Categories: Crisis management / CSR reality check / History of PR

23 September 2009


France Telecom grovel strategy (Part 2)

Heather Yaxley’s very sensible comment yesterday in response to my piece on France Telecom’s (FT) suicides, provides an opportunity to say why in my heart of hearts I long to criticise FT’s approach.

I do agree that “Apologise, Reform, Move on” works, case by case, and is often better than any alternative when the heat is on. But I think it is bad for society, so I think it is almost a selfish response.

I think Heather is wrong to imply or suggest that “Apologise, Reform, Move on” (ARM, henceforth) is socially valuable because it brings firms into a better relationship with society by inviting them to take responsibility (even though they may not be the villain in the story).

The main and over-arching reason is that ARM is dishonest. It is also patronizing and condescending. I think that its motives are difficult to disguise and that actually it generates mistrust and insecurity in personal and corporate relations. I don’t want the truth to die because PR finds it more convenient to fudge things, and hard to tell it as it is.

Here’s why I think as I do:

(1) ARM invites firms falsely to portray themselves as villains (think Shell and Brent Spar).
(2) ARM invites firms falsely to assert that they can manage their affairs in ways which don’t cause pain.
(3) ARM invites firms to dissemble (after all, it is untruthful to say you accept blame when actually you don’t).
(4) If France’s culture makes people suicide-prone, does it help society to head off blaming FT?
(5) ARM creates moral hazard: campaigners know they can make false accusations and make their targets pay.
(6) CSR and CR are empty shells, inviting contempt, unless they speak to business realities (think about the moral crusade against banks and what it will actually take – and what we shall have to accept – to get them working properly again; and think public sector cuts).

More generally, I agree with Frank Furedi and Anthony Daniels that there is a problem with modern individualism: it makes people nurture their vulnerability, and especially their being victims of capitalism, when in fact they are more likely victims of emotionalism, nonsense and downright deception (we say we care about your inner-self, when we don’t).

But yes, ARM works, and it corrodes. It buys firms breathing space in a crisis. It also breeds an underlying unease among the public(s) about motives and gnaws at the self-confidence of the very firms which practice it.

I also think that PR’s promotion of ARM explains why the trade has such a low standing among both the public and its clients.

It is time to break ARMs. It is time to put a more robust-style of communication at the heart of public life.

Though without wanting to appear soft, I’d back Heather’s call to involve the Samaritans in FT’s affairs. After all, they’re better qualified for the job of preventing suicides than FT, and they don’t do therapy, which is why they are trusted. And it’s all good telecoms-based stuff.

6 responses to “France Telecom grovel strategy (Part 2)”

  1. Heather Yaxley says:

    Paul – your point (4) and final paragraph is really where I was coming from in respect to the original piece. I was certainly not sticking up for your “ARM” approach and I didn’t mention apologising at all.

    In fact, I am 100% against the Pavlovian corporate apologies (ditto celebrity or political) that generally arise from PR advice. Indeed, most of those seem to omit the reform part thinking that a quick public apology and a bit of rehab will do.

    When an organisation has done wrong, it does need to address the fundamental issue, accept responsibility, and sort out any mess it has created. In those situations, I think that denial is a terrible strategy.

    But I agree with you in respect of when an organisation may have a justifiable position that it needs to explain this. I believe that if the PR department is operating strategically, then good issues monitoring (and strong internal and external relationships) will pick up potential problems before they are a crisis. That gives adequate time to consider a strategy – and also counter-attack, if that is appropriate (and the dangers have been considered).

    When you are caught in the crossfire of another issue – then I believe reframing is a key strategy. Hence my suggestion of co-orienting over the suicide issue with other parties. My recommendation of the Samaritans was exactly because of the telephone fit, as this is less then a form of hollow CSR, but a valid way to show how the telephone is part of that fabric of society. The company can justify supporting an organisation that promotes the phone as such a lifeline to so many.

    BTW, you should read, Damage control: why everything you know about crisis management is wrong by Eric Dezenhall and John Weber. It covers much of the same argument about crisis management as you have outlined. I didn’t agree with all of what they said, but they make a good case for times when fighting back is the right approach.

  2. Peter Walker says:

    Do we have any evidence that organisations Reform after Apologising and before Moving on. In most cases Regroup is more like it – little actually changes unless you have done something fundementally fraudulent or criminal when the regulator ensures that you do change.

    What I don’t understand about your France Telecom suicide case is what happened to the position statement that provided the perspective on suicides, that identified the underpinning support provided to exiting/ redundant employees. Seems to me that either the PR / Commuication management people aren’t close enough to HR and the CEO or …………!!!!!!!!!

    Last point can we please stop talking about Crisis – these are event which by definition are life threatening to the organisation itself. There aren’t many of these, most crisis are actually incidents and are managed well or badly ( which is when those writing books call them crisis) and most incidents are really issues that have not been managed well.

    I know that there is more money to be made making emergency repairs to the badly maintained roof that leaks and damages the furniture than there is in a routine maintainance programme. It doesn’t excuse this over dramatisation of incidents that are or should be part of routine operational management or the apparent inability of professionals and experts to put an incident no matter how large into proper perspective.

  3. Paul Seaman says:

    Heather, thanks for your robust and useful clarification. We agree on much of this stuff and I never really thought otherwise.

    Peter, yes, for too many firms and their PRs it is all about perception. So often the reforms they promote are not real. Of course, perception soon catches up with reality and trust is lost, reputations damaged.

    I agree with you about crises and the fact that we see too many of them. The media loves to turn drama and the unexpected in to a crisis. There is no reason for PRs to indulge media fantasies and their sales-drives.

