Growing political and economic tension between the US, UK and other Western countries on one side, and China on the other, is now impacting comms professionals - both client-side and consultancy.
This was noticeable in Huawei’s decision this week to use British comms director Ed Brewster - formerly of Prudential, Three and Brunswick - as its front person here, appearing on many media outlets. It even prompted Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis to put Brewster personally on the spot: “But what is your job now if you’re UK comms director and the UK has shut the door?”
Emily Maitlis: “I’m sorry this is an uncomfortable question, but what is your job now if you’re UK Comms Director and the UK has shut the door?”#Newsnight’s @maitlis quizzes Huawei Communications Director Ed Brewster over the removal of the company's 5G technology from the UK pic.twitter.com/2rR2qcnRHj— BBC Newsnight (@BBCNewsnight) July 14, 2020
Meanwhile, comms leaders in the UK’s telecoms networks are having to tread a fine line in explaining how they are immediately removing Huawei kit from their nascent projects, while still promising to deliver world-leading infrastructure. BT/EE’s CEO Philip Jansen did a fine job when put in the media spotlight this week.
Last week, Amazon issued a directive to all staff to remove Chinese-owned social media phenomenon TikTok from all their work devices owing to ‘security concerns’. This directive was then withdrawn, with Amazon saying it was issued in error. But other US firms have banned TikTok.
In Australia a politician had expressed concern that TikTok presented a security risk, prompting the social media firm to complain to Australian MPs that it was becoming “a political football” amid “heightened tensions” between countries.
The growing row over China is impacting PR and public affairs agencies, too. It was China’s increasing clampdown on Hong Kong earlier this month that tipped the balance for the UK Government to ban Huawei’s 5G involvement. It has also discouraged US-owned PR agencies working for the region’s leadership.
Last month Edelman pulled out of the big ‘Relaunch Hong Kong’ campaign tender, joining a list of PR networks that are understood to have turned down the opportunity including Publicis-owned MSL and Omnicom-owned Fleishman.
The controversial account to burnish Hong Kong’s image abroad was awarded instead to Consulum, an independent shop set up in London and the Middle East by two former Bell Pottinger employees.
And the pressure is only growing on American businesses in particular to look at the clients they work for and their operations in Hong Kong and China.
This week US President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed into law the Hong Kong Autonomy Act passed by Congress that imposes sanctions on Chinese banks doing business with Chinese officials behind Beijing's security crackdown on Hong Kong.
“There are lots of consequences of this law for the big comms groups,” says one UK consultant who used to work for a US-headquartered group. “I know it’s going to be big problem for them, both in terms of the Chinese clients they work with, and their own operations in Asia.”
One US-based head of a global PR network says: “We don’t do any federal government work so we are less affected than others, but we’ve begun a wider strategic review of how we go to market in China.”
‘The China question’ is having an impact in the UK and Europe, too.
On a podcast this week, executive chairman of Cicero/AMO Ian Anderson, the UK’s biggest public affairs shop and now part of Havas, said: “The relationship with China is one of the key things on my desk right now. In many ways it is the new Brexit for public affairs.”
Some believe that any big consultancy may effectively be forced to choose sides. A UK agency chief tells me: “The world is divided into two camps; pro US or pro China. The internet will do the same. Comms will inevitably be part of this trade war. So the question is, which side are you on?”
It’s a question that has been around in the tech sector for quite a while. The director of a leading tech PR agency confides: “This is an issue that’s been growing for the past five or six years. Because we work for a lot of American tech businesses we’ve always said we wouldn’t work for Huawei, and we’re careful about working for Chinese or Russian tech businesses for the same reason.”
Meanwhile, smaller independent PR shops are able to take a more pragmatic view. The founder of a small but fast-growing PR shop says, “This is global geo-politics and I’m not sure how relevant it is for our sector when you compare comms to manufacturing or energy etc. There will always be agencies willing to take money and briefs, regardless of where it comes from.”
A director of a boutique UK corporate consultancy agrees: “It’s a problem for the US firms like Edelman and Teneo, less so for us. Indeed, it may be an opportunity for nimble firms who specialise in Asian connectivity.”
One wonders, however, whether working for Chinese brands threatens to become an ‘ethical’ issue on which any consultancy’s staff may take a view.
Following the Bell Pottinger scandal of 2017, good governance in PR agencies is now seen as allowing one’s staff to choose when certain clients or work is not acceptable.
Where once this meant tobacco or military work, increasingly staff may rebel on other types of client. One tech PR boss tells me his agency has turned down certain AI/data firms after the scandal over Cambridge Analytica and concern of other firms that have worked on the Brexit campaigns.
And this staff concern may extend to working for a client reflective of a particular political viewpoint.
Such worries may even extend to consultants based in Asia. One Singapore-based PR expert told me: “Here, it is more dependent on what the brand represents than whether or not it’s a Chinese brand. For example, TikTok and Huawei are not looking good at the moment from an international lens, so the pressure of representing those brands might crop up in the future if the problems escalate.”