Archive for the tag “PR”

Coverup? Huawei Should Send Its PR Bill to ZTE

I’ve never been much for conspiracy theories. Not that I don’t like a touch of the fantastic in my daily life (I live in China, after all). But when you think about the sheer logistics involved in most of the major conspiracy theories things start to break down pretty quickly.

Consider that old favorite of the tinfoil hat brigade, that NASA faked the American moon landings, and think about what it would have required. It’s not just the fakery of the photographs and video, but also that everyone who worked on all the aspects of the fakery, from the astronauts to the guys who would have had to doctor the photos and fake the moon rocks and telemetry (depending upon whether you think mission control was in on it or not) would have had to keep their mouths shut. For going on 45 years. For six successful lunar landings involving eighteen astronauts, twelve of whom have allegedly walked on the moon. Not only does everyone who knows about the fraud have to keep his mouth shut, but everyone who has a public face has to keep his story aligned. Especially that attention-junkie Aldrin. It only takes one person to blow the lid off, intentionally or accidentally. Frankly, it’s just easier to go to the goddamned moon.

I’m not particularly interested in getting into a pissing match with conspiracy theorists (like thermonuclear war, it’s not “winnable” in the conventional sense of the word), so much as I am in setting up a problem. Coverups pose similar problems to conspiracies in that, like a big pile of sweaty dynamite, they are unstable by nature and easily detonated, sometimes by the tiniest of disturbances. That’s why they don’t tend to make good PR strategy.

Of course, by definition no one knows when a coverup succeeds. Small ones involving one or two people? Probably a fair number. Big ones involving lots of people and big stakes? Not so many, I’d guess. “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, perhaps optimistically. In most cases, the participants aren’t Navy Seals or the CIA or other kinds of people who are indoctrinated and trained into cultures of secrecy (and yet still sometimes blow it). We’re talking about just folks who are easily pressured by law enforcement, or who just get drunk on lychee martinis at Centro and shoot off their mouths. Sooner or later someone is going to slip up and the dynamite is going to blow.

Then everyone in serious trouble because, as the old truism goes, the coverup is worse than the crime. Technically, it’s more accurate to say that the coverup significantly aggravates the crime. Coverups turn mistakes into crimes and crimes into enormities. Think of the devastation inflicted on Penn State by the recently published Freeh inquiry, which was most damning for revealing the efforts taken to protect the institution over the victims. Or think of your own toddler, if you have one. If he uses a sharpie to draw all over the wallpaper, you’re angry. If he lies about it, well, then you’re disappointed. Anger is over in minutes. Disappointment leads to years of therapy and careers in bitter standup comedy.

A big pile of sweaty dynamite might be blowing up in the face of Chinese telecoms equipment company ZTE right now. The fuse was lit by a Reuters report back in March (blocked in China), which showed how ZTE was acting as a middleman for relaying restricted American technology to Iran for use in a national Internet monitoring system. The explosion may have started last week when the aptly named website The Smoking Gun reported that the FBI has launched a criminal investigation into the sale. The FBI has not confirmed the investigation, but The Smoking Gun has posted an affidavit that makes fun reading because it includes grubby details of the alleged covering-up. Much of it has the desperate, furtive feel of the third reel of an Abel Ferrara film (or, apropros of the lunar landing discussion above, a Peter Hyams film). You can feel the options narrowing as they talk through them. I don’t know how this situation will turn out, but I do know this: As bad as ZTE looked for shipping US surveillance gear to Iran, they look worse for the discussion of the coverup.

Two other thoughts about this case. First, the FBI case is apparently based on the deposition of a young, American lawyer who was in ZTE’s employ. I find myself reminded of something I heard from a relative who was once highly placed in the empire of a wealthy Hong Konger: White people don’t handle the money. One wonders how much trust ZTE will invest in its white people after this.

Second, the organization that should be most annoyed about this alleged coverup isn’t the US government, the FBI or Internet-freedom activists; it’s ZTE’s Chinese competitor and Shenzhen neighbor, Huawei. Huawei has been busting its ass through an extensive lobbying and PR campaign to impress US politicians and regulators with its trustworthiness and thus extend its limited access to the huge American market. So far it has met with conspicuously limited success not least because US politicians stubbornly refuse to trust it due to its, well, Chineseness.

