Fast Company posted an interesting article this week which asked whether PR could save China from its recent spate of scandals. The article raises some interesting points about how China is leveraging some of the typical crisis management tactics, but also confirms China is most definitely a unique “client.” The context is interesting, since most observers would agree the Chinese government has very limited credibility as a source of information – so the “bank of goodwill” we always hear about is likely near empty. That tends to happen when you control (and censor) the press, stubbornly deny what has been verified and witnessed by millions and have a long history of highly dubious statements couched in hyperbolic Marxist rhetoric. The Ogilvy executive quoted in the story – who is working with the Chinese government – argues that China gets a rough ride because of an information vacuum and consequent misunderstanding by the Western press. This may well be true, but I suggest it’s due more to China’s atrocious track record in communication.
Ironically, China has some important PR assets in its favor and may be able to salvage and even burnish its reputation. For one thing, when it says it has started a “working group” to address and fix the problem – as detailed by the Ogilvy rep – that means something totally different than in Western countries. If the Chinese government wants to change something, it can and it does. Right away. No discussion, dilution or opposition. And it has shown it can take dramatic action – such as making a very public example of the poor officials in charge of whatever department has been sloppy. And it also helps that they are guaranteed to stay on message…save for the occasional demonstrators on street corners around the world. Ultimately, it will be the power of money that drives change; China will not let anything hinder its dramatic economic renaissance – not even corruption and scandal. Not the greatest reason for probity, but if it ends up making the Chinese government more responsive and transparent we’ll take it.