A Tale of Two Brand Reputations – MNCs in Russia and P&O’s Sacking of 800 UK Workers

What will the impact of the past couple of weeks be on global brands in Russia? And will P&O Ferries and its parent company DP World come to regret the overnight firing of 800 UK employees? Image by vectorpouch

Reputations are funny things. They take years to build, and can be lost in a moment. In many ways, the past month will become a period of intense research for those wanting to know more about corporate actions and their impact on reputations.

First up, we have the tragedy of the war in the Ukraine. Responding to both public and political pressure, over 400 global brands have pledged to suspend, pull back or stop operations in Russia, according to the Financial Times. For multinationals to move at this speed is unprecedented. What is most striking is the decisions many have come to, namely to risk not being able to do business in what is a sizable market (Russia’s population is over 144 million) for the short to medium term. While sanctions have pushed them in a certain direction, many are also weighing up public sentiment in the West regarding how they respond (some such as McDonalds aren’t just closing stores, but they’re continuing to pay their Russian staff).

Second, we have another crisis. This time the crisis seems to be more of the company’s own doing. P&O Ferries laid off 800 crew from its ships last week. The news was delivered via a pre-recorded video message, and guards were hired to escort staff off the ships. The firm claimed it had to replace British staff with cheaper labor to save the company and make it viable. All this despite the parent company DP World making record revenues of US$10.8 billion in 2021. The saga, which includes political intrigue (Ministers were told the night before about the mass firings and the government did not vote for a bill to protect workers from mass layoffs the previous year) and the inevitable debate about the legacy of Brexit, has seen both P&O Ferries and DP World being hammered in the UK media (there’s no mention I have seen of this story in the UAE’s press).

Both scenarios highlight the challenges facing businesses. The former is forcing firms to take a stance on a conflict, in what could be a precedent for future wars. And the latter is a self-inflicted reputational crisis that P&O Ferries and DP World could have arguably avoided with better judgement (other ferry companies employ foreign labor at a fraction of the cost of UK nationals, the difference is the number of layoffs and how they were conducted). Either way, firms must think about the reputational impact of their actions, especially in a digital world where anyone and everyone can comment in an instant. Just ask DP World’s Chairman and Group CEO about the response to his tweet about speaking with Emirati youth as P&O Ferries security staff were escorting fired workers off the ships… (the responses have been hidden; you can still see quote tweets).

Who delivers the message is just as important as the message itself – a lesson from Abu Dhabi

Now, if you were to present to these people what would you think of wearing? (image source: The New York Times)

Many of us in the communications industry spend so long on developing the message itself that we often forget about the impact of who is going to deliver the message. A striking example of this and one of the most striking examples of mismatching the what with the who dates back to 2006, when Dubai’s DP World lost control of six ports in the US in part due to a lack of understanding how to present to a specific audience. For those who remember the episode the highlight was UAE nationals dressed in kandouras presenting to US officials, which didn’t help to assuage American lawmakers that the ports would not be a security threat in the hands of an Arab-owned company.

A news item this week caught my eye. It was an interesting article about a subject that needs more airtime, that of energy conservation and electricity subsidies. I’m going to quote from the article, which was published in the English-daily Gulf News, below.

When you switch off a lamp or an electric gadget when not needed, it is not merely minimising your own expense, but helps the nation implement more welfare measures for its people, including building more schools and hospitals.

Abu Dhabi Government spent Dh4 billion on subsidies on oil that used for energy generation last year, a senior official said here yesterday.

If energy consumption is minimised, the oil used for power generation can be exported and its revenue can be used for constructing schools etc, said Robert Bradley, Senior Policy Advisor — Climate Change, Directorate of Energy and Climate Change at the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He was speaking at a discussion meeting in the capital… It was Abu Dhabi Sustainability Group’s sixth Hiwar Session (the Arabic word for dialogue), a public event, which aimed to shed light on current economic, social and environmental issues and its implications for sustainability in Abu Dhabi.

Let’s have a look at the message, which in itself is fascinating. Abu Dhabi is spending unnecessary money on power generation, money that could be spent on infrastructure, on public services, education or healthcare. All good so far. However, who is speaking and to which audience?

We have a Westerner, an expat talking about nation-building. Okay, but which group(s) would have have the most interest in looking long term? Who uses public services such as national schools and hospitals? It’d be a safe assumption to say UAE nationals. And which consumer demographic uses the most electricity per head (take a guess… yes, it’s locals).

The question would be, why isn’t a UAE national delivering the message, in Arabic? And why is an English-language paper reporting on this rather than the Arabic press? Surely a UAE national would have more gravitas and clout in spreading this message to his or her fellow citizens, in a language and dialect that they understand. There’d be less opportunity for misunderstandings and misgivings.

We’ve often got to think beyond the message to the messenger him or herself. If we don’t then we’re going to miss the chance to make the impact that we’re hoping for. And trust me, we’re not going to be able to rely on oil and gas in this part of the world forever.