Huawei and ZTE are different companies, and illegal shipments to Iran aren’t spy-friendly backdoors in routers, but it will be very easy for American politicians and lobbyists to conflate the two Chinese companies and use this situation against Huawei as well. After all, they’re both giant, state-linked Chinese telecoms equipment companies. From an American political point of view, both carry all the reputation baggage that comes with the pedigree. They’re  suspected –sometimes with a dose of hysteria– of being instruments of Chinese policy and possibly vectors for cyberwar attacks. If one is caught with an uncapped sharpie…well, the argument will be, you do the math.

Given the effort its expended over the last few years and the collateral damage it is likely to sustain if the investigation of ZTE’s alleged coverup gathers steam, perhaps Huawei should send its PR and Lobbying bill for the last few years to ZTE. And as for the rest of us? I’m sure we’re all very disappointed.

Not shocked. Just disappointed.

I’ll Be the Judge of the Air Quality in These Parts

When I was young, lithe* and had elastic knees I studied the Japanese martial art Aikido. Aikido is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, despite what you saw in all those Steven Segal movies, it is very much bound with a philosophy of acting in defense only. Second, in keeping with that philosophy, much of Aikido is designed around using an attacker’s energy against him. The harder you swing, the more you give an Aikido master to work with.

The Vice-Minister of Environmental Protection swung hard two days ago when he called out the US Embassy for monitoring air quality and publishing the results through its well-known @BeijingAir Twitter feed. The Vice-Minister said:

“Some foreign embassies and consulates in China are monitoring air quality and publishing the results themselves. It is not in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, as well as environmental protection regulations of China.”

For “some foreign embassies” you may read, “The Embassy of the United States of America,” which launched its Twitter feed back in 2008, that marvellous Olympic year when everything seemed possible.

The Chinese government first complained about @BeijingAir in 2009, so this isn’t a new issue. The latest demand seemed like a classic soft-power own-goal: a prickly and legalistic attack on a service many people, foreigners and locals alike, rely upon. Journalist James Fallows, who has written at length on China’s soft power challenges, summed it up: “The country is better than this.” But leave it to the US State Department, which runs the embassy, to take the Ministry’s mighty swing and apply a little soft-power Aikido:

[State Department spokesman Mark Toner] denied on Tuesday that publishing US air quality readings was in violation of the Vienna Convention as far as he was aware. He also said that Washington would have no problem if Chinese embassies wanted to start monitoring air quality in the US capital and sending out their own reports.

That’s a nice bit of work, not only rejecting the legal argument but also reinforcing the relative openness of American society by extending a reciprocal invitation to the Chinese. Naturally, the Chinese wasted no time in declining the invitation and reiterating their argument:

The Chinese government has no interest in monitoring and releasing air-quality readings for US cities, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said at the ministry’s regular news conference on Wednesday.

“Foreign embassies and consulates are not legally qualified to conduct environmental monitoring and release this sort of data in China, nor do they have the professional capacity and conditions to do so,” Liu said. “

There is a less charitable reading of the US comments, which could be interpreted as rubbing in the faces of the Chinese that the US is fully developed and has awesome air. (I have no idea what the air in DC is like, but it’s undoubtedly better than here.) But given the expressed interests of the Chinese people in better air and better information, Mr. Toner’s invitation seems ultimately an effective and graceful way to redirect the energy of the Ministry’s attack.

What’s the Ministry’s main beef here? Is it legalistic? The Ministry claims that US monitoring is illegal under the convention that governs the establishment of diplomatic missions. Is it the publication of the data? Is it the application of international standards to the categorization of the data? Is it all of the above? Despite my admiration for the State Department response, the Chinese government does have some legitimate complaints. The US Embassy has only one monitor for an immense city. The Chinese have improved and expanded their own monitoring, including publishing hourly readings of PM2.5 information (see the second tab). And it is unfair to expect China to achieve today the same level of quality that the US had to implement the Clean Air Act to achieve. That was a 27 year process.

