Jeremy Galbraith, Europe, Middle East and Africa director of Burson-Marsteller: ‘You’ve got to have local knowledge and know-how’. Photo: Tony O’Shea
One person who watched Starbucks Ireland’s tweet fiasco unfold with great interest last week was Jeremy Galbraith, Europe, Middle East and Africa director of Burson-Marsteller, one of the world’s largest PR firms.
“I think they needed to act faster, and more positively and progressively than they did,” said Galbraith of Starbucks’ handling of its misstep on Twitter, when it asked its Irish followers what made them proud to be British.
“If it really was done by somebody in an office outside Dublin, in London or wherever it may well be, and they’re trying to engage at a local level – well, it just doesn’t work. It’s the job of public relations agencies to prepare companies to do it well and to prepare responses when things go wrong.”
WPP-owned Burson-Marsteller was formed in the US in 1953 and made advances into Europe in the ’60s. Since 2000, it has purchased affiliates in the Middle East, and last year bought its first agency in South Africa. Its growth has been gradual – mergers and acquisitions taking place only with agencies that have very long-standing relationships with the parent company. Galbraith oversees the operations of 29 Burson-Marsteller offices, employing 700 people in the EMEA region. For the corporate world, Galbraith said that, while social media allowed cost-effective audience segmentation that wasn’t achievable with advertising or classic media relations, its heady pace posed challenges and risks with consequences.
“But that’s not to say you can’t take a crisis and turn it around,” he said. “In 2009, Domino’s Pizza – faced with a lot of online commotion in relation to some less-than-savoury posts by employees that went viral – engaged with customers very quickly. They conducted a huge campaign and used it to relaunch with customer input. In the first quarter after that relaunch, sales were up by 14 per cent.
“For NGOs, as another example, social media is a gift. Did you see the campaign by Greenpeace against Nestlé? Did you see the one with the KitKat?”
Although Burson-Marsteller specialises in corporate issues, crisis and public affairs, Galbraith’s enthusiasm for social media’s “opportunity” is indiscriminate, and based on a large number of high-profile case studies.
“Greenpeace accused Nestlé of buying from palm oil suppliers that contributed to rainforest destruction. It produced a short viral film of somebody taking a bite of a KitKat – but instead of being a piece of chocolate, it was the finger of an orang-utan. It was visually very powerful, it spread like anything on the internet.”
Nestlé, which denied the claims, took legal action in the aftermath of the clip’s release, which Galbraith said was not the answer. “In the end, they engaged with Greenpeace, came to a solution. The original response shows the knee-jerk in action, but the overall outcome demonstrates the power of the web.”
For Galbraith, public relations hinges on trust and trustworthiness. “People trust local companies and frontline staff,” he said. “The last person you put up to speak on behalf of the company is the chief executive. Nobody trusts the chief executive, externally.”
He gave the example of BP’s Gulf of Mexico disaster, after which its chief executive, Tony Hayward, responded to the public. “That was a monumental disaster. When BP realised that, they started using local spokespersons who were much more credible than the British executive who had been flown over to say a few words and was almost automatically discredited by those affected.”
In today’s competitive market, Galbraith said the “generalist” approach which agencies took in the past was not an option. “When I joined Burson in 1995, an international, full-service agency was an attraction for clients. That’s changed – these days, with the plethora of agencies out there, you’ve got to have local knowledge and know-how.”
Burson-Marsteller commissioned a European-wide survey on trust last year, which showed a massive breakdown in trust of government and of corporations. “The only thing that people trusted was what was local,” said Galbraith. “Around 61 per cent said they thought when companies spoke to them it was a lie, a spun story. Regaining trust is critical, and you begin by doing that at a low level.”
Galbraith originally wanted to be a politician, and, in 1992, fought a seat for the Conservative Party in London. “What normally happens is you fight your unwinnable seat and next time you have a chance. But I looked at the Major government and thought, you know what, we’re out, for a very long time. I opted to focus on my business career and I don’t regret it, not for a second. The lack of trust in politicians, particularly nowadays, is startling.”
Despite the cross-sectoral trust dilemma, Galbraith remains upbeat. Burson-Marsteller’s market grew last year, and has since continued to grow – even in Europe. He said wise companies continued to take advantage of the downturn to differentiate their brands from others.
“Securing a competitive advantage in these times is more achievable, especially with the right advice,” he said. “In the 1980s and 1990s, the CSR movement was about polluting a river somewhere and giving money to a local school to feel better. Today, corporate credos need to be further-reaching and better ingrained. We want our clients to ask: what are we really here for? We’re trying to make our shareholders money, but what are we actually trying to do?
“Again, it comes back to the Starbucks example,” he said. “A lot of companies are faking it. There’s a big buzz about public relations on an international scale, with a major emphasis on digital communications and online engagement – but very often, companies haven’t given thought to what they want to do with all of that. Less is sometimes more, or certainly better than trying everything and losing out.”