Picking a fight with China can be dangerous. But singer Lady Gaga has shown how it can be done without creating fresh reputational risks for yourself, your organisation or your sponsors.
When she posted pictures of herself interviewing the Dalai Lama the reaction from China was swift and predictable. Chinese Netizens posted messages such as: “The way the Chinese feel is just like you were shaking hands with Osama bin Laden,” and the Beijing Government promptly banned the singer from visiting the country.
However she had only just been taken off the “list of hostile foreign forces” after a previous three year ban, which may reflect that she is reportedly the most popular Western singer in China. The issue management lesson for dealing with China was that Madam Gaga said nothing, and neither did her sponsor Shiseido, for which she is the face of the brand in Japan.
Contrast this with what happened just a few weeks earlier when cosmetics giant Lancôme (owned by L’Oréal) cancelled a promotional concert in Hong Kong by local pop star Denise Ho, a high-profile advocate for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement who recently posted photos of herself with the Dalai Lama. The concert was cancelled for “possible security reasons” after Chinese protesters called for a boycott of Lancôme products, including Listerine mouthwash. The company briefly closed down their stores across Hong Kong as a safety measure (and later dumped Ho from advertising for Listerine, claiming its marketing had “entered a new phase.”)
Unlike Lady Gaga’s model of restraint, Denise Ho reacted with a full-scale media assault on Lancôme, driving an online petition, publicly challenging management to justify cancelling the concert, and accusing them of “kneeling down in the face of a bullying hegemony.” Writing in the South China Morning Post under the headline “Lancôme has only itself to blame for public relations fiasco,” columnist Alex Lo called the singer’s response: “Fine words – and just about every international corporation’s nightmare.”
A nightmare indeed, and hardly new. Think no further than when film star Sharon Stone declared that the devastating Szechuan earthquake was perhaps ‘karma’ for China not being nice to her friend the Dalai Lama. In the face of a threatened boycott, luxury brand Christian Dior had to quickly apologise and remove the actress from their advertising in China. Or when Procter and Gamble’s SKII cosmetics faced similar criticism in China for choosing as brand ambassador a Taiwanese model who supported Taiwanese independence from the mainland.
We have no particular view about the Dalai Lama, or about the political status of Hong Kong or Taiwan. But such cases highlight the critical importance of choosing the right celebrity to endorse your company. Plus of course highlighting the challenge of dealing with Chinese sensitivity, and the risk to reputation when advertising sponsorships go wrong.
When it comes to managing issues in a highly politicised environment, Lady Gaga showed that – sometimes – the right response may not be to reach for a cleverly-worded media statement or a sharp social media riposte, but to maintain a dignified silence.