In Andrew Roberts’ great biography of Winston Churchill, he tells an unflattering story of how Churchill unfairly criticised the behaviour of Shell Oil when he was First Sea Lord, before the First World War.
As Roberts tells it, Churchill had made the sound decision to shift the Royal Navy onto oil and away from coal; this would make British ships faster and more efficient. Doing so, however, required vast amounts of oil, which the Royal Navy secured via a huge deal with Shell.
In announcing the deal to Parliament, Churchill said it was a great deal other than the cost – which he implied had been too high and therefore that Shell had ripped off the taxpayer. The Chairman of Shell asked Churchill to make the details of the arrangement public, but Churchill refused.
In 1966, it was finally revealed that Shell made almost no money from the arrangement and had even offered to put a Royal Navy commander on the board of the company. In hindsight, it was an extraordinary attack on a company that had offered the British Government help.
Fast forward a hundred years and here we are with another part-British company – Astra Zeneca – being smashed apart by politicians for doing something more altruistic than Shell did – providing vast numbers of injections to Covid-hit countries across the world at cost. Politicians and officials in the US and Europe have lined up to criticise the company’s methodology and the drug’s safety whilst also effectively (and wrongly) accusing it of unethical behaviour in the form of stockpiling, failing to meet contractual arrangements, and so on.
The British Government hasn’t been the one attacking AZ this time, but nonetheless, as with Shell, politicians are attacking a company that has been doing the right thing. (Disclosure: Public First does occasional work for the University of Oxford, but has not worked on the vaccine project, nor have we ever worked with AZ ). Little wonder AZ are publicly musing whether they made a mistake in offering all this at cost.
What have we learned from the AZ affair? Four big lessons stand out.
1. There are massive risks of working with any Government – and this Government in particular
Any business that works with Government puts itself in the firing line: more people hear about them; the media takes a closer interest; opponents of the Government start criticising them. Businesses that work with Governments aren’t choosing to work with apolitical “states” and masses of neutral civil servants, but with political entities who have political supporters and political opponents – and this Government has more than its fair share of opponents.
As I’ve written before, much of the British media likes to think of most European countries being led by entirely rational, reasonable, great statesmen and women – driven only by vision and altruism and utterly uninterested in politics. But just as Leo Varadkar’s hostility to Britain during Brexit negotiations was in part driven by an electoral need to attract “soft” Sinn Fein voters, so Macron’s hostility to AZ is partly driven by embarrassment at French and general European failure to get their act together on vaccination, while Britain steamed ahead.
What was Macron – who faces his own election again soon – going to say? “Sorry everyone, I have personally messed up and Britain, who I always criticised, has made impeccable decisions”? Clearly not: there were obvious short-term political reasons why AZ would come under fire. You choose to work with Government, you pay a price.
2) British companies might face particular vulnerability in this new world
The fact AZ is part-British caused the company big political problems. While the idea of actual anti-British hostility is way overdone, the reality of Brexit made the failure of the European vaccination programme more problematic politically for some European leaders. In other words, it’s just hard luck on AZ that the political stars were lined up against them; there was little they could do.
But this is unlikely to be a one-off; while Covid raised the stakes, it’s nonetheless reasonable to assume that British companies are going to become more vulnerable politically and commercially in the coming years. Has Britain been in the EU, other European leaders would not have trashed it; outside the EU, it’s a different story. Our closest ally – the United States – is eye-wateringly aggressive in promoting and protecting its leading businesses (like Boeing); the EU is equally combative.
Outside the EU, for all the benefits that brings, there’s no question our businesses will lack the same protection that membership of a bigger block will bring.
3) The British Government will have to become more assertive on behalf of British companies
While there’s a limit to what the British Government can do to promote and protect British firms, it is going to have to start becoming much more assertive. At the moment, the Government helps to promote British trade by, for example, making introductions to foreign companies and foreign states; it also promotes Britain as a destination to invest in. This is all useful and the marketing teams at the Cabinet Office and the Department for International Trade have done a decent job over the last decade.
But the Government isn’t set up to engage in PR combat on behalf of British firms; in other words, to help defend firms in the media (and indeed on social media). While the Government can plan neat marketing campaigns to invest in Global Britain, they’re just not geared up to, say, engage in close combat with the New York Times, which is an entirely different model of communications.
The Government needs to explore the creation of a team within BEIS, the DIT or the Cabinet Office to help British businesses out when they’re unfairly attacked. While it’s not for them to promote one firm over another or to act as a business’ press office, the reality is that only Governments can make the news and command attention at certain times.
What could AZ really do when attacked by the President of France? At best, have a paragraph of context dumped on the end of a story. There’s no reason why the British Government can’t or shouldn’t be more assertive in helping British companies in the media – at least amongst top-tier titles like the NYT.
4) ‘Purpose’ is overplayed as a concept in corporate communications
For those of you that work in and around public affairs and corporate communications, you’ll know the recent obsession with firms demonstrating so-called “purpose”; this is where firms project their values to the outside world to show their decency. It’s a good idea in principle, although, as I’ve bored those of you in public affairs to death with for a decade, demonstrating purpose has to reflect the realities of public opinion, not the opinion of a company’s own marketing team.
In many ways, AZ had the perfect model to show “purpose”; in the end, though, it wasn’t enough. This is because “purpose” soon becomes “politics”.
I have no special knowledge of AZ or what happened, so I make a broader point not directed at them: you can only engage in this sort of work if you are ready for political combat. Again, AZ aside, there are many, many firms that are dipping their toe into the most controversial policy issues without even basic thought or preparation about how such policy conversations might play out.
AZ’s experience should make all businesses preparing to engage in seemingly innocuous policy conversations – or ones where there seem only to be upsides – think again.