Tuesday, April 08, 2008

China's Olympic PR Meltdown (and What They Could Do About It)

By Ned Barnett (c) 2008


China - more specifically the PRC - has to date implemented an incredibly flawed PR campaign. At fault are the PRC government, it’s “Olympic committee,” and whatever PR consultants have advised the country on how to turn opinion in the West. This has led the PRC to conduct such a remarkably inept PR campaign against those who support Tibet and in favor of those (primarily the PRC) who want the Olympics to proceed as business-as-usual.

Bottom line: when it comes to Western-style Public Relations, the People’s Republic of China has stumbled badly while handling the ongoing Tibet/Torch PR crisis, and things will only get worse as the Olympics gets closer.

In response to several requests for me to address this issue (since I did a bit of consulting with the PRC more than a decade ago, and since I often deal with crisis-management PR), I put together an in-depth analysis of what China is doing wrong with their counter-productive PR efforts related to Tibet/Torch and Tibet/Olympics. There are several business interests - as well as the more obvious political and PR issues - at stake:

1. China’s own hopes that the Olympics will build new and long-term business relationships with the West

2. China’s need to turn a profit on the Olympics itself

3. Many corporations which sponsor the Olympics must be ready to shoot themselves over China’s ongoing inept handling of world outrage over Tibet – an outrage that will only get worse as it comes out that:

a. China is expelling Christian missionaries as a conscious effort (Operation Typhoon Five) to avoid problems at the Olympics – this could become a media firestorm if the right “face” can be put on a missionary who’s been expelled

b. China is unable to clean up the air in Beijing (which has caused some long-distance runners to already drop out)

c. Far from “Choice,” China continues to mandate forced abortions for women whose “crime” is to have already had another child – even if that child subsequently died – and this policy extends to partial birth abortions – while many women advocate for personal choice in abortion issues, few if any in the West will look favorably at forced/mandated abortions – and this could become another media firestorm

d. China remains unable to provide western-style hospitality for its Olympic visitors (including the media) – at issue are such basics as clean air, clean water and healthy food, as well as expected amenities such as a robust tourism infrastructure on a Western scale and to Western standards … hotels, taxis, public transit, etc.

Because they are the world’s 800-pound gorilla, China is used to being treated deferentially by the media and world leaders, and isn’t ready for widespread condemnation by liberal activists and the liberal media who’ve often been the PRC’s champions. Today, China wants to play on the world stage - and because they're China, they expect the world to play by their rules. But when it comes to human rights, the world is unwilling to do that.

At least since Nixon and Kissenger opened up China nearly 40 years ago, the PRC's leaders have never been forced to play by the Western media's rules - rules that leaders in Western Democracies know by heart. For that reason, leaders in the PRC are essentially tone-deaf when it comes to Western-style PR. There is no longer a reliably sympathetic leftist media-and-activist chorus to praise their every statement. Even worse - at least from the Chinese leaders' point of view, that praising “Greek chorus” of international liberal activists who were, for so long, the PRC’s faithful advocates are now on a "Free Tibet" jag, which puts them at cross-purposes to the PRC's leadership.

With no friends and no clues on how to manage the Western media in order to build positive public opinion, the PRC needs to receive – and hear – sound PR advice. While that won’t happen, in this blog article I “make the case” for a sound damage-control, crisis-management PR focus for the Chinese. Here I explain China’s PR failures, and offer some ideas that the Chinese should adopt – but won’t.

The Chinese PR Problem - and the Solution They Won't Use

Before I launch into the real problems (and some potentially real solutions), I want to give an example of the PRC’s remarkably, breathtakingly bad PR effort (along with my deadly-serious critique of that PR meltdown) - then discuss some real PR options that the Chinese could still adopt, though they probably won't.

First, I noted with near-riotous mirth the most recent statement by the Chinese spokesman: "The act of defiance from this small group of people is not popular," said Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing Olympic organizing committee. "It will definitely be criticized by people who love peace and adore the Olympic spirit. Their attempt is doomed to failure."

