Google China Wars: How to Restore Brand Integrity

In 2006, this is how Google CEO Eric Schmidt explained the company's decision to operate a China-censored edition of its search engine: "Google has 5,000 years of patience in China."

Last week, Google's patience wore thin and the company publicly confronted China with evidence of government complicity in a spear phishing hack of Gmail accounts, including those of senior US officials, Chinese dissidents, journalists, and others (phishing tricks users into giving up sensitive information including passwords).

Struck by the sudden steel in Google's spine, I turned to Steve Levy's richly detailed history of Google and its founders, In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives (Simon and Schuster 2011).

Levy's vivid reporting of Google's history in China, and the struggles of conscience and ambition among Google's leaders as they squared their decisions with their devotion to access and openness, make for fascinating reading. Levy's book also offers insights into how you can restore brand integrity and reclaim the high ground when the best of intentions land you in business hell.

How Google Lost Its "Do Not Evil" Status

Levy documents the period when Google engaged with China as the tipping point in a series of ambitious initiatives that dented the search giant's halo:

  • Google's agreement to launch a search engine in China where Google bowed to state censorship standards, was embarrassed by illegal gift giving, and pressured to censor its open global Chinese language Google.com;
  • Attacks by Chinese hackers of Google's emailsm including accounts of Chinese dissidents and human rights activists;
  • Antitrust concerns and federal probe over Google's acquisition of DoubleClick;
  • Critics lambasted Google's Street View, an outgrowth of Google Maps, which captured millions of photographs of people without their consent including unflattering or confusing images and accidentally downloaded confidential data from wireless transmitters;
  • Losing the notorious Google Book Search case halting Google's project to scan all the world's books and make snippets available to browsers;
  • Huge consumer and media distaste for Google Buzz, which allowed anyone to see people you follow and the people who follow you, infuriating consumers who were horrified their blogging, reading, and other habits where exposed without their permission.
In these cases where Google's goals as "a righteous force, a trustworthy avatar of the digital age," resulted in unexpected disasters, Levy says Google's leaders leaned on their culture to repair the damage.
Google's Attempts At Damage Control
Page, Brin, and Schmidt quickly developed a "Googley" rapid response strategy that included:
  1. Set up war rooms of key staff including communications and pr professionals to ensure the teams explaining Google's decisions to the press are in the room as well as engineers. Google did this for numerous crises including the uproar over Google Street View.
  2. Meet and consult with your critics and watchdogs: Google added privacy safeguards to Google Latitude and Street View after meetings with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy & Technology, for example.
  3. Make your thinking and considerations open to the public and media: While Google strategically uses secrecy to protect its competitive advantages and early stage innovations, leadership opens the doors to sunlight when controversy deepens, because of Google's absolute obsession--"don't be evil". Google was furious after China hacked its email that other technology had been similarly violated, but buried the incidents.
  4. Ensure senior leadership is responsible and accountable for driving the message: in every crucial confrontation and crisis, Google's big three led the parade of reform--from Larry Page on Google Book Search to Sergey Brin on China;
  5. Don't give up--improve, learn, and relaunch: While Google often abandons projects that don't meet expectations, time and again the company stands by its most promising projects and learns from critics, to make changes and improve their offerings, as they did with Street View.
  6. The bigger you are, the more enemies you have: Levy wonderfully captures the arc of change experienced by Page, Brin, and their employees as they realized success, size, and wealth meant that they had to continually re-earn trust from many influencers, policymakers, customers, and media;
  7. Never, ever compromise your core values. Google's transcendent passion is that "the user is always right," that they would never go wrong making needed information accessible to every citizen of the world. These values provided the fire, motivation, and inspiration for its many successes. Its leaders realized the China engagement was doomed to fail because it compromised these most firmly held values. Now, having veered close to the precipice of betraying its soul, can Google remain a powerful, energized, and formidable defender of its users and their personal information (when it controls so much?)
What lessons have you drawn from Google's fascinating recent history with China? Do you believe China's government is facilitating cyber crimes against US officials and citizens and others around the world? How should Google advocate for privacy when it controls so much data about people?
Herb Schaffner is president of Schaffner Media Partners, a consultancy specializing in business, finance, and public affairs publishing expertise, and is found on Facebook. He has been a publisher and editor-in-chief at McGraw-Hill, and a senior editor at HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo by SurrealPenguin.