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The rush of tweets, infographics and animated gifs makes it challenging to get a real handle on longer-term communication trends. Thankfully, long-form journalism, storytelling and analysis are in rude health.

Here are the three best books on communication I have read in 2013 (ie. not necessarily published over the past twelve months):

Trust Me, I’m Lying, by Ryan Holiday

Ryan Holiday - Trust Me, I'm Lying

Billed as a warts-and-all confessional on modern-day media manipulation and spin-doctoring, Trust Me is actually principally a polemic on the state of the media in the US and a no-holds-barred expose on the inner workings of the blogs re-setting news industry plate tectonics, notably Business Insider, BuzzFeed, Drudge Report, Gawker and Huffington Post.

If you believe your news should be informative and balanced, then this book makes for highly unsettling reading – Holiday’s thesis is that the media industry has effectively lost its bearings in a desperate quest for exclusives, page views and ad bucks, disregarding any pretence at accuracy, objectivity or integrity in the process.

While Trust Me, I’m Lying reads a little like a personal slanging match in places (the author pulls no punches in fingering those he sees as chiefly responsible, amongst them Gawker Media’s Nick Denton and media talking head Jeff Jarvis), it holds valuable insights and lessons for both communications professionals and consumers.

Exposure, by Michael Woodford

When Michael Woodford, newly appointed CEO of medical to consumer optical manufacturer Olympus, got wind of a scoop by a niche Japanese magazine detailing massive financial irregularities at his firm, he could scarcely have believed that he would wind up blowing the lid on a cover-up of some USD 1.7 billion of losses and becoming one of the highest-profile and most effective whistle-blowers in corporate history. (Of course, Woodford has since been knocked off his perch atop the whistle-blower premiere league by one Edward Snowden.) While Exposure suffers from poor writing and can hardly be described as a balanced account (according to Japanese friends, Woodford is seen to have over-egged the publicity pudding and thrust himself to the front and centre of the story in an unashamedly un-Japanese manner), it is nonetheless a fascinating and, in this case, singularly unedifying insight into the culture of the keiretsu and big business in Japan. It is also an excellent example of how a reputable company can be brought to its knees by a rogue employee (or two) through bitter resolve and smart communication on the one hand and corporate secrecy and intransigence on the other. For fuller thoughts see this blog post.

The New Emerging Market Multinationals, by Amitava Chattopadhyay and Rajeev Batra with Aysegul Ozsomer

A book less about communication and reputation than about brand building, the authors use in-depth interviews with senior executives at emerging giants from Brazil, China, India, Turkey and other ’emerging’ markets to identify how a new wave of multinationals are building global businesses and global brands. Full of valuable insights into how firms like Asian Paints, Asia-Pacific Breweries, Godrej, Haier, Lenovo, Natura and Wipro are building their brands, The New Emerging Market Multinationals sets out a step-by-step process for global brand-building, including how to overcome country of origin perceptions, and ends with a look at how companies are – and should – manage their brands across their organisations, making a strong argument for centrally-managed brands. An excellent resource for professionals at emerging market firms and at established players figuring how to take on their new competitors.

Compared to more developed markets in the west, trust in Asia is in fairly rude health, according to Edelman’s 2013 Trust Barometer.

Some points to bear this out:

  • 6 of the 10 most ‘trusting’ countries are Asian – topped by the Chinese, Singaporeans and Indians
  • Above average trust in business in many Asian markets, notably India, Indonesia, China, Singapore and Malaysia
  • Very high levels of trust in government in China and Singapore, with otherwise generally higher average levels of trust in most other Asian markets (with the exception of Japan and Korea)
  • Significant trust in CEOs in most Asian markets
  • The five countries in which the media is most trusted across the world are China, India, Indonesia, Singapore and Hong Kong
  • Other than in Mexico, NGOs are held in the highest regard globally in Asia.

The study also reminds us, should we need reminding, that trust in Asian companies in developed countries remains low:

Edelman2013_AsianCompanyTrust

It is hardly surprising that Indian firms, many of which have been expanding internationally for some time, are held in higher esteem in developed markets than their Chinese counterparts. Yet the reverse is the case in emerging markets. Why?

My guess is that the principal reason for this is that Chinese firms have placed greater emphasis on expanding first in emerging Asian markets, whereas Indian firms have tended to leverage their Anglophile connections and shared English language to prioritise markets such as the UK and USA.

Equally, it could be argued that Chinese firms have a more substantive presence in the more widely known consumer electronics (Haier, Huawei, ZTE, Lenovo etc) and goods sectors, whereas Indians are better known abroad for B2B services (Infosys, Wipro, Tata Consulting etc) amongst business and technology professionals.

 

For many, ‘Made in China’ or ‘Made in India’ imply derivative products manufactured at low cost in sweatshops. Some cast this as a mark of shame. But if Forbes’ latest list of World’s Most Innovative Companies is anything to go by, perceptions of Asian companies are changing rapidly.

Of the 25 companies listed, 9 are from Asia:

  • 4 from China
  • 3 from India, and
  • 2 from Japan.

One might reasonably expect to see consumer electronics, automotive and perhaps also BPO firms represented. Yet beverage, construction and internet companies are also baking innovation into their veins.

The most innovative Asian firms are:

5.   Baidu (China)
7.   Ratuken (Japan)
9.   Larsen & Toubro (India)
11. Tencent (China)
12. Hindustan Lever (India)
18. Kweichow Moutai (China)
19. Infosys (India)
20. Wuliangye Yibin (China)
22. Nidec (Japan)

A key challenge for many of these firms will be not just to increase awareness and interest in their products beyond their domestic markets, but also to strengthen their reputation for innovation amongst customers and other stakeholders.

The experiences of Huawei – and other Asian firms – show that despite a focus on developing higher quality products and services, investing significantly in R&D and boasting an increasingly strong armoury of patents (Asian firms dominate patent lists), building a credible and strong corporate reputation can take considerable time and effort, not least in terms of governance and a proactive approach to good citizenship.

With product considered the primary driver of corporate reputation, ‘Made in China’ is already taking on a different and more positive meaning.

However, there remains plenty of work to do.

 

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