English: Huawei Technology in Shenzhen, China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Rather than the noisy streets of London’s West End or the kitten covered cozy office of mine in Nottingham, I am bringing you this blog today from Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.
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I have travelled to the Far East for the first time in my life to visit the controversial but hugely successful Huawei; spending two days at its corporate headquarters in Shenzhen, China, and a further two days having meetings in the metropolis that is Hong Kong Island.
I cannot pretend it was a trip I took without reservations – and not because of my mother’s warnings to keep my political and social opinions to myself when on the mainland. The question that stuck in my mind on the build-up to the trip, the 11 hour flight and the two hour car ride after was would I actually see anything of the real company or would it all be too cleverly orchestrated to get a real sense of the headline-making network colossus?
My conclusion was a mixture of the two.
The PR machine is clearing in full swing and deliberate hires have been made over the past three years to try and win over Western media.
Take Joe Kelly. He worked as head of communications for BT Wholesale for many years – no easy task from a PR standpoint, I can assure you – but was poached by Huawei 10 months ago to work at its headquarters. The Irishman was by our sides in Shenzhen and was approachable, easy to get along with and had an instant rapport with the British journalists, making them feel more at ease. Very cleverly done Huawei. I see exactly why a) you hired him and b) you kept him close to us in China.
However, on the other side of things you have Scott Sykes, the American hired two years ago by the firm for the unenviable task of leading its international media relations and he was someone we were confronted with on our trip over the border to Hong Kong.
He was a very different character to Joe; less relaxed, arguably more controlled, but quite frankly rather intimidating. His answers to questions obviously toed the company line but they were sharp and he had an air of c level exec thinking our questions were unworthy, rather than an accommodating PR. The only glimmer of the usual positivity we have come to expect from Americans, especially in the PR industry, was when a colleague asked the chap whether he thought he had the most difficult job in communications. Then he smiled and gave a typical US answer of it being the best job in the world.
Over the week then, it felt like we had been eased in with the friendly homegrown press liaison but were being seen off by the representative of the country us Brits are used to being told off by.
This dichotomy seemed to sum up the week. For example, we were allowed access to executives but mostly those in marketing who had clearly been carefully selected themselves and were surrounded by large press teams, often attractive but silent women, which short, scruffy loud ones like me instantly find quite intimidating too.
We were given a tour of the ludicrously sized Shenzhen campus to get a sense of the sheer size and scale of its operations, but most of the areas we were let into seemed purpose built for public visits and were more exhibition halls than office workspaces or manufacturing.
So, the question really is when I leave later today, will I have gained the proof I wanted either way that Huawei are a trust worthy company or are a Chinese state machine we should all be watchful of? Unfortunately, I fear I still can’t answer that, even after travelling 6,000 miles to find out.
I am impressed by the scale, the dedication to research and development, the self-deprecating nature when talking about past product mistakes and the real desire to break out of its home market and become a real global name.
However, I am unimpressed by the lack of c-level executives willing to talk to us, the way we felt we were being kept on a lead when anywhere in its headquarters, the clinical appearance of the technology we were privy to and the conclusion of dealing with the US problem it had by calling the country sinophobic.
Don’t get me wrong, every large corporation has its high and low points and all have something to prove, but Huawei has the most to show and the biggest need to win people over.
There are positive steps that have been taken this week and I am pleased it plans to continue moving towards a more open way of doing business, but rather than giving the press marketing employees on message and carefully picked PR people, it is time to let us in to the belly of the beast to talk to the big guns in charge. Only then do I think the real inner workings will come to light and the more those lights are hidden, the darker Huawei appears.