Transparency key for Huawei following CFO release: former Huawei PR leaders

For years, the tech company has been used as political tool in US-China relations. We ask former Huawei PR leaders on advice for the brand moving forward.

Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou speaks to the media following her extradition hearing in Canada. (Getty Images)
Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou speaks to the media following her extradition hearing in Canada. (Getty Images)

Last month, Meng Wanzhou aka Sabrina Meng, CFO at Huawei, was released back to China following three years of house arrest in Canada. Meng was detained in 2018 on US fraud charges at the request of the US, and the situation further soured US-China relations.

Meng’s release also seemed to stir an increased sense of nationalism in China, driven by Huawei’s status as a homegrown innovative tech company. 

Former VP of global corporate communications at Huawei, Walter Jennings, told PRWeek Asia that when he was working for the company between 2015 and 2018, there was much pride attached to being an employee at the company.

“In Shenzhen, wherever you went, if you mention to someone that you work for Huawei, they would look at you and say ‘wow’,” said Jennings. “It's one of the top 100 brands in the world, it has expanded successfully. So there is a large sense of pride within China about the success of the company.”

This sense of pride that Jennings referred to is linked to China’s celebration upon Meng’s return. For example, Meng’s flights back to her home country was tracked by thousands of anticipating locals and she received a hero’s welcome at the international airport in Shenzhen. A video of the executive mouthing ‘I love you’ to her husband also went viral, and quickly became the most-searched clip on Weibo.

“When we look at the celebrations around the return of Sabrina, perhaps we're seeing a little bit of that pride in the company,” said Jennings. “Because it also became a proxy for dispute between the US and China that was successfully included for all parties involved, so this was a win-win for everyone. And there might have also been a sense of relief as well.” 

Despite this wave of jubilation in China, the brand’s reputation overseas—particularly among Western powerhouses—remains cloaked in scepticism. Jennings said that it’s inevitable that the brand be used as a tool in US-China tensions, and that it remains a “significant barrier” for Huawei.

However, the release of Meng could mean that “irritating headlines” about Huawei from the global media could mellow, allowing the brand to go back and focus on their business, according to Jennings.

Benjamin Howes, former Huawei communications executive and corporate spokesperson, told PRWeek Asia that his advice for the brand moving forward would be to learn from these past years of heightened adversity. And in doing so, it should strengthen the Huawei corporate narrative, voice, and brand.

“Heed the advice of Huawei communications experts, invest in brand management, implement a holistic and integrated communications strategy and proactively engage with stakeholders,” said Howes.

He added that in many ways, Huawei was already on the right track towards building trust: “It has done well to cast away falsehoods and mystery surrounding itself by opening its doors and inviting stakeholders in. This transparency helps remove scepticism and builds trust."

Xiaofeng Wang, principal analyst at Forrester, told PRWeek Asia that while Meng’s release is positive news to Huawei, it doesn’t remove the key challenges that Huawei has been facing in the short term, particularly in overseas markets, as long as the US sanctions haven’t been lifted. 

“In the long term, these disruptions and challenges make Huawei more determined to invest in technology and innovation to solve the problems of supply continuity and competitiveness. It also inspires other Chinese tech firms to think more about technology independence, innovation, and supply chain strategies to be more resilient in coping with existing and upcoming challenges,” said Wang.

Meanwhile, Jennings is critical of the way the West continues to view Chinese tech companies and their offerings. He said: “Looking at their political affiliations and their political relations, you will find that Huawei, Alibaba, Tencent, and others have very strong relations throughout Asia, Africa, throughout most of Europe, and South America. So you'll find that many countries of the world are evaluating this less through a political lens, and more from a straight business perspective. They think, is this good technology? Does this solve our need? Can we get it cheaper elsewhere?”

On advice for Chinese tech companies to appear more positively in the West, Jennings suggested transparency over communications. 

He said: “It really is a case of being forthright with the relationships, opening conversations, and finding aligned influencers who can help educate. We may fear the unknown so I would suggest [tech companies] endeavour to get a conversation going and maintain it. And sometimes that might reveal awkward truths or information that you're not as comfortable with, but that allows trust to be built over time.”

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