Yan Mei discusses how Brunswick Group is helping multinational corporations manage their messaging in a rapidly changing geopolitical environment.
Organizations across the world are coping with widespread economic uncertainty, and many need guidance on how to respond quickly and decisively. Few people know what that guidance can look like better than Yan Mei, Senior Partner and Chair of China at Brunswick Group, a strategic advisory firm that specializes in critical issues.
Although Brunswick is used to dealing with clients in crisis, the coronavirus presented a unique challenge. Earlier this year, we sat down with Yan Mei to talk about how the COVID-19 outbreak has impacted Brunswick and the work they do for their clients.
Brunswick Group’s Unique Model
As Mei sees it, Brunswick is often misperceived as a public relations company when it’s really something else. “We offer consulting to leading organizations with critical issues,” she explains. “We’re not quite like a McKinsey or BCG — we focus on communications, but we adapt to client needs in specific areas including public affairs, M&A, sustainability, energy and resources, and so on. We have a lot of senior experts in specific sectors, and we really tap into the client’s critical messaging needs.”
Currently, businesses worldwide are coping with the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout. Since March, we have seen waves of layoffs and shutdowns, and many companies are radically reimagining their financial futures. In the US, massive layoffs briefly led to the highest unemployment rate ever recorded for the country: 14.7%. This steep rise came immediately after February’s 3.5% unemployment rate — the lowest in half a century.
“COVID-19 is unprecedented,” Yan Mei observes. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Fortune 500 company or a small restaurant business — there isn’t anyone who was prepared for the magnitude of the crisis. Many companies conduct crisis simulations, but with something like this, it’s natural that businesses feel very ill-prepared.”
As the pandemic spread, Brunswick found its advisory services in greater demand. “Because of the nature of our business, instead of declining as a result of COVID, Brunswick has seen an uptick in this time of crisis and uncertainty,” Mei notes. “This is a time when our clients are even more in need of guidance than usual.”
Helping Multinational Corporations Maintain Their Message
Brunswick works with clients across the globe in a variety of industries ranging from pharmaceuticals, to automotive companies, to retail. Many are coping with temporary factory and store closures as well as layoffs. Brunswick’s consultants work with CEOs to help them cut through uncertainty and maintain consistent and clear communication with their audiences.
“You need to communicate to the employees who are leaving, but also to those who are remaining or whose roles are changing,” Mei explains. “You need to make sure you’re boosting morale for the remaining employees. Essentially, we help CEOs prepare their message — not only to address business changes, but to continue to communicate the spirit of their company.”
Mei works largely with businesses that have cross-border needs — specifically those with factories or business operations in China. Recently, the pandemic has added pressure to already-strained relations between China and the US. “All this is compounded by COVID,” Mei explains. “Geopolitically, this is putting pressure on many MNCs [multinational corporations], and on Chinese CEOs with ambitions of going global.”
Managing the Message Through Smart Storytelling
For Mei and the team at Brunswick Group, managing the impact of COVID-19 on businesses is often a question of telling the right story. Apt messaging is key to supporting clients with operations in China already — or who are looking to expand there.
Mei explains that when COVID-19 first broke out in China earlier this year, a US-based client who formerly had operations in China wanted to help by donating medical supplies to hard-hit areas. “Our client has many employees of Chinese heritage or who still think of China as home,” she recounts. “For the client, this was really an act of compassion.”
For Mei and her team, the question was how to communicate the client’s plans effectively in a strained political climate — especially when the messaging around COVID-19 was changing from week to week. As she puts it, her role is to “manage the message while maximizing the impact.”
In order to present the project without politicizing it, they decided that two different stories were necessary. “We approached the challenge by telling two separate — but essentially joined — stories about human compassion,” Mei recounts. “In China, we emphasized international collaboration and banding together in a time of difficulty. In the US, we emphasized how the project would help Americans in China who struggled to return home due to lockdown measures.” The project was a success, and both storylines worked in their respective countries.
Providing Client Support to Mitigate Risk
In addition to helping clients adapt their messaging for the US and Chinese media, Mei also helps clients navigate the messaging challenges unique to working in China. “We ensure that the client knows what to say where,” She says. “We note what creates backlash in China, and we make sure that clients know to avoid that. In this internet age, every message counts. You cannot shut down a message. Whatever you say anywhere will have repercussions across China and beyond.”
As the international discourse around the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shift, Brunswick will have their work cut out for them in the coming years. But Mei reminds us that even in a less tense political environment, managing the message is a critical component of any business — regardless of its size. “The point is to mitigate the potential risk of hurting businesses, globally or in China,” Mei explains. “This is a thin line everyone has to walk to protect their business interests.”