Title_storytellerA tale heard many times in varying incarnations in Brussels:

  • Big company X spends hundreds of thousands to get an independent report published by a reputable institution.
  • Takes months, the report is finally published and the company is happy: the facts support its side of the story (e.g. product Y is not nearly as dangerous as some say) and the report is truly independent, so case closed – or so they think.
  • What’s the story? Company X publishes “independent report” which proves so and so? No, that’s not interesting enough. The story becomes company X publishes supposedly independent report but pressure group Z says it can’t be trusted as it’s industry sponsored. The report flops in PR terms.

This is another tale that’s been around the block a few times:

  • Pressure group Z doesn’t have any budget but understands PR far better than industry behemoth X.
  • It makes a mountain out a molehill by taking a nothing story and relating it to a day-to-day human experience e.g. the equivalent of say “paracetamol will kill you” without mentioning that you would have to take 100 tablets or whatever to do so (to be fair, plenty of NGOs and the like publish material that is much less controversial, but you get the gist.)
  • Pressure group Z gets loads more press than Company X got for its crumby report.
  • Company X responds to the story with a press release a week later rather than responding to it immediately using online crisis communications tactics that have more impact.

What are the lessons for corporate players in all of this? Each of these points could be a blog post in itself (if not something much longer), but in short:

  • Re. the last point, clearly, your crisis communications requires an online element.
  • Most of all though, don’t get caught up in trying to win hearts and minds through science and fact alone. Nobody cares about science, however spuriously, if their family’s health may be at risk.
  • Don’t let business people, academics, engineers or scientists decide on your story. You need communicators on board.
  • Don’t just make it about defensive communication and proving that you’re not as bad as they say. So your substance isn’t that harmful (or whatever) but is your organisation really doing good deeds in the long run? If not, it should.
  • Treat pressure groups with respect, engage in dialogue, show them that you do good things, and they might even be nice to you. Or at least be less outrageous.
  • And I have to say this considering my line of work… Go online and develop a super web presence to engage directly with the public and explain your story to them without intermediaries. Media relations is important, of course, but the press is likely to side with pressure groups more often than not, no matter what you say or do (and if you’re truly nasty, deservedly so!) Why? Because they’re the nice guys and readers like them more than you.

An organisation called Forum Nucleaire, made up of a number of  companies that invest in nuclear energy, has launched a campaign aimed at kick-starting a debate on nuclear energy in Belgium. They’ve ticked a lot of boxes in terms of good campaign practice:

  • A good website which presents content clearly and which seeks to answer people’s questions rather than showcase a position.
  • Good integration of online and offline communications: the posters around Brussels and the TV ad (can be seen on site too) are engaging, on message, and it’s easy to see that they form part of the same campaign.

The best thing about the campaign is the angle though. They are not presenting an overt position, which in their case could be (and usually has been): “nuclear is cheap, nuclear is clean, nuclear is not dangerous if safety standards are adhered to, oil is a lot worse, we rely on Middle-East or Russian oil, and in any case – it’s running out.”

Instead, they highlight that the debate is a complex one and acknowledge that there are good arguments on both sides. By doing so, they are hoping that people will want to learn more and make an informed decision on whether they support nuclear energy or not, instead of agreeing with the hype, which tends to be anti-nuclear.

This a smart approach for an industry which the average person traditionally opposes. It gains goodwill by opening up and admitting that there’s a viable position which does not necessarily support its commercial interests; and by seeking to raise the level of debate so that it is more rational, fact-based and scientific rather than emotional, it’s likely that it’ll have a better chance of winning public support in the long-run.

The website could be bit more interactive though, there should be more 3rd party endorsements, and I think there’s good scope for bringing in external content, especially from bloggers – but maybe that’s coming next. I’ll be keeping a look-out.

GlaxoSmithKline have pledged to cut prices of their pharmaceutical products in poor countries, to pump profits back into medical care, and to share details of patented products. This is an amazing development, but frankly, it’s bizarre that no pharma company has done anything like this before.

So why have GSK done it?

