China's Newest Export: Better PR for China

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Martin Luz PR guy, writer, professional ghost writer

Lest you think that PR is just for tarnished sports heroes, bankrupt corporations and divorcing GOP hypocrites heavyweights, last month China launched a PR campaign aimed at improving the image of "Made In China."

Indeed, they could use some PR help. On the "quality" front, China's reputation is a total disaster, with high profile contaminations of everything from drywall, to milk, toys, toothpaste, tires, pet food, seafood (for humans), and pharmaceuticals ... and who knows what else that hasn't been caught.

That's not even mentioning the dust clouds blowing from China that circle the Earth. Or the tons of mercury settling on the U.S. from China's coal-fired power plants.

But as necessary as the campaign may be, it highlights some key things about PR that people outside the profession need to know. And some in the profession still need to learn.

Here is the first ... (the second will come later) ... Whether you're a person, company or country ... you can't change your image if your behavior undermines your message at every turn.

Undermining Your Own Message

The China campaign tries to lip-lock the rest of the world with the idea that we are all the greatest of partners. From the L.A. Times:

A jogger laces up running shoes whose tag reads "Made in China with American sports technology." A refrigerator is stamped with "Made in China with European styling." And a model vamps for the camera in a slinky dress that's "Made in China with French designers."

A marketing professor from Beijing explains the goal:

"When you talk about products in China, you think of lesser quality than the U.S. and Europe. By connecting them internationally, you're saying they're equal."

Um... you can say it. But if it's not true and everyone knows it, then what's the point? Again from the L.A. Times:

Some critics say China's ad campaign is misdirected and that the Ministry of Commerce and the trade groups would do better to focus their efforts on improving manufacturing practices in China rather than spending time trying to sway opinion overseas.

"Most people would be pretty cynical about" the campaign, said Paul Midler, author of "Poorly Made in China," a book that examined how Chinese manufacturers' drive for bigger profits often compromised quality. "I'm not sure using PR can turn the tide and change behavior."

[emphasis added]

Would You Be Surprised To Know...?

The same problem is plaguing scads of other would-be lip-lockers?

First lets take Lybia, which is engaged in a bit of PR grandstanding. Last month, at the behest of "president" Qadhafi's son, Libya allowed Human Rights Watch (HRW) to hold a press conference in the capital to release its latest report on human rights in that country.

Before the event, blogger and journalist Gregg Carlstrom at The Majlis called it for what it was, part of a meaningless PR blitz ... at the time hoping that he was being too cynical. He wrote:

It has never happened before -- but it doesn't mean the Qadhafi regime plans to actually address its human rights abuses. (HRW has held press conferences in Cairo before, and Hosni Mubarak hasn't exactly rushed to end torture and free political prisoners.)

Unfortunately, Carlstrom's suspicions were on the mark. The conference was cut short by police, ending in "pandemonium." And even an HRW attendee admitted that people were harassed before hand, foreign journalists couldn't get visas, some locals were barred from attending, and people were picked up and questioned afterward.

But Libya may have gotten some of what it wanted. Despite all the evidence against it, that HRW attendee blogged about her hope for a new age of openness in Libya.

Or what about... ?

If you think China's row is a tough one to hoe ... or Lybia's hill is tough to climb ... try rehabilitating the reputation of Josef Stalin.

Back in October, reported that Russia's news agency Ria Novosti had approached some Brussels-based PR firms about working on burnishing Stalin's image.
A day after the news broke, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev issued a video blog denouncing Stalin's atrocities (on "Remembrance Day" dedicated to the victims of political opression). And then a day after that, Ria Novosti vehemently denied the Eurobserver report, with suitable bombast.

Was it backpedaling? Deflection? One hates to be too cynical. But then again, there was this report less than two months later:

"The Russian Communist Party asked the nation Monday for a daylong moratorium on criticizing Soviet dictator Josef Stalin as they celebrate his 130th birthday."

It All Has The Same Ring...

Hugo Chavez tried checkbook PR ... buying his way into the hearts and minds of people throughout Latin America, but his reputation tanked when oil prices dropped and he had to stop writing checks. That, and he showed a propensity to meddle the internal affairs of his neighbors. (via Miami Herald)

Kenya paid Chlopak Leonard Schechter (CLS), a Beltway image shop, $1.7 million over two years to improve its reputation in the United States. But op-ed writer Dane Kiambi for the Daily Nation easily figured out what the Kenyan government couldn't:

Kenyans, and their leaders, know perfectly well where the problem lies and that paying a PR firm a whopping $1.7 million (Sh129 million) for two years to improve Kenya's image abroad was a complete waste of money.

The first step toward branding Kenya locally and internationally, the [critics] argued, was for the government to focus on a local reform agenda that will put the nation on a more stable footing.

Kenya' case is the latest among a host of other nation-branding initiatives that are proving to be quite a challenge to international public relations practitioners.

Indeed, the CLS client list reads like a Who's Who of countries on the brink: Colombia, Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Georgia, Mexico, Peru, Serbia ... with Spain, Portugal and Brazil thrown in to spruce things up a bit and make them more respectable.

Most other global PR firms do this kind of work too. And sure they'll all say that they do good work. Important work. Their image programs help secure aid and sympathy and action in the U.S. on behalf of these countries.

Well, yes and no. Which brings us back to China.

The Second Lesson: PR Only Softens You Up

I told you we'd get to the second lesson, which is this: your image doesn't matter if you can buy enough influence.

Three days after the "Made In China" program was announced, a blurb appeared in the PR news bible O'Dwyer's: "Venable Sings Praises of Hong Kong."

Venable (we'll get to them in a second) will make a cool quarter-mill for one-year's work promoting Hong Kong as a "partner" in free trade -- ensuring that "issues affecting the interests of Hong Kong are put in the proper perspective."

The account will be run in coordination with the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Washington. And there is this interesting tidbit:

Former U.S. Senator Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) leads the Hong Kong account with Raymond Shepherd, former chief counsel at the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The Hong Kong Trade Development Council retains the right to revoke the contract if either Bayh or Shepherd withdraws from the account.

[emphasis added][subscription required]

So who is Venable? A law firm. Why is Hong Kong paying a law firm a quarter million dollars to do "PR?" Because it's not PR... the "Made In China" campaign is PR. This is buying influence. (And as a measure of how serious they are, they retain the right to fire the firm if their chosen influencer leaves.)

In reality, when it comes to PR (for countries or companies, and sometimes even people), it's only meant to soften up your perceptive faculties. The real goal is keep you from resisting the sharp point of the spear, which is coming from entirely another direction.

And in this regard I wouldn't sell China short.

Lenovo acquired IBM's Thinkpad brand and technology. In a move that Ford will probably regret one day, a Chinese company is on the verge of acquiring Volvo and its technology. (Helped along by global M&A powerhouse Brunswick PR.)

So hold the laughs on "Made In China." Because some of us are old enough to remember a time back in the early '70s when there was another "made in" slogan that used to prompt jeers and laughs. It was: "Made In Japan."