I had the distinct pleasure of participating in California’s first ever China Week in Los Angeles last week. The event brought together 350 Chinese businesspeople with political and business leaders from across California to explore potential investment and engagement opportunities. Both California Governor Jerry Brown and State Treasurer John Chiang spoke in enthusiastic terms about how the state welcomes Chinese investment and will work to smooth obstacles and help ensure success.
During the session, I moderated a panel on “Succeeding in America and Cross-Border Business,” which explored some of the cultural, legal, financial and communications challenges facing Chinese companies as they move West. The insights from our expert panelists and the questions and anecdotes from the audience were a vivid reminder that while California and most of the US is indeed open for business, real barriers exist.
To state the obvious, China and the US have different governmental, legal, economic and financial systems – not to mention different languages and cultures. While these barriers can indeed be overcome, they must be understood and carefully managed. A robust communications effort can play a major role in managing these challenges and driving the long-term success of Chinese investments in the US.
Here are Five Communications Guidelines that can help Chinese businesses overcome the challenges of investing in a new and sometimes difficult market:
- Build the Communications Plan in Tandem with the Business Plan. Creating a strong, credible narrative about the business and its benefit to the US market at the outset is critical. Deploying that narrative as soon as any deal is finalized and then telling the story consistently (internally and externally) will help minimize any misunderstanding of the deal and reduce opposition from media, politicians, community activists and employees.
- Turn Stakeholders into Ambassadors. Those closest to the investment – employees and local political and community leaders – should be provided access and information that allows them to understand the long-term benefits of the deal and then given the tools and platform to express their support. Endorsements from these stakeholders provide validation and credibility that can enhance the business and the brand. Take for example the reaction in Texas to an investment by TPCO America, a subsidiary of Tianjin Pipe Company, to build a new pipe plant in Corpus Christi. “We’ve got FDI (foreign direct investment) coming to the US with this project. Everyone should be happy with the signal that this sends,” according to John LaRue, executive director of Port of Corpus Christi. This type of endorsement requires ongoing communications and cultivation, but pays significant business benefits.
- Demonstrate a Concrete Commitment to Communities. Communications and relationships will be significantly enhanced by taking actions that show an ongoing commitment to being part of the community. Strong Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives are critical. These should include both philanthropy and direct involvement by leadership and employees. Importantly, those who benefit from these programs will almost certainly become brand ambassadors.
- Develop a Crisis Management Plan. Even the best run businesses experience unexpected problems that left unchecked can damage brand reputation and potentially the business. This is especially true when entering a new market with all of the possible land mines. The best way to mitigate a crisis is to be prepared in advance to address the issue and then communicate quickly and thoroughly with all affected stakeholders. Developing a crisis manual, communications protocols and conducting training are essential to preventing an unforeseen event from derailing the business.
- Ensure Internal Alignment. Workplace cultures tend to differ between China and the US and new ownership is always unsettling for management and employees. As a result, clear communications at the outset around the corporate vision, expectations and plans is essential. This will create trust and boost morale, helping ensure a smooth transition and a successful business.
While the legal, cultural and language barriers will always be a challenge for firms moving into a new complex market, following these Communications Guidelines can help create a strong corporate brand reputation and drive long-term business success.