  1. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that maybe they’ve done it in part because it’s the right thing to do.
  2. In the long-run, it might very well be commercially rewarding. When most people think pharma, they think profit-driven behemoths. What a waste, given that it would be so easy for pharma to develop a positive image of itself. After all, it has played a large part in developing the standard of life we all take for granted; it’s an industry that cures diseases, prolongs life expectancy and saves lives. Who else can claim that? By being the first to make this sort of pledge in their industry, GSK are carving out a position for themselves as the “nice guy” of pharma that may very well stick for decades, even once the others have caught up. In an age where people expect companies to be ethical and to give something back, this will mean that plenty of people will pick GSK over their competitors when purchasing a product or making an investment.
  3. As mentioned in the Guardian article linked to above, the open-source approach would likely improve R&D by allowing the best minds to work on products simultaneously no matter where they work, rather than keeping everything in-house. It’s worked in the software industry, why couldn’t it do so elsewhere? So others might have access to GSK’s trade secrets, but GSK will improve their products and as the “nice guy” of pharma will be most consumers’ brand of choice.

Hats off to GSK, and let’s hope other pharma companies follow suit immediately rather than trying to fight it off for as long as possible. They’d only be postponing the inevitable.

A friend told me a story this week which gives some real insight into how sly lobbyists can be. A few years ago in California, Toyota and the US big 3 (GM, Ford and Chrysler) lobbied hard against stricter regulation governing emissions. This seemed odd at first. Toyota have spent years and billions in developing cars that produce fewer emissions – surely they’d want stricter emissions regulations as this would enable them to exercise their competitive edge?

Not quite. As ever, Toyota are a forward-thinking company (see my previous post):

  1. They understood that they have a competitive edge over the big 3 globally because they produce cars that are more environmentally friendly.
  2. They understood that the prospect of losing out on a huge market like California might finally move the big 3 to start investing more in hybrid technology and other less petrol-guzzling alternatives.
  3. Conclusion? They prefer having to compete with the big 3’s SUVs in California than have them invest in R&D which might in a few years make them viable competitors in the global hybrid car sector.

That’s clever. What I’d be curious to know is:  Toyota and the big 3 presumably sat down and co-ordinated their efforts at some point. Did the big 3 know they were being duped? And could the Toyota execs and lobbyists keep the smirks off their faces?

I caught a few minutes of a show on TV this afternoon (sorry, no reference) comparing the state of the US and Japanese automotive industries and tracing it back to 1993, when Al Gore led a government-funded initiative to develop environmentally friendlier cars. During the Clinton administration, $1.5 billion was poured into this initiative, but American car manufactures opposed it very strongly throughout and set the following conditions:

  • It would be entirely government-funded
  • They did not have to produce anything, simply show that they’d done the research

In the end, shock horror, nothing came of it: they did some research but continued to focus most of their attention and production on very profitable, petrol-guzzling SUVs and pick-up trucks. However, Japanese manufacturers, Honda and Toyota in particular, were a lot more concerned by Gore’s initiative, assuming (correctly, as it turns out) that this was only the start of a process of government demanding that industry start paying heed to environmental concerns. Without any government funding whatsoever, they conducted their own research into developing cars that were less damaging to the environment, resulting in the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid, while GM et al. carried on churning out their SUVs.

Fast-forward fifteen years, and the state of affairs couldn’t be more different. The credit crunch has hit, oil prices are fluctuating wildly, and many citizens are concerned about climate change and want to do their bit. Combined result? GM, Ford and Chrysler may go bust, while Toyota and Honda and holding up reasonably well, and certainly have a lot more sympathisers than the US behemoths. If they manage to survive, the US manufacturers are now clearly going to have to start playing catch-up and they’ll be cursing themselves for not grasping the opportunity back in the stable 90s, when they had the time and resources to develop both the relevant products and the goodwill of consumers.

Lesson? Yet again, that industry (not just automotive) should stop thinking that concerns regarding the environment (or health for that matter) are a passing fad that will go away. Rather than being opposed to radical change, industry should study societal developments and try to be one step ahead of the game by accepting that there is a price to pay and trying to be part of the solution. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it invariably turns out to be commercially viable down the line. Just look at Toyota and Honda.

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