Auto Industry

Gender agenda

Electric carmaker hit by a public relations debacle

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Li Auto faced a media storm

If a female journalist tries to extract confidential information from a company employee source, should the staff member be fired if he replies: “I’d like to ask your advice about something as well. Is your sex life harmonious? Have your tried any new positions lately?” And what if that exchange didn’t happen through official company channels but privately between the two people on WeChat?

That was the dilemma facing electric vehicle (EV) start-up Li Auto.

The reporter in question tried to become friends with the engineer as a way of finding out more about a new version of the company’s Li ONE car brand. But after being rebuffed in her enquiries she complained about the insulting and sexist nature of the engineer’s WeChat comments cited above. He was sacked shortly afterwards.

This wasn’t enough to satisfy the reporter who then asked the company for a public apology. The demand prompted the firm’s founder Li Xiang to publish a social media post of his own asking what netizens thought he should do.

His post was deleted only 30 minutes after it was made public but the debate about the rights and wrongs of the situation has raged ever since.

Many netizens thought it was the reporter who should be apologising. “Where’s her professional ethics?” pondered one of the most-liked posts on a news story about the incident. “If you try to get this information privately, then don’t be surprised if you’re chastised that way too.”

Others complained that the sacking of the engineer was unfair, especially because the conversation had happened outside the workplace. spoke to two labour lawyers, who both disapproved of the sacking as well. Shen Jianfeng from the China Institute of Labour Relations pointed out that the car company was probably more concerned about how the engineer’s behaviour affected its public image.

The boundaries between public and private in our social media-connected world are a challenge that all companies have to grapple with. In the West the situation is compounded by protections for freedom of speech, although most companies now have employment policies that allow for dismissals of staff who transgress on social media.

Li Auto executives will be hoping that the firing fades from public debate and that they can focus instead on responding to a decline of more than a fifth in the company’s Nasdaq-traded shares last month. It delivered 5,539 of its Li ONE SUVs in April, up about 111% on the same period last year. But investors have turned more cautious on the sector following a huge surge in share prices in the second half of last year. Li Auto’s announcement of another $750 million in capital raising last month also spooked investors worried about dilution.

Perhaps the car company’s handling of the case also points to how the debate about sexist behaviour in China is evolving too.

If so, no one seems to have noticed at underwear brand Ubras. This February it caused consternation with an advertising campaign for its bras, featuring comedian Li Dan. “This product allows women to have it all just by lying down,” Li Dan ventured, punning on a phrase that can mean winning victory even after contributing little. But in this particular case there was another very different inference: that women can exploit their sex appeal to boost their careers. It turned out that the comments weren’t the comedian’s idea but part of a broader campaign that got the company into more trouble by asking women whether they had ever surprised their bosses with “their breasts popping out of their button-down shirts”.

All of this unleashed a torrent of criticism on social media, leading to an apology from the bra maker.

Li Dan also said sorry. “I’ve come to the realisation that when doing comedy, I need to be more mindful of women’s feelings, especially on topics related to them,” he wrote on social media. “I am in the wrong this time. Thanks for all the criticism and I’m reflecting on the mistake I made.”

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