Multi-tiered communication vital to global firms in China

Leo Zhang
Global CEOs need a better understanding of China. Improving government-corporate communication on policies, businesses, livelihoods, and information is therefore vital.
Leo Zhang

Foreign investment has again been a top priority for Shanghai at the Two Sessions, an annual gathering of legislators and political consultants to discuss the city's future growth blueprint.
Shanghai Mayor Gong Zheng said in the city's government work report that foreign capital utilization hit a record US$24 billion, reinforcing the city's status as an international industry hub. By 2023, Shanghai attracted 65 additional multinational regional headquarters and 30 more foreign-funded R&D centers.
The numbers speak for themselves, but I'd like to offer some illuminating experiences from local branch employees of global corporations. These stories may reveal ways the city has the appeal of attracting more foreign investors.
The first case shows the promotion of a prominent foreign-funded company's China CEO to global headquarters after several years in China. He initiated online lectures with Chinese colleagues and other experts to share China's marketing tactics and communication channels with colleagues abroad. Detailing how Shanghai-based colleagues could adapt projects to local conditions boosted the company's reputation in China and created corporate growth opportunities. The project's focus on sharing insights from real-world cases garnered interest from colleagues at the global headquarters.

In the second case, the CEO of a major pharmaceutical multinational company in China visited the headquarters several times last year to engage with various business functions regarding the Chinese market situation. While originally reporting to her immediate supervisor, she began communicating with parallel and functional departments. She wanted to provide colleagues with a more balanced view of China than what was being reported by CNN or Reuters. She argued that good communication was about sharing perspectives and possibilities and minimizing misunderstandings.

The third example involves the removal of the Chinese CEO of a medium-sized global corporation. The Chinese staff then briefed the new CEO, who hails from another emerging market and has some knowledge of China. The China team invited the CEO to a community charity event. The CEO interacted with local consumers and volunteers, offering a first-hand perspective. A short video, "A Day in the Life of a CEO," was produced to tell a simple story. This video received a positive response after it was shared on the company's global platform.

These aren't isolated cases. Chinese teams in global firms are undertaking similar projects to tell their headquarters about the Chinese market. Through internal staff sharing meetings, guest lectures, and quarterly publications, they improve communication with the headquarters.

Global corporations operating in China are emphasizing the need to align with their headquarters for local success. The goal is to coordinate possibilities, conduct risk assessments, and potentially secure operational autonomy in China. In the face of geopolitical and economic uncertainty, they are actively "telling China stories" to attract greater investment and development for their Chinese personnel and resolve any misunderstandings or misjudgments.

China-based teams must communicate more with global teams to minimize internal and external issues that can cause misalignment. Global CEOs need more opportunities to learn about China from government leaders, ecosystem stakeholders, and even ordinary citizens.

There are lessons for the city on how to promote itself globally. The solution is straightforward: provide facts, data, and anecdotes to facilitate storytelling. There is a growing demand for multi-tiered information channels to meet the communication needs of global companies. These companies increasingly need business information consultants and third-party research organizations in addition to relying on the media. The key is improving government and corporate ability to communicate effectively on policy matters, business insights, livelihood updates, and service information to the world.

(The author is an adjunct research fellow at the Research Center for Global Public Opinion of China, Shanghai International Studies University, and founding partner of 3am Consulting, a consultancy that specializes in global communications.)

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