BBC posts article “Davos 2010: ‘Perceptions of China are wrong’”

The boss of metals giant Alcoa, Klaus Kleinman, has said there are a lot of misconceptions about China in the West.Speaking on a panel at Davos, Mr Kleinman said it was important to challenge the notion that China was not doing its bit for the environment. For example, China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, had brought in new rules for smelting aluminium he said. We have seen Chinese companies changing their ways, “but perception counts”, he told the audience of business leaders.

BBC, 29 January 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/8487524.stm

Yes and no. New rules for aluminium smelting still leave China with huge environmental problems, and yet it justifies this with the inane argument that “the West did it, so we will too.” Similar arguments can be heard frequently in Russia.

Stephen Schwarzman…, the American billionaire head of private equity group Blackstone, said that people had a vision of China as being made up of just big polluting cities and that the view was often that if it could stage an event as astonishingly well as the Olympics then they ought to be able to do more to clean up their cities. “China is very flexible as a culture – extremely high energy and that’s the makings of a dynamic economy and culture,” he said.

BBC, 29 January 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/8487524.stm

His comments are true, but reflect the poor thinking of many people.

China’s “coming out parade” at the Olympics created the desired effect of “shock and awe”, but was the result of intense focused effort on achieving a single and specific goal, and failed utterly to prevent critics pointing out the country’s many problems.

This approach is typical of poorer countries. The USSR notched up series of firsts in space, had a huge military and turned out world-class athletes and chess players. It was far less successful in the economy and football, where the global competition was much tougher.

Despite all the current problems, the West and Japan still boast diversified economies and much higher living standards and environmental standards and higher standards of education, research and technology. And they can put on global events like the World Cup and the Olympics in their stride, even thought the economics don’t always add up.

Poor countries such as Russia and China find it easy to put a lot of effort into a few areas – they are finding that reaching the goal of Western standards right across the board is much harder.

John Zhao from the Chinese investment firm Hony Capital stressed that China must improve the way it communicates with the rest of the world. He added that he had learned in the US “that companies must never get carried away with their own PR. The same applies to China.”

BBC, 29 January 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/8487524.stm

This is the wrong lesson. PR is still usually seen as something rather separate from a company, but this view is now hopelessly out of date.

Companies that fail to integrate and harmonise their vision, mission, strategy, products, services, action and communications are quickly found out by netizens and stakeholders all over the world.

As with Russia and many countries in the CIS, the best way for China to change its image for the better is better policies. Better communications can build on that, but not change the underlying situation.

It’s a lesson many companies – and most countries – still do not understand.

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