Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Google Pulling Out of China--A Clash of Cultures Relevant to Emergency Management

Google announced today on its blog that it is reviewing its business operations in China and may pull out of service to the country entirely including shutting down its offices. It's been interesting to watch the clash of cultures in this battle and it seemed inevitable to lead to this kind of high noon. Now we will see if anyone blinks.

The clash of culture I am referring to is the transparency and freedom that is inherent in the web culture and the paranoid secrecy of the Chinese government. The impetus for Google's decision is the realization that someone (hmmm, could it be the Chinese government?) has been hacking into the gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists, both those inside and outside of China. Google, whose slogan from the beginning has been "Do no evil" does not want to be a party in any fashion to the invasion of privacy and the harm that may come to these activists as a result of them signing up to have email accounts with Google.

This is hugely significant in my mind on many levels. Here's where a technology giant may end up putting pressure on a government that wants to continue to govern behind closed doors and without the democratic processes adopted by most of the world. I continue to believe that the collapse of the Soviet Union was fed to a large degree by the openness ("perestroika") that was forced on the Soviet leadership with the advances in communication technology and the increasing difficulty of keeping their citizens in the dark. Transparency and the related demand for freedom may force some world-shaking political changes.

But this clash of cultures can be seen as a reflection of the same clash I see in many organizations as it relates to public information management. Is there a tendency in your organization to want to hide bad news and hope that it never comes out? Is there a temptation to "craft a message" instead of telling the facts straight out about uncomfortable situations? Is there an institutional fear (paranoia?) about looking good and never admitting that mistakes might be made? Is there a sense that as long as it doesn't hit the media everything is OK? These are danger signs and indications of a head in the sand mentality. The truth is almost everything of significance to the public comes out in the era of online chatter and transparency. In presentations I've used the example of Prince Harry in Afghanistan. The entire British press corps was in on the secret that the royal prince was in the danger zone as part of his military duty but understandably for security reasons they agreed not to release the info. It came out anyway--on an Australian blog as I understand it. If you can keep a secret with the full support of the media, how do you expect to keep one when they don't and certainly won't agree?

There is a basic policy that most in crisis communication subscribe to: if you have bad news, be the one to tell it and be first with it. However bad the news might be, you have less loss of credibility in fessing up to it than allowing others less supportive of your position to do it for you. In this action, David Letterman was right, Tiger was wrong.

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