Huawei using sports to combat bad PR

With all the negative press that Chinese telecoms firm Huawei has been receiving in recent days – that it “spies for the Chinese government“, or that the Brits are investigating Huawei’s involvement in a cyber security base in the UK – you would think it might take more than a little gentle sports PR to turn things around.

Huawei - front and center in Canberra
Huawei – front and center in Canberra

Yet that’s exactly what the company seems to be banking on in Australia, where news of the spying claims – made by a former head of both the NSA and the CIA – first broke last week. Huawei has just extended its sponsorship deal with Australian rugby league (NRL) side Canberra Raiders in a deal thought to be worth close to $1 million.

But that’s not all: Shenzhen-based Huawei has 65,000 employees in China and now says it wants to bring the Raiders to Shenzhen next year to play a regular season NRL game. Never mind that rugby – and especially rugby league – barely registers on the radar in China, if Huawei can co-opt about half of its Chinese employees into filling the 35,000-seater Shenzhen Stadium, it should make for quite a spectacle.

Since signing with the Raiders in 2012 – shortly after being banned by then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard from bidding for contracts to work on Australia’s National Broadband Network on the grounds of “national interests” – Huawei has slowly been extending its sporting reach, in partnership with an extensive global lobbying campaign, in order to portray a more positive image around the world. It’s perhaps no surprise that the NRL team it chose to sponsor is in Canberra, the political heart of Australia, since its (presumably very well paid) foreign spokesmen have also been prominent in DC and London circles.

news-content-picture1Elsewhere the company has focused on soccer, signing short-term deals that have included sponsoring a match between China and New Zealand to mark 40 years of diplomatic relations between the two (naturally), backing the 2011 Italian Super Cup in Beijing, and sponsoring Atletico Madrid in last year’s Madrid derby. Huawei has also added music to the mix, putting on a couple of Coldplay gigs in Australia last year and is now presenting the Jonas Brothers’ US tour, which kicked off this month.

It’s a bold, if slightly desperate, strategy, but Huawei is probably at the bottom of the list right now of Chinese companies trying to gain acceptance worldwide, and so is willing to try anything to deflect attention away from its actual business. The link between Australian rugby league and China no longer begins and ends with Huawei, after Chinese TV brand Changhong signed with NRL team Parramatta Eels earlier this year. I’m looking forward to that match next year, though: rugby league is the third most popular sport in Australia, so its officials have assumed that the Chinese will lap it up as well. Fearless prediction: they won’t.

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