Google, China and Brand Management

Google is walking a fine line.

On the one hand, they wanted to stay in the China market.  And why not?  There's a lot of money to be made there.

But what about that other hand?  The "Do No Evil" part that led one of the Google founders to be unhappy with the fact that the company was in China in the first place given that the searches were being censored?

Well, according to the new deal, the searches aren't being censored.  It's just that the sites are.  Or may be.

That's not Google's problem.

But is that really the case?

In a BBC interview, DJ Collins, Google's Head of European Communications, on being asked about that fine line between censorship of the results and censorship of the sites, said, "That's a different issue from saying that Google search, itself, is filtered, which, of course, it isn't.  But the access to some of those websites may be blocked according to what sites are blocked at any one time.  But that's different from saying that Google search, itself, is filtered."

This is one very fine line that the company is walking - not just with the Chinese government but with the perception of the company and its ethics worldwide.

Google likes to present itself as a good corporate citizen.  Socially responsible.  Providing information that everybody needs so that they can be best informed, make the best decisions, be the best citizens.

Do No Evil.

But when they have to tap-dance their way around their own answers...They're not filtering or censoring. It's the other guys....then their ethos becomes open for question in other arenas as well.

In Ken Auletta's wonderful book, Googled, he talks about exactly this dance and how it played out within the company even as the company was exploring entering the China market.  And even more as it played out when the "filtering" (because, let's note that it's not being referred to as "censorship" any longer) began.

And what about that cyber-attack that initially led Google to get out of China and begin redirecting its searches through Hong Kong - an unfiltered market for search results?  What happened to all the commentary by the company on protecting the information of its users?

Let's face it, Google is a very competitive company and, even though the advertising within search is its bread and butter, it has gone and continues actively working to go far beyond that arena for its revenues.

It has taken on Apple with its phones.  Microsoft with its Google Apps suite.  And with its Twenty Percent Days for ongoing innovation, it's just a matter of time before it takes on whoever and whatever is next.

Google is playing a long game.  Doing the deal and getting the license back in China wasn't just about search.  After all, it's such a distant - and becoming evermore distant - Number Two to Baidu for search in China, that this is about long-term presence and access to markets.  Not search.  And certainly not censorship. 

So, they did their deal and got back in - and that's all well and good.  The company will soon be presenting its quarterly results and the word on the street is that they're going to be good.

That's great news for shareholders - in the short term.  Because if Google is seen to be playing fast and loose with its reputation as a socially conscious company by tacitly supporting censorship - under any name - it risks its brand equity in the long run with the rest of the people who aren't sure they can take it at its word any longer to do what they promise.

No evil.

Twitter and Facebook vs. Corporate Reputation and Brand

Lately, I've been thinking about a website that was really, really big in the dotcom years that has, for years, been defunct.  It was called f***  (You have to fill in the asterisks for the correct site name.  I'm being polite.)

It was an insider's sort of site.  It reported news - and gossip - from within the various technology companies in the Silicon Valley.  It was the go-to resource to find out, initially, where you didn't want to work.  Eventually, it became the site that was reporting where there was no work any longer.

I had an up close and personal experience with that, myself, through one of my clients.

She was (and is) one of the best executives I've ever encountered.  Visionary.  Incredibly smart both operationally and in market strategy.  Created an environment for her employees that led to consistent business growth and innovation.  Truly excellent.

The company for which she worked was one of the beneficiaries of the early days of dotcom mania.  It was a relatively small company with a specialized integration technology that was used by and of interest to lots of larger players.  The company was even seeing unheard of occurrence in the dotcom days.

As a result, and not unexpectedly, it was part of a series of acquisitions into larger and larger players.  Until a big company decided to buy it.

Really big.  Like giant.  And not at all in the technology space.

And that was the end of the company for which this executive worked.  Within a couple of weeks of the acquisition, the employees found out that the company was being disbanded.  The patents on the technologies had been sold to another company - in the technology space - but the company, itself, was being shut down and all positions terminated.

They found out when one of them went visiting the f***edcompany site - only to find out that they were next on the list.

Interestingly, the executive was finally able to take a call from her employees - who had been bombarding her cell phone with messages asking if the posting was true - after she had just closed the biggest deal the company had ever experienced.  Tens of millions of early 2000s dollars for a relatively small player in one deal.  The next day she had to cancel it - because she was spending the next few weeks shutting down what had been a successful operation.

Granted, there are a lot of different pieces that can be discussed on this story, but the one I want to take on now is how information within and outside your enterprise moved back then - and now.  Most important, is understanding how that information movement can and does impact your brand and reputation - personal and corporate.

First, the proverbial "grapevine" is and will always be alive and well.  The problem now is that it's networked in ways that can make or break your company, its brand or your reputation in minutes.

Add to that the 24-hour news cycle - yes, for business, too - and you've got even more problems.  CNBC, Bloomberg and the rest are gathering and reporting news all day every day.  Their people are also trolling the blogs, Facebook, Twitter and all the other social networking sites with keyword searches 24/7 to stay on top of what's out there.

Or at least what's being said.

And even if you're a small player, your employees are out there, talking and looking out for one another's news, as if it was going to be broadcast any minute.  And it is.

In this case, viral really does mean viral.

All of which means that you need to be paying ever-closer attention to what's being communicated, how, by whom and through which mechanisms than you ever were before.  As well, your HR policies and any employment agreements that include discussions of intellectual property, patents and the rest are updated to reflect how information now moves.

Because, while in its day f***edcompany was the fastest tool around for getting the message out, now it might as well be a dial telephone.  One Tweet is all you need.  One really bad Tweet (especially with a hashmark) and the news - true or not - is out there.

Right now, there's a lot of talk about how social networking will help you build your company, its image, its relationship with customers, its marketshare and more.  And all of that is true.

But, there's a downside, as well - and that comes from not being as aware as you need to be about how those same technologies allow information movement coming from your own employees can work against you.

The value of your corporate reputation and brand - as well as your own - can be not only on the line, but also completely in others' hands unless you're paying attention.

There's nothing wrong with social networking.  In fact, it's an important new - and evolving - tool in an executive's and organization's toolbox.

You just have to remember that just as a hammer can be used to insert a nail, so, too, when not aimed correctly, does it smash your thumb.