Huawei’s PR quest to be perceived as “just another telecom equipment maker doing its part to connect the world” took another hit when ex-CIA chief Michael Hayden said Huawei spied for the Chinese government.
In an interview with The Australian Financial Review (AFR) published last Friday, Hayden also mentioned that Huawei tried to recruit him to join the company’s American board:
“I reviewed Huawei’s briefing paper. But God did not make enough slides on Huawei to convince me that having them involved in our critical communications infrastructure was going to be o.k. This was my considered view, based on a four-decade career as an intelligence officer.”
I’d say there’s an “edge” to his viewpoint.
Before going further, it’s worth acknowledging two points from a Huawei perspective.
First, this is not your conventional “let’s get cracking on cultivating the company’s public profile” assignment. The China-West dynamic alone triggers the type of complexity where even the choice of a verb can be fraught with peril. Two, we can assume the recommendations from Huawei’s PR function and how the company acted are not one and the same.
With those caveats dispensed, my initial reaction to Huawei’s handling of this PR crisis was “not bad.”
Two years ago if a journalist asked Huawei for a response to a claim of being in cahoots with the government, the company would have declined before heading for the bunkers.
To Huawei’s credit, it moved on a dime to insert its POV in the AFR story. John Suffolk, the company’s global cyber security officer, lashed back describing Hayden’s comments as “tired, unsubstantiated and defamatory” and said the critics should present any evidence publicly. “It’s time to put up or shut up,” asserted Suffolk.
In short, Huawei counter punched with authority as opposed to playing the victim. Also a nice touch to borrow from the American punk band scene with the “put up or shut up” line.
So far so good.
Now comes the hard part. How does the company address the hundreds of media properties around the world about to pile on? How do they deal with the hundreds of emails on their way to Shenzhen asking for comment.
Unfortunately, Huawei decided to deploy the exact same playbook for the onslaught of follow-up stories. As a result, “day-two” stories like the ones in Bloomberg and CNNMoney include the identical Huawei rhetoric as in the AFR story:
“These tired, unsubstantiated defamatory remarks are sad distractions from real-world concerns related to espionage — industrial and otherwise — that demand serious discussion globally,” Huawei spokesman Scott Sykes said Friday.
The words now sound “tired.”
Making matters worse, Huawei’s cyber-security czar John Suffolk has “magically” passed attribution to Scott Sykes who heads global media relations for Huawei. The Huawei response in the AFR which sounded authoritative now comes across as weak. And it’s flat confusing to read a same quote coming from different people.
This would have been the ideal situation for Huawei to atomize its narrative. In other words, capture responses to the crisis as individual vignettes as opposed to crafting a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end (or using the same couple of quotes again and again). Then, distribute the content with one of the same services used for news releases.
As demonstrated by the Men’s Wearhouse debacle last month, this technique can scale business storytelling in a way that aligns with how today’s turn-the-crank journalists operate. I think it can be particularly effective in a crisis since the company remains in control of the content.
But it only works with deft storytelling; i.e., fresh viewpoints and commentary that sounds like it comes from actual human beings.