Silicon Hutong

China and the World of Business • China Business and the World

Silicon Hutong - China and the World of Business • China Business and the World

Edelman, Rui Chenggang, and China PR

Hutong Forward
In the Shadow of the Pentagon
1710 hrs

As more details about ties between the China operations of Edelman Public Relations and erstwhile China Central Television (CCTV) anchor Rui Chenggang are released, a wave of schadenfreude has risen amongst both Edelman’s rivals and the detractors of public relations. As happened when Edelman was caught in a similar ethical imbroglio when it hired ostensibly independent bloggers to post on behalf of Wal-Mart, PR‘s detractors believe that ethical lapses suffuse China’s public relations industry, while practitioners who don’t work for Edelman see this as a large, hubris-laden market monster getting its due.

Both are wrong.

Ethical lapses are common in PR in China, but “common” is a far cry from endemic. There are PR firms, executives, and teams in China who insist on the highest possible ethical standards. Rather than going broke, they discover that while some clients will shun them for these reasons, a growing number of clients, particularly MNCs, are insisting on high ethical standards and are willing to sacrifice short-term results for a clean reputation. Clean business is good: not only do these PR firms keep very busy, they have to turn opportunities away.

But while these firms are the future of the business, they are still the exception that proves the rule, and no agency executive or corporate PR manager should guffaw too loudly at Edelman’s expense. For far too long as an industry and a craft we have turned a blind eye to practices considered unethical, immoral, or even illegal in more developed markets, failing to see that China was developing and that a reckoning was coming.

Two issues prevent widespread improvement in PR industry ethics in China. First is a persistent exclusivist belief that because this is China, things are done the Chinese way, and always will be. Operating ethically is seen as naive at best, and culturally imperialist at worst (“how dare you impose your values on us!”)

The second issue is fear. PR executives and their agencies believe that if they don’t take advantage of every opportunity, however morally ambiguous, they will lose revenue and clients to competitors who lack – or opportunistically ignore – their moral compasses. The pressure is greatest among the larger agencies where the focus is exclusively financial performance. The accountants calling the shots in New York and London are not measuring ethical compliance: they measure revenues and profits. Faced with the choice of losing a sizable client or cutting some ethical corners, there is no contest.

But the persistent idea that China is an island untouched by ethical standards for the conduct of public relations is now demonstrably so much cow manure. Those who cling to such exceptionalism – and you know who you are – are dinosaurs whose time in this business is limited, regardless of the success they appear to enjoy today.

What happened to Edelman could have happened to any of dozens of local and international PR firms. Rui had made himself a target, and Edelman is the largest PR firm in the world. But the rest of us have now been given a shot across our bows. Either we bite the bullet now, change course and adopt ethical tactics and practices, or we leave our firms, our people, and our livelihoods at the mercy of government caprice. If we don’t, this will happen again, and when it does we will all find that it will not be a single firm in the spotlight – it will be every PR practitioner in China.

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.