The Xi & Modi Show: Who Won The PR Battle?
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The Xi & Modi Show: Who Won The PR Battle?

Asia's two most powerful leaders tried hard to win the soft power battle during their recent US tours.

Arun Sudhaman

The Xi & Modi Show: Who Won The PR Battle?

Indo-Chinese relations have always been tinged by a sense of competition, and the recent US visits of President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi provides a useful opportunity to compare the public relations fortunes of Asia's two most powerful leaders.

Xi Jinping's first state visit to the US was a rather more grand affair, including a much-hyped summit with President Obama, a United Nations address, and an audience with tech titans — including Microsoft, Facebook and Apple — in Seattle.

Modi, meanwhile, focused more squarely on economics, selling India's business opportunities to a receptive Silicon Valley and tech-skewed CEO community, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple.

The business components of both visits reflect the importance of big tech; but Modi's was a more resounding sell, given that the US tech industry still grapples with intellectual property and cybersecurity concerns in the lucrative Chinese market.

"With Prime Minister Modi's visit, he came with a very clear message: 'we
are open for business and for cooperation, particularly in the technology
space'," says Ogilvy PR Asia-Pacific CEO Scott Kronick. "With President Xi¹s visit the objective was different. He came with a message of 'we have our differences, but let's work together'."

The early returns favoured Modi. India's Firstpost hailed Modi as the "best salesman India has ever had," thanks in large part to a town hall with Mark Zuckeberg that presented Modi in particularly humble and human fashion. While China's domestic media was unsurpisingly favourable about Xi's efforts, Hong Kong's South China Morning Post noted that he "failed to impress the US public."

"Clearly Modi’s performance was superior, as one might expect of the elected leader of a democracy who also knows how to speak excellent English," says ex-Huntsworth Asia-Pacific chairman Bob Pickard. "Animated and well modulated, the Indian PM appeared comfortable, sounded confident, and evidenced listening skills. He even hugged people."

By contrast, says Pickard, Xi was "relatively stiff." "That said, the Chinese president has a strong symbolic physical presence, and he certainly looked the part of a strongman. The Chinese appear to be going all-out to make their chief into a Soviet-style great leader type who commands the same clout and respect when meeting the American president as did the former leaders of the USSR."

"It looked like Modi’s trip was designed to position India as a staunch new friend of America, while Xi’s seemed intended to dispel the idea that China has become America’s  actual enemy," continues Pickard. "Both leaders seem to have achieved their objectives, but especially in a US media which was clearly more sympathetic to Modi, India was framed as a fortunate ‘counterweight’ to China in Asia-Pacific."

Domestic agenda

Yet, while Modi's mastery of English and sophisticated use of social media undoubtedly played better with US audiences, others believe that each trip's domestic objectives have to be understood before any conclusions can be drawn as to their effectiveness as communications vehicles.

Modi, notes ex-Edelman Asia-Pacific CEO Alan VanderMolen, "needed to play to stakeholders both at home and in the US. The latter to help drive continued economic (investment) relations and political (national security) relations. The former to secure support for his party and re-election." 

By comparison, VanderMolen described Xi as "arguably the most entrenched leader that the PRC has seen since Mao." 

"He was playing only to stakeholders at home to demonstrate both his iron-fisted leadership of the nation and the party and his openly hostile stance toward the United States," adds VanderMolen. "The latter, in particular, to address discontent from the economically disadvantaged by playing the national pride card."

So while Modi may have dazzled neutrals, VanderMolen thinks that Xi's trip might have a more lasting public relations payoff. "He was consistently defiant to every audience and clearly communicated both his views on Chinese supremacy and his supremacy as a leader," he explains. "He (and his entourage) showed absolutely no sign of intent to engage with US leadership – business or political – on issues that matter to the United States. That performance will score Xi a nearly perfect 10 with domestic audiences that matter for him." "It looked like Modi’s trip was designed to position India as a staunch new friend of America, while Xi’s seemed intended to dispel the idea that China has become America’s  actual enemy" And even though Modi might have appeared more "human and genuinely likeable,", it was difficult to discern any substantive domestic benefits from his trip, says Vandermolen.

"He presented his history and rise to power as analogous to the plight of his nation," he says. "While this performance likely positioned him well with American influentials, it likely did not do much for him at home as he did not leave with any substantive pledges for economic investment or support from the US or US businesses.

Indeed, it may be that the Indian leader runs the risk of straddling a noticeable gap between rhetoric and reality. The idea of Modi as a master spinner will not surprise his critics back home, where he is often accused of grandstanding without delivering tangible action.

"At the end of the day, while the Indian leader’s visit was effective public relations, there was no hiding India’s relative lack of economic clout compared to China," says Pickard. "Doubts about India’s ability to overcome its systemic problems, and Modi’s self-promotional salesmanship will wear thin if he cannot deliver the goods."

Even Avian Media CEO Nitin Mantri, who applauded the Indian PM's tech-savvy rapport with business leaders, and his efforts to "provide a new perspective on India to the international community through his public diplomacy," admits that the Indian PM "missed a brilliant opportunity to show how India is using technology and innovation to move forward."

The FT was more brutal. While acknowledging that Silicon Valley's flourishing Indian-American community serve as excellent lobbyists for Modi, the newspaper described India's PM as "digitally deluded".

Who won? The Pope.

Kronick sees both visits as important events in the US pivot towards Asia. "It was nice to have the Pope in town during Xi's visit as well," says Kronick. "Having the visits take place in a news climate where US-China relations is not the lead story is unusual and welcome and perhaps allowed more to get accomplished."

Yet they also pointed to a major problem that both leaders faced: being overshadowed by the Vatican leader's apparently effortless grasp of international public relations. On this, both Pickard and VanderMolen agree.

"Both Modi and Xi were completely overshadowed by the overlapping visit of Pope Francis, whose American tour was a triumph from start to finish," notes Pickard.

Ultimately, it appears that both leaders could probably learn a thing or two from the Pope's media tour, particularly if they are serious about turning soft power into a genuine global differentiator.

"These were fine visits for the 1% crowd, with much less connection to the average American," says Pickard. "The extent to which these leaders of Asia’s two largest powers can think out of the box and transcend their rather formulaic American tour agendas will help determine which country punches above or below its weight in the national brand league tables during the years ahead."

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