A controversy over the 251-day detention of a former Huawei employee by Chinese authorities has resulted in a backlash for the company, and its PR response so far has not helped matters.
The employee, Li Hongyuan, worked for Hauwei for 13 years up until early 2018. Huawei later reported him to police, accusing him of blackmail. He was taken into custody in December 2018 on suspicion of extortion, but released in August of this year. Authorities said there was insufficient evidence to back Huawei's claim, and awarded Li RMB 107,522 (US$15,238) in compensation for being wrongfully jailed.
On Monday (December 2), apparently in response to a growing outcry about the case, Huawei issued this statement:
Huawei has the right and the obligation to report suspected violations to the judicial authorities based on facts. We respect the decisions of the judiciary, including public security, prosecutors' offices and courts. If Li Hongyuan thinks his rights have been damaged, we support him to use legal weapons to defend his rights, including suing Huawei. This also reflects the spirit of the rule of law in which everyone is equal before the law.
For obvious reasons, this statement failed to calm the situation. "There is no empathy, and it is scary,” wrote one critic, who added that the statement boiled down to, "Sue me". Another well-known commenter wrote on Weibo that the statement, although "impeccable" from a legal perspective, did not respond to the emotions of the public with any warmth, and the company has "lost love" as a result.
A senior public relations executive, who spoke to Campaign China on the condition of anonymity, agreed that the statement was worded correctly, but felt cold. It's understanable that Huawei would need time to investigate and formulate a fuller response, but it should have issued a more empathetic statement first, this source said.
Because the arrest arose out of an apparent dispute about severence pay, the company should have focused on effective communication with employees and being open to good and constructive criticism, this executive said.
Huawei should still give consumers a better response, and the sooner the better, this executive said.
Another PR insider told Campaign China that the incident will have a big impact on not only Huawei's image as a consumer company but also its employer branding. "If this matter is not handled properly, it will further affect Huawei's customer-facing and consumer-facing brand image," this source said. Many corporate statements pay great attention to using precise language, but fail to address the audience's emotional state, this executive said. "I think this is also something to consider carefully," the source added.
"Tech companies need to improve their technology and reflect corporate social responsibility," one of our sources said. "How to build a strong employer brand is very important for consumers."
Huawei is also a reference for other brands. "As a company, you should have your own plan for social media, including preparations for responding to public-relations crises, and response to hot spots in online public opinion," the executive said. "You need a more optimized mechanism."
Asked whether Huawei should directly apologize for the employee's detention, the public relations person said the premise of an apology has to rest on the facts, and at this point it is impossible to see the full picture. "I think it's up to the real situation to decide whether to apologize for the incident itself," the source said. "But as a responsible business, there should be an apology."
The incident has also generated accusations that some articles about the case have disappeared from certain websites, raising concerns about companies exerting their influence to pressure media outlets to remove unflattering articles—perhaps with the assistance of PR companies. One of the executives Campaign China spoke to said that unless there is clear evidence an article is factually wrong or illegal, relevant laws and regulations do not encourage deletion.