Navigating the Choppy Waters Around China

Racepoint Global

Written by: Mark Jackson – Managing Director, Racepoint Asia

Imagine the scene: your 90-year old, much storied and highly-valued brand suddenly comes under fire from the government of the world’s second-largest economy, followed shortly after by haranguing from both traditional and social media commentators. It’s enough to give even the most seasoned communications professionals nightmares.

But that’s exactly what happened to Marriott in early 2018 when a simple questionnaire on its website listed both Tibet and Taiwan as countries distinct from China.

The result was that the Chinese government – via the Shanghai Cyberspace Administration – shutting down the company’s website and app in China for a week, costing Marriott both potential bookings and their reputation.

Marriott is just one of a number of firms that have come under the increasingly harsh gaze of China’s government. Gap recently had to apologize for a t-shirt which depicted a map of China minus both Taiwan and Tibet. And, even though the t-shirt was for sale in Canada, a storm of criticism on Weibo and WeChat impacted the company’s sales across China.

And now, the Chinese authorities are taking aim at airlines asking more than 30 to change their descriptions of Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

In these testing times, what should companies be doing to make sure they don’t fall foul of the authorities and risk both reputation and revenue? Here are four tips from our teams across China:

  1. Learn the language: just as England is not a proxy for the United Kingdom, do be careful when you’re talking about the contentious autonomous regions. It’s best to stick to ‘Greater China’ as a catch-all description. But do bear in mind how those in Hong Kong, for example, feel about the handover from the British a little over 20 years ago.
  2. Read all about it: policy is not uniformly applied and can change rapidly. Keeping an eye on the newspapers will give you an idea about how the Chinese government feels on a particular topic but – particularly if you don’t have a team on the ground in China – do ask around for advice.
  3. When in doubt, play it safe: while you need an edge to stand out in a country of 1.4 billion people, it’s not worth risking your entire business. If you have any doubts at all, play it safe.
  4. Time to socialize: CSR not only embeds a brand in a society, it can give you the ‘aircover’ you need in times of crisis. We are recommending that all of our clients take the time now to build their social credentials because it helps at times like these.

The increasingly aggressive moves from the Chinese government appear to be part of a long-term trend, rather than a short-term reaction. From Marriott to Quantas, big brands are coming under fire and the only way to win the positive attention of the government is to be properly prepared.

If you’d like more information on the do’s and don’ts of communicating in China, please get in touch with Mark: mjackson@racepointglobal.com