Extreme Beijing Makeover

Three top PR pros tell BusinessWeek how they would guide China through its Olympic Games crisis

A hailstorm of criticism has beset China ahead of the Beijing Olympics. The Games have become a lightning rod for China's human rights record and for its dealings with the pariah regime in Sudan. The crackdown in Tibet has further sullied the nation's image in the eyes of the West. It all adds up to an outsize public relations challenge for a government that, despite its ability to sway its own citizens, has never been particularly adept at winning over the international media. In other words, this is a dream assignment for crisis managers and spin doctors. We asked three PR pros to explain how they would advise the Chinese government if it were a client. Their responses, as it were, are all over the map.


Abernathy's firm is a crisis-management boutique that is currently helping Yahoo! fend off Microsoft's hostile takeover bid. Abernathy's instinct is to personalize China and put the focus firmly back on the Olympics. "It's easy to hate the Chinese government," he says, "but it's a lot harder to dislike individuals." Abernathy would find attractive, English-speaking Chinese women and a "couple of sweet little 19-year-old gymnasts" and put them on the talk-show circuit. "I'm not talking Chris Matthews or Tim Russert—I'm talking Good Morning Des Moines at 6 a.m., to talk about how great the Olympics are going to be." He'd demand control over the interviews, saying: "We'll have the Chinese version of gymnast Mary Lou Retton do flips on camera but provide only noncommittal answers about the conflict. We're here to talk about little Mary Lou's flips, not geopolitics." The idea, of course, is to change the subject. "You want to make people like the Olympics because it's sweet little girls and athletes doing what athletes do best," Abernathy says. "That way it becomes a personal thing and less of a geopolitical issue."


Sitrick is an attack dog—and he doesn't care who says so. Over the years he has protected everyone from Halliburton to Halle Berry. First, he recommends, pore over the press coverage for inaccuracies and aggressively set the record straight. Then address the political controversy decisively by offering a respected show like 60 Minutes a one-on-one interview with a high-ranking Chinese official. After that, he suggests, go on a full-court press to return the focus to the Olympics. Sitrick says he'd recruit Olympic stars and have them talk about what the Games mean to them. Get them to say that while they agree with some of the protesters' views, the protesters shouldn't jeopardize what the Olympic Games stand for. The payoff: "You might spawn a backlash against the protesters."


Kempner is PRWeek's "Person of the Year" for 2008. He represents Nikon, Volkswagen, Samsung, and others. Kempner says China has little understanding of the art of image-crafting but notes that the best PR in the world can't overcome the geopolitical realities. "The Chinese should call together an international panel on Tibet to show their willingness to at least discuss the issue," he says. Kempner argues that China should reach out to human rights organizations and try to persuade them to talk up issues on which China has a decent record or has at least made progress in recent years. He cites the jobs the Olympics has created and the progress Beijing has made on cleaning up the environment. "At this point, the conversation about China will never be 100% positive," Kempner says. "But they should at least try to bring in some balance."

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