But air pollution in Beijing isn’t just bad, it’s Ben Hur chariot race epic. And it isn’t just pampered foreigners that care about the air, as a burst of Chinese outrage demonstrated last year. Despite a certain amount of desensitization, the air pollution issue in Beijing encroaches on two of the most sensitive areas of public communication: public health and your kids. For a public health risk communication program, trust and interpretation are critical. And they’re both at the heart of the reaction to @BeijingAir.

Trust is in short supply these days, as we’ve seen from the rumor campaigns, and anything that calls into question the level of trust invested in official government information is likely to be considered sensitive. I’d guess that the biggest thorn in the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s side is not just that the US government is tweeting its own air quality readings, but that its readings appear to be more trusted than MEP’s own. There have been several instances of divergence between the Chinese and US readings, and this is a country where data have a history of being suborned to politics, even in air quality. Every time the US results are conspicuously worse than the Chinese results, it’s a slap in the face.

Interpretation is what enables you to act on data.  AQI numbers and “micrograms per cubic meter” are pretty abstract without some kind of framework for interpretation. The Chinese framework (bottom of the first tab) is conspicuously more liberal than the US one. The Chinese “acceptable” limit for micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 is up in territory that the US considers “unhealthy.” The Chinese AQI band for “moderately polluted” covers territory that any normal person considers awful. As for the bad days, the less said the better.

People will drive without seatbelts, drink themselves into the gutter and smoke a carton of Zhongnanhai Lights a day, and still get bent about the air quality. But air quality is an imposed risk, and people always react more forcefully to imposed risks than risks of choice. Especially when those risks are imposed on their children and aged parents. (At least air pollution isn’t exotic. You want to have a major crisis? Have an imposed exotic risk like a nuclear power plant disaster or pandemic.) In such situations, a conservative framework seems much more appropriate, but it is politically more dangerous because you spend more time with the needle in the outrage-generating red zone. It’s telling that although the Chinese government now reports hourly PM2.5 data there is no framework for interpreting it on the page. All you get is raw milligrams-per-cubic meter and an unexplained “limit” of .075 mg/m3 in the fine print at the bottom. Pretty binary. Meanwhile, @BeijingAir merrily tells you how you should feel about the air from hour to hour, using unfortunate words like “hazardous” when things get thick. And let us not forget the infamous and murky “crazy bad” episode.

Given that @BeijingAir is apparently both more trusted and painting a darker picture of the situation in Beijing, it seems likely that it will continue being a sore spot with the Chinese government. Maybe this is the real reason Twitter was blocked, although the rise of dozens of Chinese smartphone applications that relay proxied versions of the Twitter feed has rendered the block moot as far as @BeijingAir goes.

As for me, if I could pick one thing to change in Beijing, I’d fix the air quality. Beijing on a clear day is a genuinely nice city. The colors pop, the parks look beautiful and you can see a huge stretch of the mountains from my office. Also, I long ago gave up the martial arts for running, which I find similarly meditative and a lot less bruising. When I get up at 6AM the first thing I do is check the Chinese Android app that relays the latest @BeijingAir information to my phone in a very easy-to-interpret graphical format (it has a handy homescreen widget, too!). The information has to be hourly, and it has to be accurate. I have very strict rules: If AQI is below 100, I run. If it’s between 100 and 150 it depends on how long my planned run is and how long since my last run (the less running I have been able to do and the shorter my planned run, the more liberal I am). If it’s above 150, I go to the gym and lift weights instead.

I go to the gym a lot more than I used to, and I run a lot less. This sucks for my running and peace of mind, but on the bright side, check out the shoulders on me.

Another moderate day.

*OK, I was never really “lithe.”

Good News! The Press is Out to Get You

A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk about PR in China to a journalism class at Beijing Foreign Studies University. In any student talk the Q&A is always the most fun, and this group was no exception. Among the many good questions asked was whether it was easier to do PR in China because, as I had discussed in my talk, the Chinese media is generally cozier with businesses than their Western counterparts.

Easier to get stories? Yes. Easier to achieve meaningful results with the public? No.

