January 22, 2019
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Huawei’s continuing crisis PR saga

Check out The Holmes Report’s new 2018 crisis comms review, in which I remarked extensively on the continuing Huawei global public relations saga.

What follows are the comments I provided, many of which were included in the article by Arun Sudhaman:

The Huawei crisis communications case is a continuing saga over several years, one which will continue to play out for the foreseeable future. The profile of the company’s brand has been growing fast, fuelled by cybersecurity fears concomitant with a massive marketing spend powering increasingly popular products which are driving the company’s unrelenting commercial success.

Once a PR dinosaur with only the most primitive concept of corporate communication, in a remarkably short span of time, Huawei has built a world-class communications platform with an advanced and well resourced in-house capability serviced by a roster of Western PR agencies — including some of the biggest names in the business — who are collectively billing many millions of dollars.

Huawei is a fascinating case because fear of its waxing power and dread about its potential to wreck waning Western tech rivals have become the dominant emotions in many mature developed markets. Meanwhile, in developing countries, Huawei is applying its financial muscle to bulldoze market access and while not a beloved brand, the price is right for its ever-improving smartphones and network equipment.

Earlier this decade when I was Asia Pacific CEO for what is now Burson Cohn & Wolfe (a longtime Huawei roster agency), most of the firm’s work across many international markets was centred on allaying suspicions that Huawei represents a security threat and reassuring stakeholders that Huawei is not somehow an arm of China’s communist government or the People’s Liberation Army. Six years later, these exact same themes continue to dominate the work of their multiagency teams, who face longer odds and greater skepticism notwithstanding budgets that by all accounts are astoundingly large.

Huawei’s entanglement in superpower geopolitics with the arrest of its global CFO Meng Wanzhou in Canada has thrust the company into uncharted PR territory where, regardless of its world-class issues management and crisis communications capability, it’s not calling the comms shots in the news as the Chinese and North American governments on the other side duke it out through the state-supported media and information platforms at their disposal.

As China’s national champion multinational, Huawei is now a red flag of warning in most of the Anglosphere countries of China’s rise as a technologically advanced superpower that many are afraid could surpass and dominate a divided and declining West, where governments may be reaching the conclusion that if they don’t stop Huawei now — stop Chinese encroachment into the Western telecoms infrastructure — they never will.

Probably the best public relations and marketing communications can’t overcome the realpolitik situation Huawei finds itself in. Even rolling out their biggest PR gun — the reclusive Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei who almost never speaks to the media — smacked of desperation as he heaped praise on Donald Trump and thanked Canada’s justice system for the kind treatment of his daughter who remains under house arrest (in a country where Huawei’s top corporate affairs official just resigned as the PRC’s flagship brand becomes radioactive notwithstanding a huge budget with which to curry favour with elites and influencers).

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