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Huawei’s pitch to Canadians: Keep your friends and family close

Matt Gurney: The Chinese company’s newest ad was meant to deliver a feel-good message. It is not going over well.
Michael Kovrig (left) and Michael Spavor, the two Canadians detained in China, are shown in these 2018 images taken from video. A powerful Republican senator and Trump ally says China is detaining two Canadians in harsh conditions and U.S. lawmakers won’t rest until they are freed. Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, who chairs the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tells The Canadian Press that Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are being treated worse than Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who is out on bail in Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP

A career spent in media has left me with a sincere — I mean that, really — admiration for the communications and PR professionals who, from time to time, must find themselves in absolutely impossible situations.

I really do admire those who have to wake up in the morning, read a thousand news alerts explaining that their corporate brand has just been utterly destroyed, and then get out of bed and start their day of utterly futile damage control.

I’m looking at you, Huawei Canada comms staff. Thoughts and prayers.

This is the latest ad from Huawei Canada, which must at first have seemed to the people behind it like a feel-good ad campaign:


The video is actually totally benign. A group of people in different places—apparently a family—all connect to each other for a video chat using their Huawei devices so they can take in a glorious view of the northern lights. But when the company tweeted out the video, it said, “A #BetterFaster network means your friends and family have never been closer—even when they’re far away.”

It missed the mark, spectacularly.

China has, of course, cracked down hard on Canada and Canadians since this country detained Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer, after the U.S. requested her extradition to face multiple fraud and conspiracy charges related to the company’s alleged evading of sanctions against Iran.

Canada has honoured the American request, as it is bound by treaty to do; Meng is out on bail in Vancouver while fighting extradition. China, in turn, has arrested at least three citizens on questionable charges. Diplomat-on-leave Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor have been jailed for over six months now without access to their friends or family or lawyers. China has also re-sentenced a Canadian previously convicted of drug charges to death, and has blocked exports of Canadian agricultural products.

The responses to Huawei Canada’s ad, as you can imagine, did not fail to note this connection:





This fallout is not the fault of Huawei Canada itself, which is trying to carve out some share in Canada’s small but lucrative smartphone and tablet markets. But it is caught in the middle of this geopolitical spat.

Huawei is a major supplier, globally, of advanced telecommunications equipment that the U.S. and several other Canadian allies have already barred from their domestic networks over concerns that the company’s close ties to the Chinese government could be exploited. Canada has yet to make a decision either way. But the Meng situation has made it more complicated.

My views on this are already on the record—in a recent National Post column, I urged the Canadian government to join our allies in banning Huawei from participating in our telecom networks, and also asked Canadians to boycott Huawei products.  And I’m not the only person making such calls, nor was I the first.

As for Huawei Canada’s pitch: The shame of it is, it’s a totally pleasant video. It avoids controversy, it celebrates Canada’s natural beauty and who can object to families staying in touch?

Too bad the company releasing the video is so closely linked to a government keeping families apart. A social media campaign can’t fix that, but it can sure make it worse. Good luck, Huawei comms people. You’re going to need it.