I was reminded of this question by the recent expulsion of hard-charging Al Jazeera English correspondent Melissa Chan, and subsequent closure of the AJE bureau in China after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to accredit another AJE journalist. I didn’t know Melissa well, though I had met her, but I respected her reporting and willingness to insert herself into uncomfortable situations, and I was disappointed to see her go. Reporting on China will be impoverished a bit.

That, of course, was the point. The Chinese government has never been comfortable with an adversarial media, and Melissa’s reporting was, like that of much of the foreign press corps, pretty adversarial from their point of view. This discomfort is deeper than cursory annoyance at embarrassing foreign gadflies (although I presume that is part of it). It arises from one of the fundamental philosophies of Leninist political parties: the media are considered Party organs and, as with other Party organs, expected to serve the interests of the Party first and foremost. Media that don’t fit into that model are suspect by definition. You can see this philosophy expressed in the mechanisms of control that the Chinese government maintains over all domestic media, and in the government’s struggles to come to terms with the rise of social media that resist conformity with established power structures.

The Party’s model is rather different from the fundamental philosophy of Western media: that it should be the fourth estate, entrusted with challenging the business and government establishment in the interest of the people. You are welcome to argue about how effective Western media have been in this role in recent years, and there are plenty of exceptions, but as a founding principle the idea of the fourth estate is alive and well and inextricably bound up with our Western ideas of what the media should be (and with the value judgments we render on media that doesn’t conform to that principle). A functional, adversarial media is a necessary component of Western-style liberal democracy, unless you have total faith in politicians and institutions.

I am not going to comment further on the specifics of the Al Jazeera situation (some links to good articles below), but in light of the Chinese government’s recent struggle with rumors and trust issues, it’s worth reflecting on why an adversarial media is sometimes useful, even to the establishment. This is what I discussed with the students at Beiwai.

As a news junkie who still pays for several subscriptions, I’m most definitely a fan of adversarial media model (you could also call it an “independent media” model, but independence is only valuable in that enables an adversarial position). There is nothing like a fantastic piece of investigative reporting that rips the lid off of some secret or scandal or that illuminates the dark corners of business or politics. As long as it’s not my dark corner, that is.*

As a PR practitioner with a company reputation to defend, I’ve experienced firsthand the adversarial media model’s short-term ability to create sleepless nights and great puddles of cubicle sweat. But nevertheless, I still appreciate its value in the long-term. That’s because people are more likely to trust media that challenges me than one they know to be compliant with me, and I need media that the public trusts to get my message out, whether that message is a corporate one, a product review or whatever. If I have to do more work to get coverage in that kind of media, and tolerate some negative coverage as well, so be it.

In China, on average, relationships between businesses and the media tend to be closer and less adversarial than in the west. There is also a range of ethical problems, including poor separation of advertising and editorial, the “transportation claim” subsidy-in-disguise, and more. Together, these make it easier for companies to earn –or buy– good coverage in local media than it would be in many other markets. But they also mean that the public is relatively more skeptical of much of the coverage and turns to alternative voices for much of its information and insight, many of them on microblogs . The result is a devalued media that makes even our best earned coverage less useful and influential, and that makes it harder for me to manage misinformation and rumors about my company.

Sound familiar?

These are generalizations. There are excellent journalists and excellent media in China, and crappy ones in the west. But the overall gap in trust is real. The real sign of progress here will not be in the government showing more tolerance for confrontational Western media, but in its tolerating the emergence of a fully independent, professionalized and adversarial Chinese media. That change, when it happens, will be driven by Chinese journalists. In some ways, it’s already happening.

For those of us in the establishment, there is value in learning to deal with an adversarial media, and in being good at telling our stories and getting our messages across in media that are willing to challenge us, and that therefore lend credibility to the claims that survive their scrutiny. But if you’ve never had to deal with that kind of media, you haven’t developed the skills necessary to do so, and you rely on a tradition of control and management to get your message across, then you are in the realm of propaganda and will face the consequences in terms of diminished trust.

And if your situation is so precarious that there is no way to tell a positive story when engaging with adversarial media? Well, then, your problems are much bigger and deeper than PR skills. Or one uppity journalist.

* Just kidding. Naturally, I have no actual dark corners.

See also:

On the Al Jazeera situation:

On the difficulty of reporting in China:

Good news? A magazine stand at SFO's international terminal on Monday.

