Despite the well-publicised challenges facing multi-national corporations (MNCs) operating in China, being involved in the world’s most populous country buoyed up by the second largest economy remains a key priority in these corporations’ strategic plans. It stands to reason: China has proven to be a major source of revenue, growth, and innovation; MNCs realise that it is in their best interests to ensure a meaningful and sustainable presence in this market.
Moreover, succeeding in China is often a strong indicator of a corporation’s overall performance. Making it in the Middle Kingdom can be a powerful source of confidence-building for stakeholders both inside and outside of the country, including investors, partners, customers, governments, regulators, and employees. No wonder global audiences are eager to know how MNCs are performing in China.
However, many MNCs fail to adequately communicate their China activities and success stories, leaving global audiences to rely on second-hand sources and hearsay, which may be neither positive nor accurate. This represents a wasted opportunity for MNCs, who sometimes feel they need to wait for a global executive to visit their overseas subsidiary before they consider it opportune to tell their China story to global audiences.
Local management might feel justified in adopting a communications stance they feel is prudent, citing geopolitical concerns. But often it’s misaligned corporate policies and politics that induce the Chinese subsidiary to maintain too low a profile. How many readers can identify with these practices: unsuitable internal policies and approval processes, trust issues, limited autonomy or few incentives for the China–based team to engage with audiences outside of China, increased comfort in the status quo, headquarter bias towards focusing on home-market stories, limited understanding among HQ decision–makers about China, and limited cross-pollination of employees between the home office and China?
The potential benefits to MNCs of communicating their China success stories to global audiences can be numerous. These include building investor confidence, attracting partners, combatting misconceptions and inaccurate media reporting, motivating employees, and attracting talent. Some relatively safe China stories that could be considered for sharing include strong business performance, successful partnerships and collaborations, investments, new facilities, R&D breakthroughs and innovations, CSR activities, awards, and employee achievements.
All this being true, it is still important not to overlook the potential risks of proactively communicating about China. While careful crafting of the corporate message is a universal concern, stories emanating from local offices should be told with sensitivity to Chinese geopolitical characteristics and an understanding of how different audiences, inside and outside of China, might react. Striking the right messaging and narrative balance between China and the MNCs home country is crucial.
It is, admittedly, a fine line to walk. Communications should avoid (or better yet skirt around) political sensitivities, especially those that conflict with the Chinese government narrative; but at the same time they should also avoid pandering to orthodox expressions, which can be easily detected by sophisticated and perhaps cynical Chinese readers. Walking the line requires a sound sense of public affairs, one sensitive to market and social forces. We should be prepared for different dynamics and scenarios and think carefully about how the broader China story could evolve in relation to current dynamics like increased Chinese assertiveness, bilateral frictions, and the changing business environment for foreign companies in China.
On this theme, while American companies are facing obvious challenges in China, no country is completely immune from the threat of disagreements and tensions. In these instances, MNCs, with their sometimes decades-long track records of investments and public-relations outreach to layers of government, can become negotiating chips as these intergovernmental tensions play out.
There are many ways to communicate China stories globally. Probably the most prominent of these is working with international media outlets who have captive global audiences. However, we must bear in mind, and be respectful of, the differences in how Chinese media and international media operate. International media outlets in China typically value exclusivity, have less time and resources at their disposal, require access to executives and data, will not reprint releases word-for-word, and cannot promise positive coverage. They also have a duty to be selective and craft stories that are free from bias and meet the needs of their editors and readers, who are mostly based outside of China. We should also be mindful that stories in international media can be picked up by Chinese media and netizens and spun or interpreted in various ways.
Other effective communication strategies include: weaving in China stories when participating in forums and conferences around the world, sharing more China-centric content on corporate social media channels (like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn), sharing more China content on internal platforms to increase employee awareness and understanding, and incorporating more China data and stories into documents such as annual reports and sustainability pieces.
In summary, the benefits to MNCs of elevating the China story can be significant and doing so should be encouraged. But getting out the China message should be carefully managed. Corporations have to take into consideration how their China communications can be interpreted by different audiences, both now and in the future.
Global communications agency BCW (Burson Cohn & Wolfe), offers a full spectrum of services to clients covering strategic counseling, integrated communications and project execution. The agency operates six offices in Greater China.