Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Foxconn's Rx for Suicide Prevention: Try PR!

Foxconn, maker of iPhones, iPads and Dell Computers is notorious for its ghastly treatment of its workers in China, to the extent that at least 12 laborers have killed themselves this year. So, what do you do if you want to save lives and prevent suicides? If you answered "treat workers humanely every day" or "show you care" or "end sweatshop conditions" you'd be wrong. The answer, according to Foxconn: hire a PR firm! That's right, instead of fixing a problem, you can just pretend it's been fixed, all through public relations.

Under pressure from Dell, HP, Apple and world opinion, Foxconn, a Taiwan-headquartered company with 900,000 employees in China, decided to clean up its act. It has provided modest wage increases to staff to try to end the spate of suicides. The company has installed suicide-prevention nets around buildings to try stop the preferred method of death. And, they hired Burson Marsteller, a US PR company.

The big PR firms are of course notorious for not being so choosy about who they wind up in bed with. Burson Marsteller has (not sure if they still do) worked with tobacco giant Phillip Morris/Altria for years in Asia. One of my former employers was doing PR to try to clean up the image of deposed Thai Prime Minister (and fugitive from justice) Thaksin Shinawatra. PR companies are constantly working for the wrong side (like Brunswick PR and Ogilvy, who work for BP), so this should come as no surprise. We explored their lack of ethics overseas in an earlier post.

Instead of working long-term to change their company culture, treat workers decently and show the world how they've changed, Foxconn is now resorting to PR stunts. As a colleague used to say "it's just pink paint" (as in, don't fix a problem, just paint over it in a pretty color).

So we get word that the company is forcing its staff to trot out for "motivational rallies" reminiscent of something in Pyongyang.  The Huffington Post has the story and shockingly Mao-esque photos (here). Forget that it looks absurdly stage managed and the workers mostly look bored or miserable, but who is this for? Is this for the "Terry" on the signs they are forced to carry ("Terry" Guo, the president of Foxconn)? Is it a big show to impress "dear leader" with the "spontaneity" and joy of his people?
One activist said Foxconn's Wednesday rally was unlikely to boost morale and does not replace the need for more thoroughgoing reforms."I don't think today's event is going to achieve anything except provide a bit of theater," said Geoffrey Crothall, spokesman of the China Labor Bulletin, a labor rights group based in Hong Kong. "Basically what Foxconn needs to do is treat its workers like decent human beings and pay them a decent wage. It's not rocket science. They're still tackling this from a top-down approach, they are organizing the workers. They're not allowing the workers to organize themselves."
 This story has been burning up the internets, and a commenter on Gizmodo had a good point:
It's sad how many companies think that a "Team Building" party alone can raise morale. It's actually an insult if the rest of their actions stink. If you beat your wife all week but buy her a dozen roses on Friday afternoon expecting sudden happiness you're likely to get a smack on the face. Treat your employees well every day, provide them with a decent work environment, encouragement, purpose, inspiration, and room to grow and THEN once you've proven to them that you actually care, THEN throw a party. And for the love of Justin, don't call it a "Team Building Party".
This kind of managed media event for the domestic China market (surely that's who this is aimed at, with the younger, make-up spackled young women front and center in photos) plays very well. While, we in the West tend to mostly be VERY skeptical of what we see in the press, in Asia, and especially China where most media is still state controlled or constricted, what you see in the media is taken as gospel by most everyone. The average newspaper reader (or factory worker) in China would have no idea that these "rallies" are fake PR events and the workers neither participated enthusiastically nor do they worship the cult of "Terry" Guo.

So, for PR effect, Burson Marsteller may have given its client some good service in the local China market. But Foxconn and their PR counselors should be aware: here in the US (you know, where Apple and Dell are) we are not buying this load of bunk. You should be REALLY cleaning up your act, not just going through some phony motions. You can't spin me, baby!

Thanks for reading.
Jonathan Gardner

UPDATED: Wired has a great piece on this whole fiasco here (good comments too!)

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