    Moreover, I’ve long-held the view that unpopularity rides side by side with fame and a good reputation. Because this has become a cultural phenomenon the impact of many so-called crises (as opposed to real ones) has a shorter and shorter shelf life. Take Bernard Matthews Farms and bird flu. This incidence of media panic provides a classic case study of a drama turned in to a crisis we all forgot fast. The business is doing very well today despite having been public enemy number one for a short while a little while back.

  4. Tim Pendry says:

    A fascinating debate. I suspect that Paul’s distaste for ARM represents a somewhat emotional ‘ressentiment’ about its cultural effects (the reference to Furedi is revealing) but wjhat he says needed to be said.

    My model for these cases is quite simple: a) express concern; b) set up the means to ascertain the facts with a brief to recommend changes in procedure and practice; and c) have the courage to draw a distinction in public between the proper function and duty of care of the institution and the function of politics – in other words, contribute positively and non-defensively to the political debate.

    Communications professionals appear to have boxed themselves into the corner of escaping pain by baring their backsides in submission to any political force with an agenda. This has dragged them ever further from their primary institutional functions into becoming social fire-breaks that protect the politicians from blame and scrutiny. It is the politicians who should be making decisions on society and the framework for culture and the economy, not the functional units within the community.

    How did this arise? Almost certainly from the introduction, in response to the media’s concern to sell itself, of emotionalism as a displacement of rational debate. It may be a sign of France’s ‘modernisation’ under Sarkozy that emotional responses are rising in importance.

    This, with apologies for the ‘sexism’ of language but standing by the point, is part of a ‘feminisation’ of culture, a natural reaction to the past but one which results in inefficiency, pandering to self-appointed activists and the media, a plethora of useless meetings and a new class of consultants all covered by the vague notion of ‘social responsibility’. The ‘low point’ in the UK was the way our Prime Minister felt obliged by media pressure to enter into the cultural hysteria surrounding the death of the People’s Princess.

    As for suicide, how sound it remains today I do not know but Professor Richard Cobb many years ago analysed the suicides of Paris during the French Revolution and found a consistency in patterns related to the seasons with no apparent link to the political turmoil going on around the most vulnerable members of the community. Not everything that happens to persons can be ascribed to the collective.

    However, Heather notes something that sounds true – isolated 50+ males, psychologically losing their potency and without connections, as a problem that is probably as neglected in Bristol, Kiev and Philadelphia as in small French towns. This is a problem of community and the structure of society – and it is a political matter, not a burden, other than as a matter of kindness, for its institutions operating without political support or even command to be kind.

    ARM has emerged because of a failure of politics. It would not be necessary if professional politics had not withdrawn from great tracts of social territory to leave the field open to the chaos of special interests, lobbyists, ‘communications’ and activism. Lately, in the Atlantic world, ARM has even been re-imported into politics with the whining redrafting of history as each special interest demands its apology for things not even done to itself but to its ancestors!

    FT does have responsibilities and there is almost certainly a major debate to be had over French management culture but it should be had at that level of principle not as a proxy discussion in the media based on uncertain facts and incidents. FT could perhaps lead from the front and say this … bat the matter back to the politicians …

  5. Kristen Sukalac says:

    Paul, I agree with much of what you, Heather and Peter have said. There is certainly a role for a dispassionate (and sometimes a passionate) restatement of one’s own case. However, I do think that France Telecom is right to take a low profile (more on this below).

    With regards to apologies, the word “sorry” can express an acceptance of blame, but it can also express condolence and empathy. In the case of something as emotional as a wave of suicides, I think it is appropriate for the company to use “sorry” in this sense, although perhaps stronger words like “appalled” and “dismayed” woule be even better.

    I think your statistical comparison raises an important question with important implications for the FranceTelecom response: If France has a comparable suicide rate to other countries, then why is there this “epidemic” of workplace and work-related suicides?

    A couple of likely factors leap to mind.

    The first is the persistant anti-work, anti-private sector prejudice that permeates the culture. (Among my friends, we joke that by becoming an independent worker, I have joined the “patronat” or bosses, practically a dirty word in French discourse.) This means that even though it is unlikely that just this one factor pushed the person over the edge, the French are more likely to cite work as the trigger for the suicide (or indeed to commit suicide in the workplace).

    The second is that the French labour market is so sclerotic that people sincerely believe that they have no other option but to stick it out, no matter how bad working conditions are. I was just discussing this the other day with French and Belgian friends who spent their formative years in the UK. We were in agreement that in any “Anglo-Saxon” country most people would quit if things really got that bad long before they committed such a desperate act.

    The problem for FranceTelecom is that as a company it has no control over either of these wider societal factors. Citing them is likely to create a backlash and have the company seen as defensive and passing the blame.

    Furthermore, there is still a huge taboo surrounding mental health in France (although I know more and more people undergoing therapy, or probably more accurately more and more of the people I know are actually talking about their therapy). That makes it difficult for France Telecom to take steps that look like “prescribing” counsellors for its workers.

    Given the minefield in which the company finds itself and the well-documented copycat effect regarding suicide, I think France Telecom is wise to maintain a low-key response. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t think their response couldn’t be improved, but I do think it needs to be evaluated within the wider societal context.

  6. Paul Seaman says:

    Tim, Kristen, both of your contributions have added depth and insight to this discussion, thanks.

    We have not exhausted this topic by any means. I’d like to see “the culture of ARM – why it should be broken” (working title) discussed at a conference or seminar filled with our peers.