A continued inability to adopt a consistent communications strategy has seen the Chinese technology giant, Huawei, become extremely susceptible to political headwinds, while also leaving it unable to respond.
Following continued accusations from the United States that the Chinese multinational posed a security risk, Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei gave an interview to the BBC in which he came out on the offensive. A quiet public figure and former army engineer, Ren very rarely grants interviews.
“There’s no way the US can crush us,” he told the BBC. “The world cannot leave us because we are more advanced. Even if they persuade more countries not to use us temporarily, we can always scale things down a bit.”
He admitted, however, that the Trump administration’s stated desire to see its allies in Europe and Oceania ban or block the company from selling 5G infrastructure would mean a significant impact on revenues.
“If the lights go out in the west, the east will still shine”, he said. “America doesn’t represent the world.”
It is increasingly true. This week, both the UK and Germany cast doubts on the United States government’s portrayal of the risk, in a rebuke to a stance that the Trump administration has been pushing for over a year. The government has not only tried to dissuade US telcos, it has also gone after the company with criminal charges that have seen Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s CFO – who is also Ren’s daughter – arrested in Canada pending an extradition request from the US. The company is alleged to have violated sanctions against Iran. Both Huawei and Meng deny the charges.
As one lobbyist from a firm that had worked with Huawei put it, the “rolling thunder holy Jihad” from the US has made any kind of communications work extra difficult.
Huawei’s standing is, naturally, precarious. Speaking to the Financial Times, the company’s former head of US public and government relations, William Plummer – who lost his job a year ago – has explained the frustrations of working with the company, and, in particular, its handling of the crisis.
Plummer questioned the decision to come out swinging at a time when Trump is set to sign an executive order banning the purchase of Huawei telecommunications gear ahead of next week’s Mobile World Congress, at which the firm typically puts on an impressive reveal of its latest tech.
“Five years ago would have been the time to do it. I’m not sure being confrontational now is a good idea,” he believes.
“The best you get is crisis management,” said the lobbyist. “There has never been a consistent, strategic approach to managing their image.” This is not, he added, for lack of advice. Over the years, the company has worked with some of the largest and most expensive consultancies, as well as PR experts like Edelman and Ogilvy.
But there was, at key moments, “a fundamental lack of trust in non-Chinese”, Plummer said.
All of these elements have lent credence to the idea that the company is deeply secretive, but also that it is under the thumb of the Chinese government. In the context of the geopolitical standoff between China and the US, these perceptions have been strategically dangerous.
Ultimately, it will be extremely difficult for the company to rescue wide-scale US business without granting huge visibility into its inner workings. The battle for US telecoms is unlikely to go Huawei’s way, but the lack of communications has damaged the company’s prospects in many other key markets.
Sourced from the BBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff