You’ve heard the phrase, “read the room.”
Huawei can’t read the room.
In spite of an in-house communications team that includes talented pros from the West, they continue to make amateur mistakes. The latest comes in the form of an open letter to the U.S. media published last week in The Wall Street Journal.
If anything, this only hurts Huawei’s cause. The letter never touches on the core issue that dominates the mindshare of U.S. journalists — Huawei’s behavior and trustworthiness. Journalists don’t care whether Huawei’s technology can work in the Arctic Circle.
When Huawei ran a corporate branding campaign back in 2015, they had no idea how hard the journey would be.
Fast forwarding to the now, Huawei just sued the U.S. government for banning its equipment on the grounds that such a ban is unconstitutional. How this impacts Huawei’s public profile and brand is a topic for another day.
Back to the letter, the Chinese media reported on Huawei’s latest missive with headlines such as “U.S. Exaggerates Huawei’s Threat to Security.” In asking our Beijing office to scan the coverage, one pattern emerges. The stories in the Chinese media lift vignettes from U.S. media coverage that support Huawei’s position.
Here’s a breakdown of the letter, an exercise I haven’t gone through since the infamous Toyota customer letter hit a pothole.
An open letter to the US media
Don’t believe everything you hear.
Come and see us.
I am Catherine Chen, a Director of the Board at Huawei. I’m in charge of public and government affairs.
Good move for a high-ranking Board member to pen this missive. But telling journalists “don’t believe everything you hear” will have the opposite effect.
The US is a shining example of how to inspire passion for technological innovation and development. We too have been inspired by your history of creativity and hard work.
Really? Huawei thinks flattery is the way to get on the good side of American journalists.
I am writing to you in the hopes that we can come to understand each other better. In recent years, the US government has developed some misunderstandings about us. We would like to draw your attention to the facts.
Some Einstein at Huawei has convinced management that the misunderstandings between the U.S. government and Huawei can be resolved by facts. I’m guessing that the argument in the room went something like this. “American journalists like facts. If we share facts with them, their perception of Huawei will move toward the positive quadrant.” Oops.
We operate in more than 170 countries and regions, including countries like the UK, Germany, and France. We provide innovative and secure telecoms network equipment and smartphones to more than three billion people around the world.
Huawei was founded over 30 years ago, and we are proud of our people’s willingness to work in the world’s most difficult and dangerous regions. We have put our hearts and souls into connecting the unconnected and bridging the digital divide in underserved locations around the world – places where many other companies aren’t willing to go.
These lines belong in the Annual Report. The letter still hasn’t addressed what journalists care about: Does Huawei steal intellectual property, serve as a tool for the state and disregard international standards for business behavior?
We build base stations in the harshest environments, like the Arctic Circle, the Sahara, rainforests in South America, and even on Mount Everest. In the wake of disasters like the tsunami in Indonesia, the nuclear disaster in Japan, and the massive earthquake in Chile, our employees were some of the first on the ground, working tirelessly to restore communications networks and support disaster relief.
Again, great fodder for a corporate video.
We work with many leading US companies on technology development, business consulting, and procurement. In addition, we support university research programs in the US, helping them make significant progress in communications technologies, which we believe will benefit the whole world.
OK, this one is interesting. The problem is the passage is too general to have any impact.
There are only so many people we can reach out to. On behalf of Huawei, I would like to invite members of the US media to visit our campuses and meet our employees. I hope that you can take what you see and hear back to your readers, viewers, and listeners, and share this message with them, to let them know that our doors are always open. We would like the US public to get to know us better, as we will you.
Faulty syntax aside, the last line about helping the U.S. public get to know Huawei better is the right concept and one I advocated for in an op-ed published in EE Times. Yet, the mentality of U.S. journalists continues to mystify the company. You don’t invite them to drop by in a paid advertisement in The Wall Street Journal. You study what a given journalist has written in the past and then call or email that journalist with a pitch that intersects the journalist’s interests and an offer to talk. And if you’re thinking such an approach doesn’t scale like advertising, you’re right. Effective media relations is hard work, particularly for a company under attack from all directions.
If you would like to visit us, please send an email to email@example.com.
Don’t believe everything you hear. Come and see us. We look forward to meeting you.
Like the personal touch with the handwritten signature. I would have been more impressed if she included her personal email address.
I figure Huawei shelled out $200,000 and change for the full pager in the Journal.
That same amount of money buys 1,000 hours of senior talent (at $200 per hour) focused on media relations. Assuming that each press interview consumes 20 hours of time — research the journalist, customize the pitch, nail down the Huawei story for that particular journalist, bat less than 100 percent in pitching, etc. — that’s 50 meaningful interactions with journalists.
Compared to thousands of meaningless interactions with thousands of journalists via the Journal ad.
I suspect you know how I would have spent the money.