The challenge of control in the age of social media – Garnier, the Israel-Gaza conflict and the threat of boycott

How much damage has Garnier Israel done to the Garnier global brand through its local actions? (image source: http://www.deliberation.info)

Listen long enough to any communicator working for a multinational in an emerging market and they’ll touch on the issue of what is called ‘corporate’. The concept of centralized communications, of control being exerted from head office over global communications is understandable – corporations want to ensure that the message being disseminated is consistent with the aims of the company as a whole. Rather this than each country office doing as they wish, which may result in local messages which are not in alignment with the global communications.

Combine this with the reach and immediacy of social media, and the implications for going off-message can be explosive. Many brands have been implicated in the recent Israel-Gaza conflict, and issues such as this have the ability to polarize opinion, particularly online where millions have been expressing their support for and anger with one side or the other.

While many of the brands who have been targeted by Pro-Palestinian groups advocating for boycotts have in effect kept their own counsel and said nothing (with the exception of Starbucks which took the step of reiterating that it neither operates in Israel nor supports the Israeli army), Garnier was caught out by its local operations.

Halfway through the conflict Garnier Israel had donated 500 gift packs to StandWithUs, an Israeli advocacy group which promotes the country to the world through social media. During July and August StandWithUs also undertook a number of domestic initiatives such as providing gift packs to soldiers on the front line and in support functions.

First, StandWithUS donated the 500 gift packs from Garnier to a group of female Israeli soldiers. The organization then promoted the handout on its social media channels (most prominently on Facebook), with the following comments:

“We are honoured [sic] to be delivering these “girly” care packages for our lovely female IDF fighters!

Today’s delivery of care packages was stocked with thousands of products for our girls protecting Israel. They even received facial soaps and minerals, so they can still take care of themselves, eve while defending the country.

Shout out to the Garnier Israel|גרנייה for the amazing donation of facial soaps, minerals and deodorants!”

Unfortunately for Garnier, the post was quickly picked up by Pro-Palestinian social media goers. As the UK’s Independent newspaper noted on Saturday the 9th of August, the Facebook post alone had been shared over 22,000 times and had garnered 3,000 comments, most of which were calling for a boycott of Garnier products. The post has also inspired a hashtag, #BoycottGarnier, calling for consumers to shop buying the brand. Even Garnier’s own brand ambassador to the Arab World, Hind Sabry, took to the media to voice her displeasure at what had happened. The Independent curated some of the reactions to the post which I’m including below.

A week after the now-infamous post Garnier USA released a comment distancing itself from the donations by Garnier Israel (have a look below). But, is this too little, too late? In a globalized world of brands which are commonplace in every country on the planet and which need to appeal to as many consumers as possible, what can companies do to ensure that the action of local entities doesn’t harm their global image when it seems that nothing can be communicated to an external audience in private?

“Garnier values peace and harmony and has a strict policy of not getting involved in any conflict or political matter. The hand-out of about 500 products was part of a local retailer initiative. This was managed strictly at local market level and we are very sorry if anyone was offended,” Garnier’s Corporate Communications Director Ms Kerr said.

In the age of social media, the assumption has to be that if the message is going to alienate a specific stakeholder group, then just don’t put it out there, period. For corporations the size of Garnier, that’s easier said than done.

PS To make matters even worse, Garnier’s apology has reportedly upset Israelis who have now vowed to stop buying the company’s products according to the Times of Israel.

Why do Middle East executives not blog and five reasons for starting a corporate blog today

Is this question even relevant any more? Middle East execs, what are you waiting for? (image source: http://www.homeschoolblogging.com)

There’s no doubt about it, blogging is huge. But don’t take my word for it, let’s look at the numbers. On blogging platform WordPress there are almost seventy million blogs, which are read by 360 million people each month. There’s even more blogs on the Tumblr (over 100 million as of April 2013) and Livejournal platforms (approximately 62 million blog sites as of April 2013). While blogging may not hug the headlines as much as social media, the online writing format continues to grow. By the end of 2011, NM Incite, a Nielsen/McKinsey company, was tracking over 181 million blogs worldwide, compared to only 36 million in 2006.

Similarly, blogging has become one of the most popular tools among corporations in a number of geographies. Research by the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts has pointed to growth across both the Fortune 500 and the Inc. 500 in 2012. Forty-four percent of Inc. 500 companies, the fastest publicly-firms in America, were blogging, while twenty-eight percent of America’s largest publicly-listed firms had a corporate blog. The most interesting statistic was that sixty-three percent of CEOs of companies who did blog contributed personally to content.

