It’s my way, or the Huawei

Last week the British government granted Chinese tech giant, Huawei, a licence to supply the country with 5G network technology. This, despite national security concerns and furious lobbying by the US, for whom Huawei has become a pawn in President Trump’s trade war with China.  The company is designated a ‘high risk vendor’, yet the UK’s National Security Council determined that risks were manageable by excluding Huawei technology from core parts of the network and imposing a 35% cap on its market share.

Response? Emboldened by the Government’s decision, Huawei’s Director of Communications Ed Brewster immediately broke cover to settle some scores. Talking to Newsnight and LBC radio, Brewster showed a good command of his brief and landed some strong points.  Despite combative questioning by Nick Ferrari and Emily Maitlis, Brewster’s openness and measured style will have gone some way to assuaging doubts about Huawei’s values and the risks.  Which begs the question why Brewster wasn’t deployed before last week’s decision was made.

Impact? Tech companies all struggle to get a fair hearing these days, but a recent YouGov survey revealed that a full 9 out of 10 people do not trust Huawei, something that can’t have been a useful context to political negotiations.

Huawei’s calculation may have been that a broader public campaign to help make the UK government’s policy decision easier was unnecessary. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s commitment to roll out broadband as part of efforts to ‘level-up’ the country are entirely dependent on 5G technology, and within 10 years an estimated 60% of trade is predicted to be running over 5G networks.  In turn, Huawei has an unassailable competitive advantage in the space and is apparently 30% cheaper than its nearest rival, making the decision a political rather than a commercial one.

However, the company started out with the intention to court the wider public. The Huawei CEO and founder Ren Zhengfei took part in a series of interviews in 2019, seemingly in an attempt to appease public concerns. However, these failed to land, and it appears Huawei then decided to restrict its primary engagement to a senior government level.

Having demonstrated that it can own and influence its narrative in the UK, Huawei should now see it through. Whilst two interviews cannot overturn 18 months of difficult press, they can provide a springboard for a new approach. Whereas Ren Zhengfei failed to change the public’s attitude, Ed Brewster has demonstrated that engagement and transparency can yield results. Huawei has clearly been used as a political football in Western public discourse but depending on the results of the 2020 US election and the outcome of the trade war, this could change. The next few months will be crucial for Huawei’s image. Potential favourable geopolitical changes, backed by a consistent Brewster-esque communications effort, could lay the foundations for a campaign which will redefine Huawei’s reputation.

Luke Jefferies

Luke Jefferies