I Apologize if Anyone Felt Killed

Apologies are an under-appreciated art. Most apologies crafted in the name of public relations sound intrinsically weaselly, often because the people making them are preoccupied with saving their prior reputation rather than getting past the mistake and rebuilding trust. I was reminded of this when I read Mike Daisey’s statement following L’affaire Daisey, which I reckon I don’t need to further explain to this audience. (If you’ve just emerged from decades frozen in an ice cave, click here. Also, get a haircut. Styles have changed.)

Here is what Mr. Daisey wrote:

 I apologized in this week’s episode to anyone who felt betrayed.

Did you see it? If not, I’ll explain in a moment.

Before I do, I should be clear: I’m not interested in a broader critique of Mr. Daisey’s work. That’s been done in so many other places that I’m too lazy to even go gather the links. Plus, I know it’s a rough gig in the performance artists. In 1974 Chris Burden crucified himself to a Volkswagen Beetle and had it driven around. So you can’t really have the same expectations of these people that you would of, say, your standard airline executive (much as you might want to crucify airline executives to moving vehicles).

But still, there it is, “…anyone who felt betrayed.” In four words, the two great sins of public apologies.

The first is the passive language. Now, I have no problems at all with passive voice in writing (or with starting sentences with conjunctions, or parentheticals, or many other things they told you were bad in your high school comp class). But that passive language is such a trope of public apologies that we pretty much take it for granted these days. It’s so common that Wikipedia has an entry on it. Vanity Fair, also citing Wikipedia, has a small collection of examples. “We apologize if anyone was offended,” was even trotted out recently by Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream in response to the (silly) Linsanity flavor scandal.

The second (and I must thank my partner in crime, Brendan O’Kane for this) is the use of the word “felt.” The passive voice subtly shunts responsibility onto the victim. The use of “felt” suggests that problem itself doesn’t even exist, and is merely some kind of unfortunate vapor or misunderstanding. You felt betrayed, but I didn’t actually betray you.

Lawyers may like apologies that don’t include a categorical admission of responsibility, but from a public communication point of view they come off as pro-forma, passive-aggressive dissembling that shifts at least some of the blame onto the injured parties. You can see how this works by replacing the standard corporate, public-conduct or ethno-gender-religious sensitivity malfeasance that people are usually apologizing for with something more heinous. I like to use a steamroller homicide, for no other reason than I appreciate the image of a maniac rampaging through town with a steamroller. Plus, as far as I know, no one has ever actually been murdered with a steamroller, so we should be safely in the land of the hypothetical (although the Internet will probably prove me wrong*).

So imagine you’re a contrite steamroller maniac attempting to rebuild your reputation. What do you say?

“I apologize for running over those people with a steamroller.”

Hell no. That’s way too direct and honest. It could be mistaken for assumption of responsibility, which might let the healing begin. We can’t have that.

Try this on instead:

“I apologize if anyone was run over by a steamroller.”

Do you see how this small change embeds whole new levels of denial and distance into that short statement? Seriously, how dumb were those people to get run over by a steamroller? The freaking thing only moves two miles an hour! I mean, head on a swivel, grandpa, this is the big city!!! But, you, know, sorry and all.

Or, even better,

“I apologize if anyone felt killed by a steamroller.”

Because they might not actually be dead. They might just feel that way. By mistake.

What the heck, let’s go for broke and dispense with the apology altogether. Some light regret is enough for the masses:

“I regret that due to this unfortunate situation anyone felt killed by a steamroller.”

Better yet, let’s disembody the regret, so we’re not sure who’s actually doing the regretting. Could be your auntie doing the regretting. You don’t have anything to regret. You’re not a culpable steamroller maniac leaving a twelve-foot-wide trail of blood and flattened personal accessories behind you. You’re just misunderstood:

“It is regrettable if, due to this unfortunate situation, anyone felt deprived of life by a steamroller.”

Now that…that is PR gold. A non apology for the ages. I almost weep reading it back.


*The Internet has proved me wrong. Apparently our friends the North Koreans have used steamrollers as weapons. Hat tip: @samuel_wade.

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