China’s telecommunications giant Huawei has gone to great lengths and spent millions of dollars in an attempt to remake its image from a shadowy, paranoid and government controlled company into an open and transparent organization that just wants to sell some fancy smart watches. In order to do that though, they may want to go back and review some public relations basics first.
The Australian Financial Review has published a story describing taking part in a standard government-organized tour of high-profile Chinese companies. On Friday, journalists paid a visit to Huawei, for what would seem to be an opportunity for the company to polish its image while showcasing its technology.
But it didn’t exactly play out that way. Things first went awry at the start of the tour of Huawei’s giant research and development campus on the outskirts of Shanghai, which houses some 10,000 employees, but journalists were informed can’t be photographed for “security reasons.”
Without pictures, the tour continued, but ground to a sudden halt when the uncomfortable question of national security naturally came up – the very same one that Huawei has been asked again and again since the United States banned the company from working on government projects in 2011 citing “significant security concerns.” You would think that in four years time, the company’s public relations department would have been able to come up with a snappy retort to these kind of questions. Instead, they went with a different tactic:
As soon as the question was asked a PR person swooped in and said there would be no comment on this issue. Then the 30-odd foreign and local reporters were told Huawei’s name and that of our technology savvy tour guide, Mr Hu, could not be mentioned in any reporting from the day.
“You should not write anything about Huawei in your reports,” we were ordered in a tone which harked back to the Cultural Revolution. When it was pointed out Huawei had actually invited the media to visit its campus, the response was telling.
“We didn’t invite you,” said the PR person. “It was the government that invited you and now you should leave.”
Surprisingly, journalists have in fact wrote about their Huawei visit and the AFR drew two conclusions from the bizarre interchange: 1) Huawei has really, really shitty PR. 2) The company feels no need to explain its structure or how it operates to anyone.
This is in contrast to the journalists next stop on the tour, where they met with the more open face of new corporate China in the partly state-owned China Shanghai Green Valley Pharmaceutical Company. This company’s chairman gave a 15 minute presentation, took questions for half an hour and even continued the conversation with journalists over lunch.
Huawei’s public relations problems start at the very top. Back in January, Foreign Policy reported on a live-streamed interview at Davos with Huawe’s reclusive founder and President Ren Zhengfei. The 70-year-old only began giving interviews in 2013 (for good reason). Here’s how he responded to be being called more difficult to contact than top Party officials:
Ren seemed bemused by the comment. “I’m not mysterious at all,” he said. “More accurately, I’m not capable, I know nothing about technology, management, or finance. I just sit on top of the sedan, and all the people pull the car ahead, and I’m in the limelight.”
Extreme modesty is a good way to colorfully say very little. Throughout his talk, Ren brought up just how useless and ignorant he has been throughout his career — ignorant of the outside world, of management practices, of market forces. He relayed an anecdote about Huawei’s sponsorship of soccer teams — a mystery to him, because all he knows about the sport is that “the ball is round.” He ended the session by saying, “Maybe I’ve been wasting your time, thanks again.”
After the session. FP’s Isaac Stone Fish approached Ren to ask if he’d be willing to give another interview in the spirit of openness and transparency. Ren evaded the repeated requests by simply pleasantly smiling and noncommittally grunting quietly. Obviously, Huawei’s PR team could learn much their president.
PR pro-tip #762346: Never ever tell journalists they can’t write about something.
by Alex Linder