SUNNYVALE, CA: As freedom of speech issues continue to dog Yahoo regarding its policies in China, the Internet giant has tapped Porter Novelli to oversee its worldwide PR and support its corporate image.
PN will focus on international corporate communications, corporate communications pertaining to Yahoo's activity in Europe, and global public affairs.
"Our job is to articulate the power of Yahoo's global leadership, and Porter Novelli has put together a high-caliber, multinational and multifunctional team to help us make that happen," said Stephen Davis, senior manager of international PR at Yahoo, in an e-mail. "The agency's understanding of our business [goals], as well as its global expertise, makes them an excellent partner as we align our international activities."
Yahoo, as a global corporate citizen, came under scrutiny earlier this year for its business activity in China, along with Google, Microsoft, and Cisco Systems. Politicians and free-speech groups have lambasted the companies for censoring search results and for other concessions to the Chinese government in exchange for entrŽe to the Internet market there.
In February, the companies faced a withering barrage of criticism during a congressional hearing. Politicians accused the companies of collaborating with China's "regime of repression," said Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) at the hearings.
"China is a problem for a lot of companies right now," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group. "So Yahoo's selection of one of the larger global agencies is indicative that Yahoo is taking its overall image very seriously, and China is certainly a factor in that."
Yahoo has also faced criticism for turning over information to the Chinese government that led to the arrest of a Chinese journalist for allegedly leaking state secrets. Google has been lambasted for censoring search results, while Microsoft removed the blog of a Chinese journalist from its MSN Web site.
The companies are still feeling the heat. Free-speech advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RWB) recently went to Yahoo's headquarters with an ABC World News Tonight camera crew in tow. The organization wanted to meet with company executives, but instead met with security guards. CNET's News.com reported that after RWB member Julien Pain faced threats of being arrested for trespassing, Yahoo relented and arranged for a meeting with executives.
"They were just trying to handle some PR crisis," Pain told News.com. "It's a PR crisis? No, it's a human-rights crisis."
But the issue does pose the potential to become a PR crisis for Yahoo and is no doubt one of the first things PN will work on with the company.
Enderle said one silver lining for Yahoo, or for any of these companies, is that they're all lumped together and not singled out individually.
Peter Hirsch, partner and head of PN's corporate affairs practice, said the firm would work to increase coordination and consistency across global public affairs and international communications. He referred questions regarding China to Yahoo, which did not respond directly, saying only that PN would help Yahoo manage its global public affairs.
Yahoo cofounder Jerry Yang recently addressed the company's China policies, arguing that Yahoo could have a greater impact on the Chinese government by being in the market, as opposed to not being there at all.
But Yahoo and others will need to demonstrate that they are effecting change, asserted Enderle. If Yahoo and others can vindicate themselves before the media, public, and activists, it will only be when the companies can point to their success at softening China's culture of censorship when reporters ask, "Where is the change?" said Enderle.
While Yahoo did not previously work with a firm on global public affairs, it worked with Cohn & Wolfe on European corporate communications, while Text 100 handled the international work. Text 100 began working with Yahoo in March 2005, and the relationship ended in February. C&W participated in the review, but Text 100 did not.
In the past year, Yahoo has hired OutCast Communications, Hill & Knowlton, Sparkpr, and Euro RSCG Magnet. The company also works with Fleishman-Hillard, M Booth & Associates, and Bender/Helper Impact.