These statistics from the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth underline how popular blogging is with corporations in the US (image source: http://www.umassd.edu)

It’s fair to say that the Middle East corporate world, and the Gulf in particular, doesn’t share this same level of enthusiasm for blogging. Few publicly-listed companies have a blog – we’re literally talking a handful – and even those blogs that are online are rarely updated.

While it’s hard to speculate on the reasons why so few CEOs blog here, the one assumption that I’d make is either they don’t feel a need to communicate with their stakeholders or they don’t want to reveal information through a medium such as a blog (this subject does need more research, but the lack of blogging here maybe reflects a wider lack of understanding of digital communications).

For a pastime that was once considered on the fringe of journalism, blogging is a pivotal online media channel for breaking news, sharing content and developing an audience. Blogs are often quoted in the media and it allows a corporation to control the message and yet promote a healthy dialogue with its internal and external stakeholders.

There are many reasons for starting a corporate blog, but we’re going to focus on the five basics which should underline to your chief executive officer the value in having a blog for your company and including blogging as part of our communications strategy.

1) It’s all about transparency

We all want and sometimes need more information, and yet corporations often keep too much of a lid on what external stakeholders see and know. A blog allows you to let others look inside the company and give them a better understanding of any and every issue you care to tackle, from sustainability to product development and customer relations.

The benefit of transparency is increased trust. Your (potential) customer base should better understand why you do what you do. Customers and investors will feel much better informed and they may be more willing to buy your product and invest in your company.

However, don’t take transparency to mean republishing your press releases in a different format. Some of the most successful corporate blogs are those that take a nuanced approach, that tackle the good and the bad. The less biased you are, the more likely you are to be trusted when publishing a blog.

2) Bringing some humanity to the Corporation

Corporations are often seen as soul-less, grey worlds. And the same can often be said for a corporation’s communications approach; the bland press releases, the staid web-site which rarely seems to be updated. As people we all thrive on interaction and dialogue and that’s why blogs are so successful. They’re your corporation’s personal voice, a voice that need not use corporate-speak and jargon but instead adopt a tone that is more informal and conversational.

Your blog will need a face. It could be the CEO or another senior person. But a blog doesn’t need to be written by an executive. Some of the most insightful blogs are written by product managers, researchers and others who are passionate enough to make what they are saying interesting.

The beauty of blogging is that you don’t need to stay on message all the time. You can write about diverse topics which don’t need to be about the company. Customers will see through marketing pitches so step away from the self-promotion. Instead, offer human insights into recent events, industry news and other related information. Let your customers know more about you than just your product line-up and they’ll begin to become more loyal to your brand.

3) Starting a dialogue

Unlike many other forms of communication, blogs are there to receive feedback as well as to be a voice for the company. When you engage readers and respond to dialogue – both positive and negative – you’ll be doing much more than just promoting your company.

Blogs are a great way to test the water, to understand your customers’ perception on certain issues. And even if the comments are negative, at least you’ll know what your customers are thinking and be able to respond and bring them back on board. Get talking on a blog and even those stakeholders who may not agree with your company’s strategy will appreciate your efforts to talk with and about these issues in a forum that allows for and encourages debate.

4) Drive that web traffic!

Want a business reason for blogging that your sales team can measure? How about the web traffic that a blog will drive to your site. Many web engines such as Google rank sites based on content, on relevance and popularity. A blog that is updated regularly, that has content that is popular and that links to other sites you’ll find your own corporate site being ranked much higher by search engines such as Google. Once your own blogging site has become established you’ll find others linking to you, which will further propel your blog to the top of the search rankings and towards the nirvana of a first page listing.

5) Measure your blogging success

The beauty of communicating on your own site is that you can analyze your visitor statistics, to understand where your visitors are coming from, what they’re doing on your blog, what they’re using to read your blog (are they viewing your blog on a PC, a tablet or a mobile?) and how they’re reaching your site. The beauty of web analytics is that the more you have, the better you can make your blog and improve your visitor numbers. From there you can start defining your blog’s goals and measure your goal conversion, review how you’re promoting your blog and understand which topics and keywords are the most successful in driving traffic to your site.

Unlike traditional public relations metrics, online measurement tools are instant and can give you a full picture of what you’re doing right and how you can improve your blogging outreach. Blogging technologies are evolving but don’t feel daunted by the technological challenge. Blogging can be simple enough to begin with, and most blogging platforms have their own in-built analytics to help you out.

