Huawei brand gets big boost from 'bad press', say PR experts

Chinese tech giant Huawei has pleaded not guilty to US charges that it stole trade secrets from T-Mobile.
PHOTO: Reuters

The US government's efforts to pressure its allies against using Huawei's 5G telecommunications network equipment have given rise to allegations of intellectual property theft and close ties to the Chinese government.

They may also have helped entrench the company's image as the global leader in the technology among some quarters.

"The [media] coverage, seemingly negative by connecting Huawei to security risks, to some extent acknowledges Huawei as a leading global player in 5G technology," said Andy Wong, associate dean of the business school at Chinese University of Hong Kong. "There's a chance that Huawei can turn the crisis into an opportunity."

In one of his latest TV appearances as part of Huawei's ongoing PR campaign, the company's 74 year old founder and chairman Ren Zhengfei thanked the US for "promoting" Huawei and referred to Trump administration leaders as "great figures".

"5G was not known by common people. But now, these great figures are all talking about 5G… And we're becoming more influential and getting more contracts," Ren said in an interview with CBS on Thursday.

Some of the strongest criticism of Huawei has come from the US, which is also pressing its allies to ban use of Huawei's 5G equipment.

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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last Thursday said the US will not partner with countries that adopt Huawei's technology.

Huawei is making its name desirable through a "charm offensive" branding strategy, said Richard Hillgrove, London-based founder of 6 Hillgrove Public Relations, adding that Huawei is also playing a clever public relations game by making comparisons that really hit home to a Western audience.

For instance, the company said banning Huawei in 5G would be like playing "English Premier League without Manchester United".

The remark, made by the head of Huawei's carrier business group Ryan Ding in London on Thursday, was in response to British concerns over the Chinese company's 5G gear. The UK government is expected to decide this spring which suppliers can provide technology for the country's 5G networks.

"[Huawei] must continue to handle security fears by appearing totally transparent to lawmakers worldwide and do whatever it takes to achieve this," Hillgrove added.

As part of its PR campaign the company has opened a Twitter account called #Huaweifacts, which it calls "the official authority on truth and facts about Huawei".

The account description reads: "We are the light that cuts through the shroud of allegations and assumptions about Huawei." As of Monday afternoon the account had more than 3,300 followers.

A Huawei spokesperson declined to comment on its publicity strategy.

The company is trying to reshape the global narrative by pushing its usually low profile founder into the limelight.

Ren has given multiple interviews to foreign and domestic media in recent weeks to defend Huawei and his daughter Meng, starting with an appearance on state broadcaster China Central Television, his first-ever TV interview. Ren has maintained a consistent message: Huawei does not spy for the Chinese government and will not share data with Beijing.

"Huawei, in general, is more cool headed in dealing with recent controversies," said Zhang Haizhou, a Hong Kong-based consultant for Swedish communications firm Kreab. He said the company has been consistent in its global communications by showcasing the confidence it has in its technology and products through media interviews.

"It's a proper public relations or communications strategy that would help Huawei, not bad press," he said.

Huawei has been making a huge effort in recent years to position itself as a global brand after gaining household name status within China.

To raise its international profile it hired Scarlett Johansson and Gal Gadot to promote its P9 smartphone last year. For the US launch of the flagship phone Huawei had a special mission for Gadot, one of the highest-paid and highest-grossing actresses of 2017: teach Westerners how to pronounce Huawei.

"Remember, it's pronounced Wow Way," said Gadot, the Israel-born actress best known for her role as the superhero Wonder Woman.

But the 5G equipment industry is different from the consumer facing market, Wong said, and the business-to-business 5G market is arguably more important to Huawei than smartphones.

"The appearance of Huawei's founder is an important gesture that Huawei is viewing accusations around its 5G [technology] as its utmost priority, to send its own message to important markets including Germany and the UK who are still on the fence regarding their decision to ban Huawei's 5G gear," Wong said.

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While the publicity raises the brand's profile "it may further the paranoia around the products from western consumers who may not have the full picture", said Mark Tanner, founder and managing director of Shanghai-based marketing firm China Skinny, adding that he was sceptical of the adage "any publicity is good publicity".

On Friday US President Donald Trump said in a tweet that he wanted the US to "win through competition, not by blocking out currently more advanced technologies".

Trump is afraid his strategy in handling Huawei could backfire and hurt his re-election chances, so his recent change of attitude towards Huawei is perhaps more due to his own political calculations than the result of Huawei's lobbying or PR, according to Wenshan Jia, a professor of global communication at Chapman University in California.

"It is very un-American to beat up on a global company like Huawei simply because it is outdoing the US in 5G," he said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.