As the typhoon gusts of geopolitics blow on the China-US relationship, those same winds are blowing away the assumptions on which our companies and clients have built their businesses for over a generation. Public relations professionals are being called upon to aid the firms caught in the contradictions between commercial goals, Beijing’s global ambitions, and Washington’s open discomfort with those ambitions.
Though this emerging challenge touches upon every industry, the core role that technological superiority and public information now play in global conflict has brought the brunt of the disruption down on the technology business generally and online services in particular. The greatest challenge of all falls upon Chinese companies seeking to extend their businesses beyond their home market. These brands now face a global phalanx of new stakeholders who know little about these firms, who watch their rise with surprise and even dismay, and who have the power to enable the growth of their global business or stop it dead in its tracks.
The challenges these stakeholders present demand a management response of great sophistication, one that combines understanding, empathy, and intelligent action. Sadly—though perhaps unsurprisingly—most of these companies have fallen short of that mark.
The challenges were both foreseeable and were in many cases foreseen, commonly by the people leading or advising their overseas business units. Calls from the field to address potential regulatory issues and general Sinophobia have been ignored at headquarters. Risks to overseas business from appearing to align too closely to the Party and Government in Beijing have been disregarded. And the belief that product, engineering, and popular appeal were all that mattered for global success has suffused these organizations, despite the cautionary examples of Huawei, ZTE, and others.
Most of those companies that responded did so superficially; they hired PR people, crafted messages, and prepared crisis plans. This is all good and necessary, but for Chinese companies, not sufficient. In a world predisposed to think ill of Chinese firms and to see the hidden hand of the CCP behind every corporate action and communication, basic public relations playbooks—however well-executed—were destined to be inadequate.
The time has come for a change.
To win in a global marketplace that is predisposed to distrust them, China’s emerging technology and internet brands need to rethink the public relations function altogether, pulling it out from under marketing and into the executive suite. The remit is no longer spewing corporate propaganda or pumping new product launches: it is winning a future for the company by plugging its leaders into the zeitgeist of their most important markets and then prevail upon them to act accordingly.
Those leaders must choose the markets essential to their future and put forth an all-out effort to understand what all stakeholders in that market expect of their companies—not just products, features, or technology, but in action and operations. They must be prepared to remold their companies—in operations, in structure, and in products—to address those expectations and intelligently address the changed environment. Then, and only then, should they communicate what they have done and why.
This is a tall order, and the odds are stacked against these firms. Few companies will be able to muster vision and drive to make the necessary cultural and structural changes. Even the outliers that do are ultimately beholden to Beijing and the capital's ranks of apparatchiks inclined to bend great enterprise to the aims of the state.
Yet the fortitude to change is the key. Global success for Chinese internet and technology brands will hinge on the degree to which their leaders recruit, hire, enable, and, critically, heed competent professionals able to guide them on how to plan, act, and behave in conformity with complex and often clashing stakeholder expectations.
And as professionals, we need to be ready when those calls come, for come they will.
David Wolf is the MD of global corporate affairs and advisory at Allison+Partners