Will China be Google's big mistake?

Google's potential exit from China has been welcomed outside the country, but is likely to have complex repercussions for the US search giant's global reputation.


PRWeek Global spoke to several PR specialists familiar with the situation, who pointed out that other foreign tech brands operating in China can also expect a heightened level of scrutiny from their audiences ‘back home'.

Last week, Google revealed it would stop censoring its search results in China, after suffering numerous cyber-attacks in the country. The decision is expected to result in the search giant exiting the world's largest internet market.

Outside China, Google's move drew a positive response from audiences eager to see Google act in line with its ‘don't be evil' positioning. This pledge has faced considerable scepticism in recent months, thanks to the company's actions on such issues as privacy, copyright and competition.

‘By and large it's a positive for its reputation back home in the US,' said one source at a Shanghai-based international PR agency. ‘For other foreign internet companies, it is pressure because it reawakens an issue most of them hoped would go away.'

The most visible of these is Microsoft, which, in addition to its Bing search engine, runs a large and diverse business in China. ‘It is going to be under more scrutiny than ever both back home and in China,' said the source.

Hampered reputation

Opinion is split over whether Google's reputation was a driving factor in its decision. ‘Google has been operating in China for a long time and it has had to confront the reputational fallout of operating here already,' said the source. ‘That wasn't the major issue even if it was an ongoing one.'

‘From a comms aspect, it's quite clear they have wanted to make people understand that there were factors they felt seriously impacted their business in China.'

Other observers, though, believe the move is a clear consequence of Google's continuing concerns after it entered China five years ago. Co-founder Sergey Brin, the author of Google's ‘don't be evil' motto, has publicly voiced his doubts over the move, which has not always sat well with the company's US workforce.

Wahida Ashiq, head of 931/2, a London comms agency specialising in Chinese brands, told PRWeek Global that Google may also appear ‘naïve' for pulling out now.

‘When Google went into China it compromised its brand integrity and now it is pulling out... it will risk damaging its brand further but in a different way, by appearing naive to have thought it could take on the Party,' said Ashiq.

The head of a multinational PR firm in China told PRWeek that Google was ‘trying to correct a mistake with another mistake'.

‘Google made an original mistake in violating its core principles and acceding to censorship demands in China,' he said. ‘Now it is making an additional mistake by publicly repudiating Chinese Government policy.  It could have alternatively simply stopped or phased out self-censorship.'

Split reaction

Google's decision has provoked a varied response within China, with several internet boards featuring messages of support. ‘There will be many people sorry to see it collapse,' said the Shanghai-based source. ‘But it was a foreign company in a market with a great deal of national pride, and there would always be people happy to see it go.'

‘While most users in China will support its stance against censorship and hacking, they won't look fondly on the company's tactless public criticism of their government,' said the agency head.

‘It will be perceived as a lack of maturity and sophisticated understanding of how things are done in China.' 

Thriving market

The response from the international business community may also be muted. Google accounts for approximately 35 per cent of China's search market, a relatively minor proportion of its $22bn global revenues.

‘I can't imagine business people will think much of the decision as the company is effectively turning its back on the single most important market for the foreseeable future,' said the agency head.

‘Further, I don't think it will take long for the media story to change tone from "sticking it to the man" to "Google was failing there anyway and looking for a face-saving way out".'

For foreign tech brands, meanwhile, an opportunity may arise to capitalise at Google's expense. ‘As a knock-on effect, China will be keen to show it is not anti-tech or anti-internet,' said the agency head. ‘It will want to demonstrate a willingness to work with an internet company by liberalising or permitting a previously closed activity.'

At present, several foreign internet sites remain blocked in China, including all of the major social networking and online video portals. Yahoo counts a small presence, which is run by e-commerce giant Alibaba.

The search market is dominated by home-grown player Baidu. ‘Local competitors may seize on this as an opportunity to position themselves versus their foreign competitors,' added the Shanghai-based source.

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