On a personal note as one who cherishes unintended irony, I love it when an unelected and dictatorial Chinese government talks about an action not being “popular” – especially when that action is taken by a small group of people … like maybe the Chinese Communist government. As an aside, the PRC government is perhaps the single most blood-stained government in all of history, with most of the deaths inflicted on their own citizens since 1949 – though the Civil War that took Mao from peasant agitator to leader of the world’s largest country cost untold millions of lives (generally, the Chinese death toll from their Civil War is thought to be more than all the casualties from all countries other than China in World War II).

That's a lot of negativity to overcome. However, more to the point, I think a good place for China to start in its PR offensive is this:

1. Don’t drink your own Kool-Aid … this kind of nonsensical propaganda statement may play well within the borders of the world’s largest totalitarian state, but it reads like a bad Monty Python joke to the rest of the world

2. If you’re issuing a press release in English – especially one aimed at America (where the next torch-extinguishing event is scheduled for Wednesday), get someone to write it who’s a native-born American – or at least someone who is truly fluent in idiosyncratic American English.

Avoid nonsensically-ironic statements: “People who love peace and adore the Olympic spirit ...”

· This ridiculously ironic statement is "wrong" (from a PR perspective) on so many levels. First, it comes from a government that severely restricts its own athletes from participating in International sports competitions – including the Olympics – denying some athletes places on their national team because of their so-called political “unreliability” – this approach is, of course, the ultimate manifestation of the true “Olympic Spirit ...”

· Next, this statement comes from a government that is so focused on peace and human rights that it mandates punitive abortions (including partial birth abortions) for unborn children whose only crime is to have been conceived by parents who already have one child – even if that first child has already died. This mandate is carried out by armed paramilitary secret police – a sure hallmark of a country that “loves peace.”

· Next, this statement is from a government that has the world’s largest standing army – yet another unmistakable hallmark of a country that “loves peace.”

· Finally and most importantly, this statement comes from a government so peace-loving that it militarily occupied Tibet in 1950 and which violently broke that oppressed country’s indigenous resistance movement in 1958, and which has at times brutally suppressed anything coming from Tibet that doesn’t smack of abject surrender to the will of Beijing.

In short, this statement is wrong on more levels than the mind can easily grasp. However, the situation is not beyond recovery - if (and only if) the Chinese are willing to listen to some sound "Western" PR advice on how to best reach the "Western" market of democratic citizens and democratic leaders.

OK – assuming that they're ready to listen to reason, what can the PRC do about this?

Not much. Their problems stem well beyond pro-Tibet groups’ obstruction of the torch event.

For instance, the air quality in Beijing is so remarkably bad that some world-class marathoners are already refusing to run in the foul miasma of smoke and smog and God alone knows what else that constitutes the “breathing air” in Beijing. Other Olympians scheduled for outdoor events may choose to join those who value long-term health more than they value risking all for a medal – and it’s a sure bet that outdoor-air events will come in with results that are way below world-class records – the air in Beijing really is exactly that bad, and all the draconian measures China is taking to overcome this bad air will likely come to naught.

The venues themselves (the stadiums, etc.) will likely be ready on time – but as someone who works with a regular business visitor to Beijing, Shanghai and the PRC (and who’s heard many horror stories about China at first hand), there is literally no way that the PRC can clean up their “hospitality” industry. This "hospitality" industry is nothing short of a disaster moving toward a debacle, and it cannot be fixed or even significantly ameliorated in time for the Olympics. But it's not just the air. Their public water is – by western standards – unfit to drink, and their food can be dangerous in a way that Americans used to joke about food in Mexico – but this time, the food really can be dangerous.