When in doubt deny. Abdul Latif Jameel and its response to the #ToyotaCruiseFailSa story

A storm was kicked up by a remarkable story about a Toyota Land Cruiser that apparently malfunctioned when on cruise control. I wrote briefly about the story a couple of weeks back, but to sum up the incident (you can find the original story here in Al Hayat newspaper in Arabic here) a Toyota Land Cruiser was stuck in cruise control at a speed of 210 kilometers per hour. The car was stopped by police who shot a number of live bullet rounds at the vehicle. Luckily no one was harmed, but the story rapidly went viral on social media and #ToyotaCruiseFailSa was a top trending hashtag in Saudi for days.

Toyota’s distributor Abdul Latif Jameel has crafted a sterling reputation as one of, if not, the best provider of automotive service in the Kingdom. Following the media reports of what happened in Hafr Al-Batin the company apparently tested the car along with several governmental bodies.

To cut the story short, Abdul Latif Jameel arranged a press conference to explain its findings and response to the incident. The seriousness of the incident and its brand implications was underlined by Abdul Latif Jameel’s decision to hold the event on a Friday, the weekend over here in the Kingdom.

After a series of tests on the car and what was Abdul Latif Jameel’s explanation? Hafar Al-Batin incident a deliberate act by car owner: Expert committee (byline from the follow day’s Arab News which can be read here).

In summary, Abdul Latif Jameel came out fighting. It claimed that:
• the cruise control system in the Toyota Land Cruiser is flawless and working in the proper manner
• not a single incident of cruise control system defects had been reported from any Toyota vehicles sold in Saudi Arabia
• the company will never allow a flaw to go unreported

To paraphrase from the article, Abdul Latif Jameel laid the blame for the incident solely on the car’s owner.

I’m not going to jump in and get into the nitty gritty of car mechanics, but would anyone be surprised if a customer didn’t respond after having a near-death experience with your product? What concerned me was that the Saudi media didn’t reach out to the car’s owner to verify what Abdul Latif Jameel’s executives had said. Instead, they reported one side and not the other.

The above is pretty much a bog standard response from firms based in Saudi, to deny there’s a problem or that if something has happened that it is their problem. Would I want to buy a product from a company that shoves the blame onto the product owner? That doesn’t apologize, even if it isn’t their fault?

I had the pleasure to meet with Colin Hensley, Former General Manager of Corporate Affairs & Planning, Toyota Motor Europe, Belgium, at the Saudi Brand and Communications Forum last year. Toyota was put through the ringers in 2010 for all of their recalls. Then the largest car manufacturer in the world, Toyota recalled over 7.5 million cars. Colin told me how Toyota had learned valuable lessons from the incidents and was now putting those lessons into practice. I would have hoped that Toyota would have shared those lessons with Abdul Latif Jameel.

One day after the Abdul Latif Jameel press conference the distributor puts out another news story. Abdul Latif Jameel plans to start car accessories subsidiary. I’m not making this up unfortunately. Let’s hope someone sees the funny side of this, as I don’t.

Internal communications may be the best investment you ever make

I was incredibly lucky last week to listen to two compelling business consultants. I’m usually a hard critic to please and I don’t often take to consultants coming in to tell me what I should and should not be doing. But the two gentlemen who came into the company last week, Scott McKain and Jonar Nader, both emphasized the importance of listening and knowing your customer.

What impressed me most during the two days of business and management workshops was Nader’s insistence that companies fail because of a disconnect between their employees. By forgoing the people-management skills and internal communications companies fail to engage their staff. For more about Nader and his thoughts have a look at his blog which includes thoughts on his visit to Dubai.

To quote from one of Nader’s recent essays, “Most people are plagued by miscommuication, jealousy, and immaturity, resulting in poor performance. Individually, staff members might be great workers, but when lumped together with a range of personalities, egos clash.”

“As a technical genius, your success will depend on how well you marshall your team. Sadly, many technical gurus either isolate themselves and become eccentrics who lack influence, or they jump in the deep-end of management and drown in unfamiliar territory.”

I couldn’t agree with Nader more on people management being at the core of a company’s success and failure. Both Nader and McKain talked about information, about communication between employees. One of the best tools that I ever used and managed was was an internal website, an intranet. It may sound strange – after all an intranet is only designed for use by employees rather than the general public. Its audience is strictly defined and limited.

However, I’ve found that companies with intranets have a much better educated workforce. Employees generally understand their firm’s rules and regulations much better than companies who don’t have an intranet. An intranet also plays a major role in keeping the workforce up to date in terms of new products, successes, and company changes.

In short, the more a workforce is empowered with information, the more your employees will communicate. The less they’ll be in the dark about where the company is headed and how the company intends to grow. Your employees become your advocates rather than your naysayers. For the return on the investment is there anything better than an intranet and more internal communications in general?

And if you’re interested in knowing about Scott McKain have a look at this video!