Monday, March 17, 2008

Will the Tibet Crackdown Put a Kink in Corporate Sponsorship of Beijing Olympics?

With Chinese troops in the streets of Lhasa and an estimated 50-80 already dead while unrest spreads to ethnic Tibetan enclaves in the Sichuan and Gansu provinces, more violence can be expected. George Clooney was already making news in the run-up to the Olympics about pressing Omega, the company that he promotes watches for and a 2008 Olympics sponsor, to “talk” to China about the Sudanese government’s policies in the Darfur region. Long-time Tibetan campaigner Richard Gere is already making the circuit backing the Dalai Lama’s calls for an investigation by the international community into what he terms China’s policy of “cultural genocide”. Mind you the airtime won’t hurt Gere’s fading career either. Meanwhile, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge issued a statement expressing concern about the Chinese government’s crackdown in Tibet and calling for [I kid you not] “an appeasement as soon as possible”. Let’s hope that’s a translation issue. Nevertheless, he was quick to forcefully reject any talk of a boycott of the games to be held in Beijing later this year.

This is going to make things tricky for Olympic sponsors in a way that the Darfur issue hadn’t yet. Clooney and Spielberg making noise over the Chinese government’s unwillingness to confront client state Sudan over its human rights abuses is one thing. Scenes reminiscent of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests - and don’t think that B roll isn’t coming out of the can this week - while the Nobel Peace Prize winning Dalai Lama talks about the oppression of his people is going to be quite another. So are the likes of McDonalds, Omega, Visa, GE, Kodak, Coca Cola, Johnson & Johnson, etc., ready to address the pressure they may come under in coming weeks? Omega doesn’t look ready. In response to their own spokesman Clooney’s call to action, the company issued a statement saying its policy is “not to get involved in politics”. That might have held water over the Sudan, but it isn’t going to cut it over Tibet.

So what can they do? Let’s assume that withdrawing from the games is not a viable option at this time. Unless things get considerably worse in China, there will be no boycotts and sponsors with millions in sunk costs are not going to walk away from the Olympics. But they face the prospect of several months of dancing around China’s issues and, potentially, facing consumer boycotts over their failure to address those issues head on.
Here are some strategies that the non-Chinese sponsors of the games should consider:

Safety in Numbers”. Were a large number of the non-Chinese sponsors (nobody can seriously expect the Chinese companies to act, can they?) to adopt the same approach, the safety of the herd would likely protect them from the wrath of Beijing. A joint appeal, rather than demand, to the Chinese government to use the games as a platform for making a more robust commitment to human rights both at home and abroad could be worded in such a way so as to appease most of their Western consumers and critics while not overly provoking the Chinese government. Of course, Beijing has traditionally not reacted well to this sort of pressure and signature sponsors run the risk of alienating a billion Chinese consumers. This approach would likely work well if a sufficient number of sponsors opted in. Without support by a substantial number of sponsors, it is unlikely that any smaller number of sponsors or single company would feel secure enough to undertake what Beijing would likely view as confrontation.

Do the Hustle”. Well, not literally. But in the great tradition of politics, when criticized about a specific instance of poor judgment, a transgression etc., dance around it while talking about all the other great work one has done. In this instance, companies would acknowledge and “express concern” about China’s human rights record, state that they do not involve themselves in politics, and then go on at length about their own social responsibility programmes and initiatives. Provided things don’t get much worse with Tibet between now and the games and provided there are no well-organized consumer boycott campaigns, this strategy is the safest bet. Listening to corporate flaks drone on about corporate social responsibility is so boring that the media are likely to turn down the heat on sponsors just so they don’t have to endure the experience.

Smoke and Mirrors”. A variation on “the Hustle”, this is essentially about buying absolution. If a company can’t afford to anger the Chinese government, there are plenty of governments that it can. Now may be the time for example to divest from unprofitable operations in Colombia over allegations that right wing factions with government connivance are targeting union leaders for intimidation or worse. Setting up a fund to help soon to be unemployed workers there and making a big donation to a civil society organization in the country of choice would all allow the company to talk about its serious commitment to human rights while dodging the China issue with “…one country at a time, we’re involved in a serious course of action in Ruritania right now and don’t want to diminish focus on that critical process at this juncture”. It would certainly get them through the games.

Masterful Inactivity”. A time-honoured classic and the default mode for most large organizations, it could also be named “toughing it out”. Companies don’t actually “do” anything about criticism over sponsorship of the 2008 Olympics and hope that media and consumer pressure never mount to a level where any action is required. As a sort of pressure release valve, they formulate some bland language about how their “engagement” in China will contribute to the further development of civil society and improved human rights, how “criticism from afar is unlikely to produce any results” and how their support for the games and increasing involvement in the Chinese economy “will ultimately give us a stronger voice at the table”, without suggesting what words that voice might utter. Unless things do deteriorate further in Tibet over the next week or so, or unless another big issue emerges in the coming months, this strategy is a pretty safe bet. Of course, if things do get worse and criticism mounts, “masterful inactivity” puts a company behind the curve and could exacerbate a problem that a somewhat more proactive approach would have been able to manage.

Unfortunately neither of my learned commentators was available to join in today’s post. The Bleeding Heart is apparently in an ashram somewhere in Northern California spinning prayer wheels at a frantic pace, while the Bloated Plutocrat is allegedly busy at a board meeting… Shanghai.

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