Arun Sudhaman 18 Mar 2013 // 8:15AM GMT
We have devoted a considerable proportion of our coverage to the plight of Chinese brands as they attempt to win over international sceptics. Indeed, it sometimes feel like I have spent my entire career as a journalist investigating this particular area.
The situation does appear to be improving, particularly if you take CNOOC's successful acquisition of Nexen as a sign of concrete progress. Yet problems persist, as Huawei's woes continue to illustrate.
For the international PR industry, of course, the opportunity is a major one, even as cultural issues bedevil their efforts to build long-lasting relationships with China Inc. All of which is by way of introduction to a new study [PDF] from Weber Shandwick and Prime Research that attempts to explore how Chinese brands can successfully bridge the communications gap with Western audiences.
The report tracked the media coverage of eight Chinese technology brands, including the likes of Huawei, Lenovo, Haier and Baidu, against 12 Western players, including Apple, Google, IBM and Microsoft.
My first observation relates to the methodology. Media volume and tone are not unhelpful metrics to assess the PR performance of Chinese brands, but the study only covers a six-month period in the US and Germany in 2012. I wonder if comparing the results to a previous time frame - say three years ago - might throw up some findings about how coverage of Chinese companies has changed in recent years.
Notwithstanding these quibbles, my major concern with this report is that it focuses too much on communication and too little on behaviour. The first recommendation, for example, is to embrace transparency. This appears innocuous enough, but it strikes me that any commitment towards transparent communication is only of use if the company has nothing to hide. Or, as China PR veteran David Wolf put it earlier this year, "transparency is useless if all it reveals is a company engaged in unsavory or nefarious behavior."
Which means that Chinese tech brands, like Chinese companies in general, have to modify their behaviour rather than just their public messaging. As an example: Huawei has made steps to become considerably less opaque, but uncertainty remains about charges that it is owned by – or has uncomfortably close links to -- the Chinese military. If those links exist, making them transparent might be a first step, but concerns are unlikely to be alleviated until real action is taken.
You can make the same point about the report's advice for Chinese tech CEOs to become more visible. A more visible leader does not automatically become more trusted; if a company is not behaving well in the first place, then any attempt to increase the CEO's profile could easily backfire.
I do agree, as the study suggests, that Chinese companies should engage early and often with regulators. To me, this is a more important objective than focusing on media coverage and tone. Yet, I find it hard to go along with the idea that Chinese companies should organise themselves into more activist lobbying coalitions. Usually, that only makes companies more, rather than less, faceless. If there is one thing guaranteed to raise media suspicion, it is the spectre of a "shadowy" corporate Chinese bloc.
Finally, the research recommends that Chinese tech companies "make social impact real."
"With most Western governments still focused squarely on economic recovery and specifically job creation, Chinese companies should consider aligning their communications with the creation of employment and economic development in their target markets. Many Chinese brands have good stories to tell stakeholders and the media on this front and should proactively take the opportunity to build goodwill with target communities and their political representatives."
By calling for Chinese brands to boost employment and economic development, this advice brings a useful focus on actions rather than just words. And, in doing so, it demonstrates why communications alone will not help Chinese companies win over Western audiences.