In the current political climate in China, communications efforts of companies and NGO’s need to be transparent and targeted towards win-win scenarios. This is the essence of the fifth Sino-German Communications Forum in Shanghai. At the event, panelists from World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Dr. Oetker and Beiersdorf AG shared their experiences in dealing with government officials, state-funded associations as well as the general public in China.
When a family run business has survived since 1891, it is unlikely that there is anything in modern China to be scared of. Nikolas Oetker of the famous German family-run conglomerate called to lead by example when it comes to stakeholder communication in China. Oetker, who is general manager in the Shanghai office of the company, recommended to be transparent and to act well in order to get things done. When his company build a new food processing plant in China, authorities criticized that a fire wall was not build up to standard. At the same time, it was mentioned that for some payment off the books, things could be smoothed out. Instead of giving in, Oetker just asked for the wall to be torn down and rebuild exactly according to the Chinese regulations. Ever since, Chinese officials realized that no money can be extorted from his families company. Oetker called on the managers and executives at the Sino-German Forum to seek building trust with the different stakeholders in China. „The government in China plays a bigger role than in Germany, for example,“ Oetker said, “but the government actually wants to reach real goals.“
On elephants, bulls and chickens
Dealing with government agencies has been daily business for Wenwei Ren of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Ren is in charge of the protection of the Yangtze river basin at the internationally renowned nature conservation organization. Along the waterway, 40 percent of China’s GDP is produced. That is why the river suffers from severe pollution, endangering animals like the Yangtze river dolphin and an endemic alligator. Other species are already extinct. In order to protect the important natural habitat, WWF at the beginning had to work merely with Chinese government agencies. Later on, other stakeholders like community groups and company representatives came into play. In order to create more awareness and to instigate collective action for the protection of the environment, WWF had to change its communications strategy accordingly. „In China, the government represents an elephants leg,“ Dr. Ren explained, „while corporations are more like a bulls leg and non-governmental organizations like a chickens leg.“ In stakeholder communications, one needs to accept this imbalance as a fact, that the civil society and its structures in China are not yet as advanced as in First World countries. Nevertheless, he stressed that communications efforts should try to encourage government on a local or national level to do better. Instead of blunt criticism it would be necessary to give officials options for actions, so that they are more comfortable and more eager to become involved. Ren also stressed that in his opinion, Beijing wants to promote the vision of an „eco civilization“ in China.
Argue with the government, but let it save face
Beiersdorf’s head of legal and government affairs, Ketin Lei, had to deal with some difficult tasks since he joined the Hamburg based consumer goods producer. In 2010, an accident at one of its Chinese suppliers left six people dead and eight wounded. Lei shared his experiences when communicating with the different stakeholders involved. In his presentation, he stressed that internal communications would need to come first, in order to pacify the situation. Fact finding would be the next essential mission in order to have a bullet-proof line of argument when facing officials, media and general public. As a third lesson, he stressed the need to address the legal requirements. At same time it would be crucial to search for compromises, as saving face would be key to getting things done in China. Having a dedicated person or team to deal with matters when communicating to stakeholders in China, would also be imperative. In his experience, government officials in China would too often sacrifice normal business interests for their own careers sake. A daunting challenge for stakeholder communications. „In China, people say, you don’t argue with the government,“ Lei said, „but I do have a different opinion.“ As a way out of the quagmire, Lei recommended to help those in charge to do something good for society. He also stressed that it would be better for companies, to keep some distance to the government. „Don’t be too close,“ Lei said. Beiersdorf made positive experiences with supporting local music concerts and organizing a year end dinner with a buffet for employees and guests as a way to improve ties with local officials without involving them in any activities that could be regarded as suspicious.
Toothless media and grey eminences
In addressing questions from the audience on the role of the press in China, Nikolaus Oetker said that in general, he does not think that the media are a particularly useful tool for change in the country. Ketin Lei added, that social media would be a crucial tool in China when communicating to stakeholders, as newspapers and most TV and radio stations are state owned. Retired former government officials, on the other hand, could play an important role in bringing messages across to the current local or national administration. Many former officials would still keep close ties to their successors, so reaching out to these grey eminences and getting them involved could also be a golden opportunity in stakeholder communications in China.