In short, reality is not on the side of the PRC. I have no idea what brand of wishful thinking and private bong-smoking the Chi-com officials used to justify their bid for the Olympic games. They knew their human rights record was abysmal and not likely to change. They knew what the outside world (or at least Richard Geer at Academy Awards presentations) thought about Tibet. They knew that headline-grabbing weekend Leftist activists - the kind who'd disrupted G-8 meetings and World Bank meetings - would be chomping at the bit to disrupt the Olympics. They knew their air quality was awful trending toward disastrous (ditto for their water quality and public-access food) and they’d have to be blind to think that Western visitors wouldn’t be negatively impressed by the restaurants and hotels in Beijing.

But they went ahead and bid on (and won) the Olympic Games - and have come face-to-face with a remarkably unwelcome reality. When reality isn’t on your side, your PR choices are limited.

So here’s what they should do:

a. Change the subject – instead of railing against : "The act of defiance from this small group of people” and predicting that “their attempt is doomed to failure," the efforts of the PRC’s PR flacks should focus on changing the subject. They should take a public position that sounds something like “the critics have a right to criticize, but not to commit criminal actions – and the athletes who have looked forward, all their lives, to carrying the symbolic torch and participating in these historic games have a right to do so without criminal disruption, even when it comes from well-intended idealists who refuse to see the harm they are causing – not to the People’s Republic of China – but to the athletes who’ve trained and dreamed all their lives for this moment.” Something like that.

b. Offer a symbolic fig-leaf that takes the issue off the front burner without actually changing anything. “In a spirit of International Olympic good-will, we invite those who have differing views about the issues raised by these well-meaning but – in our opinion – misguided protestors … including representatives of the protestors themselves – to an International convocation to discuss Tibet … past, present and future. This convocation will be held at the site of our Olympic facilities six weeks after the conclusion of the Olympics themselves. We invite those who object to our historic sovereignty over Tibet - a province which has historically been part of China going back 4,000 years - as well as those who see the merit in our just claim to be the single government over all of historic China. We will also, of course, invite members of the UN, the IOC and the world press to this convocation. That will show the demonstrators that they've "been heard" and will allow the Olympics proceed - and, incidentally, it will position those who continue to protest in a far less sympathetic light, since the Chinese will have already agreed to an " International dialog" on the subject.

c. Find Surrogates, Part One: Demand, but privately, that the IOC condemn the actions of the protestors – then stay out of the fight and let the IOC handle it from their own Olympian position.

d. Find Surrogates, Part Two: Bring forward athletes from around the world who will mouth platitudes about the protestors’ rights to express their views while demanding (from the protestors) that they back off and let the Olympic athletes enjoy this Millennia-old test of prowess and spirit. Make the Olympic athletes (not the Tibetans) the real victims – encourage the media and the world to see them as the real martyrs to this “peace group’s” terrorism. Shift the discussion (again) away from China and onto the poor, suffering athletes who are having their lifetime dreams shattered by a selfish and misguided few.

There’s more, but that’s a start – this is what I would do if I was the PR flack for the PRC. Thank God I have better sense than to take on the PRC for a client in this crisis, but if I were to do so, this would be among my strategic recommendations.

So, setting aside the right (or wrong – especially the wrong) of China’s position about Tibet, as well as their gross inadequacy as a host for an international event (if only because of their abysmal air quality and their oppressive lack of human rights … not to mention their lack of world-class hotels, restaurants and ground-service infrastructure (taxis, non-Olympic entertainment, etc.) – to turn this situation around, they need to:

· Aggressively change the subject by making the protestors out as unfeeling criminals who are destroying the Olympic experience for a generation of athletes for their own selfish purposes

· Switch responsibility for responding to this outrage

· Find new and more sympathetic victims (easily-accessible and squeaky-clean media-darling Olympians vs. unknown, remote and largely unwashed peasants in a remote mountain fastness)

· Offer an ultimately-worthless but well-sounding “fig leaf” for after the Olympics … when the world will forget this ever almost happened.

There are, of course, other effective PR strategies - some, perhaps, far better and potentially far more effective than my offerings here. However, this seems like a sound, professional (and admittedly amoral - but we're dealing with the PRC, which is nothing if not amoral) place to start.