State visit rife with symbolism, comms subtleties for Xi, Obama

Both President Obama and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping will be keeping one eye on their legacies during next week's extensive state visit. The trip will have implications for US businesses, as well.

President Barack Obama, with China's President Xi Jinping, delivers remarks prior to participating in their bilateral meeting at the G20 Summit, Sept. 6, 2013 in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
President Barack Obama, with China's President Xi Jinping, delivers remarks prior to participating in their bilateral meeting at the G20 Summit, Sept. 6, 2013 in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the US has put a spotlight on tensions between the two countries, specifically regarding China’s rigid policies on foreign investment and allegations that it has allowed cyber spying and theft against US commercial interests.

US President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart will have to walk a communications tightrope if the visit is to be perceived as a success with each of their respective audiences, public affairs experts tell PRWeek.

Each leader will want to be seen as having advanced the relationship between the two nations, but without appearing as if they’ve admitted fault or capitulated to the other’s demands or wishes.

The communications implications extend beyond the two nations’ leaders. Business executives will also have to get the right messages across.  

Scott Kronick, president and CEO of Ogilvy Public Relations Asia-Pacific, says that "in my 20 years of living and working in China, the US-China relationship has been a roller-coaster, but this visit is packed with a number of significant events and discussions."

One of the most encouraging is a dialogue session in Seattle with business leaders, including technology executives talking about their long-term prospects in China, he notes.

"Many international companies have invested significantly in China under previous conditions that provided for equal opportunities, [but] China has become more difficult for multinational companies to operate," Kronick adds.

However, he says the Seattle visit demonstrates a willingness to have "a more open and direct discussion about a level playing field."

Some reports have suggested the Obama administration is unhappy with the stop in Seattle. Political observers also note that when former Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the US in 2006, his first stop was at a Boeing factory in Seattle.

Hu even gave a warm embrace to a Boeing employee who presented him with a baseball bat sporting the Boeing logo, which prompted a photo op published by media worldwide.

Few expect Xi to engage in such a warm and fuzzy display this time around, yet some public affairs pros note he is a savvy communicator with personal ties to the US. Xi participated in an exchange program that allowed him to study in Iowa, and his daughter attended Harvard University.

Xi is expected to start his visit on Tuesday in Seattle, where his itinerary includes a roundtable organized by The Paulson Institute and a Chinese trade promotion group. The event reportedly will include 15 chief executives of major US companies including Microsoft, Amazon, and Boeing. The panel will also feature the same number of Chinese companies, including Internet giant Alibaba.

Xi is also expected to have dinner with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates at his estate.

The Chinese president will then travel to Washington, where he will be feted at a White House state dinner on Friday, followed by New York, where he will give a speech to the United Nations General Assembly three days later.

"It has almost become standard operating procedure for the Chinese to do something outside of Washington first that is very positive, before heading east to discuss heavier issues," says Bill Black, president of the Greater Washington China Investment Center. "It is all part of a carefully managed messaging program."

Marc Ross, co-founder and partner at Caracal Strategies, agrees the Seattle trip may provide China with some positive news for the business community in the US, but he questions the extent of its scope.

"If you look at President Xi’s schedule, he is meeting with some of the top American CEOs, but no small business owners and very few entrepreneurs," he tells PRWeek. "I think this is a missed opportunity for him to engage more Americans of different walks of life, to make a broader connection of the benefits of the economic relationship."

Ross notes a recently released Pew Research Center survey shows 54% of Americans have an unfavorable view of China, as opposed to 38% who have a favorable opinion. The survey also found that six-in-10 Republicans (63%) give China an unfavorable rating, as compared with 51% of independents and 50% of Democrats.

"I think there are a lot of Americans that want to be positive about China but don’t feel connected or part of the relationship," says Ross, who has recommended clients should take a more proactive approach to building a positive dialogue about the economic benefits of US-China relations.

In a memo to clients, he urged them to place op-eds in local or national papers in the US from senior company leadership, sponsor and participate in events and roundtables with stakeholders from China, and use internal newsletters and social media to communicate benefits of the visit.

Looking 18 to 39 months out, he also suggests businesses, among other organizations, launch a China executive exchange or sabbatical program and build a government-relations program with an emphasis on the US-China relationship to US commerce.

"The engagement right now is happening at such a high, elite level that it is frankly hard for the average American to feel connected with it," states Ross.

Speaking at the Business Roundtable in Washington on Wednesday, Obama said cybersecurity "will probably be one of the biggest topics I discuss with President Xi."

The White House confirmed last month that sanctions against China were being prepared at the highest levels. However, other news reports, including from media in China, stated that officials from the two countries have reached an agreement on several cybersecurity issues.

"If there is an agreement, I think people will be suspicious of it, so President Obama will have to demonstrate its toughness," Black says. "I think that will be one of the most interesting things to watch – how this issue is managed in terms of delivering real action, yet showing a certain toughness to the Chinese."

He adds the US will have to tread especially carefully, given that Xi is at the start of his term and "will want to demonstrate that he is a respected world leader."

"It is important from his perspective that the messages back to China show he has been treated with a respect and recognition that he is one of the top leaders in the world. He can’t be seen as being brow-beaten by Americans over the various issues of controversy," explains Black.

Public affairs pros say that could be why Obama is holding a state dinner for the Chinese president, a grand gesture that Obama has used infrequently in part because of its expense at a time of economic difficulty, says Nedra Pickler, MD of strategic communications at Glover Park Group. Pickler recently joined the firm after 17 years covering the White House for the Associated Press.

"It almost seems like with China that President Obama is following the adage, ‘You keep your friends close and your frenemies closer,’" says Pickler.

She notes that Obama is writing the final chapters of his presidency, and he likely views China as an important part of that. The two nations, for instance, are expected to update their landmark deal signed a year ago on cutting greenhouse gas emissions next week.

"President Obama is working towards his legacy, and that’s the reason why he wants to keep China close," she says. "The big question will be what happens after the visit. If it’s positive progress after all these adversarial meetings, that would add significantly to his legacy."

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