Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Google and Corporate Soft Power

Underneath today's headlines of horror and destruction in Haiti (when was the last time something good happened to Haiti?) are two stories of courage, and in both cases the courage seems to be self-serving. In the first case Conan O'Brian told NBC to stick its schedule change where the sun don't shine, for which he seems to be universally praised, received great free publicity, and will probably end up with a better deal from Fox. Personally I can't imagine watching anything other than Stephen Colbert at 11:30, but it was a good and courageous move on Conan's part.
Google announced - on its blog - that it would no longer censor Google search results in China, risking having to close and lose the potentially lucrative growing Chinese market. Before the announcement most people loved Google's products, but many people also feared its size, domination, and what it was doing with all the information it collects. Now Google has revamped its image, and may not even suffer financially, as China may back down and stop having their hackers try as intensively to hack Gmail (apparently the real cause of Google's ire). While some reactions range from skeptical to confused, most praise Google's actions, including the same free speech advocates who are scared of Google's expansion.
Google has proved very adept at improving its own image. I wonder how this move will play in China, and how many will notice (the Chinese government, not surprisingly, blocked news of the announcement). The question is important because much of the world sees the United States as much through our corporations as through the actions of our government. What is the United States' most important export? Democracy and capitalism? Or Levi's, McDonalds, Baywatch, and Nike?
Some countries, like China, take a very proactive role in determining their country's image abroad, making an effort to promote it, build cultural exchanges, and spread their aid toward countries where it needs a positive image. Other countries, like the United States and emulated by India, are willing to let their country's image be the image of their corporations. If the usual image of Americans is of fat, violent polluters with no morals, it is nice to think that other messages about some of our companies will get out as well, especially when those companies make moves that are both the right thing to do, and good for business. It's good to know the Obama Administration has hired some Google talent to help them, and supports Google's plan to pull out. The government could use some Google savvy in helping manage its image in the world.

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