The Sunday New York Times had a great story on how Lenovo has gotten under fire by a bunch of xenophobes including Lou Dobbs, a couple of people from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, an advisory body to Congress, and other politicians.
The gist of the story is that Lou Dobbs and a few others, including some members of congress, are “suggesting” – based on mostly unfounded insinuations and allegations – that Lenovo computers currently being sold to the State Department as part of a competitive contract won by Lenovo “could provide shadowy spooks in the Chinese government with an ideal means of conducting espionage.”
Being framed in the context of “buy American” and also in the context of “national security,” the story inevitably took on a life of its own. It does not matter that it is virtually impossible to “buy American” when it comes to PCs, as most PCs are manufactured and assembled, at least in part, overseas. Nor does it matter that it is extremely unlikely that the Chinese could put “spook” software in the Lenovo PCs as they are assembled in North Carolina and as the PCs have to pass the State Department’s two computer security groups, which oversee the administration of their own test suites and install firewalls and other security software. It also does not matter that the company has historically been a meritocracy – now run by Americans. The fact that the story is framed in the context of cultural anxieties will ensure its rapid spread.
Regardless of whether you believe that xenophobia like this is bad or really bad for the economy as a whole (there are some good lessons to be learned from some European economies on that front), it goes without question that it is damaging the Lenovo brand. And while articles like the one in the New York Times, exposing the fact that there is no substance to the points being raised, and undermining the legitimacy of the claims being made, are necessary – from a brand perspective they only add fuel to the fire. In the long run they could potentially cause more harm than good to the Lenovo brand.
So what is a company to do when faced with rumors that either appeal to fundamental cultural anxieties or that are framed in popular worldviews? Rebutting while staying on the same playing field is a losing proposition – a fact proven over and over in the world of politics. Could there be an opportunity to reframe the debate or start a new one on a playing field that is more advantageous to the company? Or should they just paint themselves in green and lay on the grass ’till it all blows over?
Other blog post on the subject:
Brad Feld at Feld Thoughts – “Maybe Penn and Teller should do an episode on Bullshit! on Dobbs and the current “security issues” ”