U.S. Market”), a senior global agency executive and a Chinese CEO both single out transparency as the missing element for China Inc. as it ventures abroad.

“When [Chinese businesses] come to the US, they think they are being transparent when they are not because our standards are so high in terms of transparency,” Black says. “They have to be willing to open themselves up to regulatory bodies and the public. It’s been a major adjustment.”

One of the early pioneers of the PR business, Edward Bernays, counseled PR practitioners in his seminal 1928 book Propaganda that to be effective PR has to be more than just corporate spin.

“In relation to industry, the ideal of the [public relations] profession is to eliminate the waste and the friction that result when industry does things or makes things which its public does not want, or when the public does not understand what is being offered it.” (Emphasis mine.)

Simply put, public relations is first about getting the company to behave and act in accordance with public expectations, and then communicate that compliance to ensure the public gets it.

For Chinese companies, transparency is useless if all it reveals is a company engaged in unsavory or nefarious behavior. Further, for reasons both political and cultural, that behavioral bar is higher in the U.S. for Chinese enterprises than it is for U.S. companies (or companies from just about any other country). To borrow from Donald Tapscott, if a company is going to be naked, it had damned-well better be good to look at. And Chinese companies need to better looking than everyone else to merit an equal reputation.

The core challenge for public relations practitioners is not only convincing Chinese companies to be transparent, but also – and first – helping Chinese companies to understand and behave in accordance with the expectations of highly skeptical global audiences. Once that is accomplished – and only then – is it time to open up for full scrutiny and communicate that they are doing so.

Naturally, this is not as simple as it sounds, nor is it a lot of fun. The alternative is to spend a lot of time and money first creating a Potemkin reputation, and then more time and money running around plugging holes in the facade. The end result of that fire drill is an also-ran company with a middling reputation that nobody likes very much, and with whom others will do business only if they have no other choice.

The companies that clean themselves up before venturing abroad (or even while doing it) get double credit, first for being sensitive to the expectations of foreign audiences, and then for doing something about it. The payoff not only in reputation but in credibility and trust would be priceless, the need for spin would disappear, and the positive attention would make sales and marketing simple.

Despite the potential benefits, I understand why some public relations executives balk at that challenge. It is scary to face up to a client and tell him or her truths they have no interest hearing. It is outside the comfort zone of a large number of PR people. And let’s not forget: it can be much more lucrative to provide costly palliatives for a crippled reputation than it is to deliver a genuine cure.

But Chinese firms owe it to themselves and their customers to seek out only the P.R. people – both inside and outside the company – who are prepared to deliver a cure, and who don’t babble on about reputation but focus on creating genuine trust.

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The New Public Affairs

Enroute HND – PEK
Dodging thunderstorms
0811 hrs.

A lot of the talk in the public relations industry relates to how much the media business is changing, and what that means to a craft that has traditionally placed a heavy emphasis on informing and (hopefully) influencing journalists. That focus remains viable in markets like China and India, where the media – especially traditional media – retain tremendous influence. In places like America and in Europe, that influence is in decline.

One aspect of public relations that is going through a huge change, however, is what we like to call public affairs. Despite a racy name that implies exhibitionistic behavior, public affairs is the term applied to the craft of understanding the government decision process and effectively influencing policy on behalf of a company or organization.

Whether through direct lobbying or indirect communications, the idea of a company or a special interest group influencing policy does not go down well among the citizens of free and open societies. Events of the past several years have cast this process as a bit underhanded, and perhaps nefarious, and much of the reason for that is that the practice of public affairs was formed at a time where some degree of behind-the-scenes sausage-making was expected in governance. A lot of people simply didn’t want to know about the ugly process, they were interested in the result.

But in the wake of two economic downdrafts in the past decade, alleged commercial-governmental collusion on a vast scale, the failure of regulatory institutions to act in the public benefit (particularly in the US and Europe), and growing public expectations of procedural transparency (thank you, Internet), the process of governance is now a public sport. Public affairs, as practiced, has to catch up. Discretion is no longer the better part of valor: it is suspect.

Updating this practice is going to demand some radical steps and a lot of discussion. In order to start the process, I suggest we alter our approach to government relations worldwide to conform to the following guidelines:

1. Transparency to the greatest possible extent. This means standing up in public and telling the world exactly what you are telling the government, and why. The agenda must be in the clear and open to both scrutiny and debate, as should be the tactical approach the company is taking. This also means that public affairs becomes more than a matter of speaking to government officials about company input on policy: it means involving the public as well.

2. Behavior and actions that withstand public scrutiny. The public is going to find out what you are doing to influence the process. Just ask Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Enron, and the Nuclear Power industry. In addition to making clear what you intend to do, conduct yourself in the process as if an overweight socialist documentary filmmaker from Detroit was following you around with a camera. Forget chummy dinners and back-room deals. When you are influencing public policy, you are going about the public business, and you need to behave accordingly.

3. Avoid behavior for which others have received opprobrium or censure. If someone else has done it before and gotten in trouble for it, why are you taking the risk?

4. Stop playing moneyball politics. Yes, the Citizens United decision in the United States has given corporations an unprecedented opportunity to influence the political process with money, and the opportunity for money or favors to influence the process exists in nearly every market in the world. Don’t do it. Let me say that again: don’t do it. Just because something is permissible doesn’t make it right in the eyes of your publics. The more you use money to influence the process, the more liability you are building in the bank of public opinion, and in each market a reckoning will come, rest assured. Find another way that does not hang a sword over your company’s head.

5. All of this means you will have to create a new set of tactics and techniques for conducting government relations. The way to start the process is to find a way to align your interests with those of the public at large, and keep them there. This will not be easy, but we have ample examples in the history of business to prove that it is not only possible, it is the best way to do business.

Let the discussion begin.

Disinformation Wants to be Free

Hutong West
Afternoon sunshine
1250 hrs.

One of the book projects for which I have been gathering string for years is a book on disinformation, so I have been following the issue of corporate disinformation and deception in China with great interest.

One of the core questions I have to deal with (both intellectually and as a professional) is whether corporate disinformation is ethical or permissible at any time. Despite Japanese maxims that business is the moral equivalent of war, there are some things that might be acceptable on the battlefield that are less tolerable in the marketplace. In a day of the internet and corporate transparency, I have yet to frame an ethical case for a company to deliberately misinform its publics.

So I was interested in how Agenda Beijing dealt with the issue in its interview with corporate espionage specialist Bruce Wimmer.

[Agenda Beijing:] Would you recommend companies to employ offensive tactics as well?

[Bruce Wimmer:] Yes.  Companies need to be able to detect and neutralize the attacks.  In boxing or martial arts that would mean not just deflecting the attack but countering with attacks that might neutralize the threat.  This could involve passing disinformation, legal actions and working with various government and law enforcement agencies.

I can see Wimmer’s point, and he is not alone in believing that there might be circumstances where passing deliberately incorrect information is acceptable. He wants to use it as a way to catch a thief, and I think it would be an excellent method to throw off competitors.

But I am not sure if Wimmer has run into the problem I have discovered, which is that once information is passed, it cannot be contained. Even if you were surgical in delivery, ensuring that your intended audiences and nobody else received the initial transmission of that information, that audience would almost certainly pass the information onward. If the disinfo was credible enough to be believed by hackers or your competition, everyone would believe it. The competitor or hacker could pass it onto a credible third party source, who himself could say he got it from a credible source, then everyone would believe it was true. Some examples, neutered to protect the parties in question:

  • Using a proxy, one Chinese dairy allegedly passed on disinformation that the products of a competitor dairy were causing toddlers to grow breasts. The target audience, consumers, reacted perfectly, and the competitor’s sales took a hit. Unfortunately, that information also found its way to authorities, whom upon investigating discovered that the disinformation was false, and the credibility and business of the originating company took a hit;
  • A market leader in a high-tech gets wind that a competitor is planning on introducing a product using an innovative technology. The market leader passes word to that competitor that, in fact, the market leader already has such a product, and is about to launch it. The competitor stops development, but then announces it is doing so because it understands the market leader is planning such a move. The originating company is then left in a quandary: deny the move, and look like a market follower (the impression it had sought to avoid), or confirm it is pursuing the product despite its earlier decision to ignore the technology. (I can count at least three instances of this occurring, and one company that crashed and burned as a result);
  • Motivated by worrying scientific data, Congress is considering legislation that would affect the future of an industry. The industry pays for the development of studies that impugn the original data and the scientists who gathered it, then pass that information to Congressional staffs. The disinformation leaks and is publicly discredited, effectively discrediting the industry and any legitimate case it seeks to make against the legislation.

The lesson is simple and should not be forgotten: disinformation cannot be confined to a single target audience. Every time a company sets out to deceive (however pure the motive), that information will get out. No company or industry can withstand the hit to its credibility and public trust that such a campaign engenders. We are nearing the day when a nation cannot, either.