My Biggest Mistake: Michael Burrell

MY BIGGEST mistake was ignoring my own advice.

It was actually a combination of two factors, but I think the root of the problem was in ignoring what I spend a lot of my time telling clients - that you need to understand other cultures.

A couple of years ago, we decided to set up a wholly owned lobbying operation in France, and to have it run by an American. Two things went wrong.

First, we forgot about the deep-rooted hostility between France and the United States.

Gaullism is still very strong, and it partly explains the difficulties of Euro Disney. So using an American national - even though she was technically very good at the job - was an important part of the mistake. The French are very nationalistic.

I also failed to understand - although I knew this intellectually - that the French lobbying environment was different from that in the United Kingdom, the United States or Brussels.

In fact, lobbying is a kind of Anglo-Saxon art or business form. And while it is well-established there, in southern Europe (and France is part of southern Europe for these purposes), it is not such a mature form.

Lobbying is really used in France mostly as a way of getting European Union business. It is rarely used internally. This is because there is no need.

Britain has become a much more fractured society. The old Eton-type links do not work any more, so lobbying by people who understand the system has a role.

But in France there is a still a small grouping of elite institutions which the leading figures in the private and public sectors attended. They stay in touch and there are great links between the two sectors, with people frequently crossing between them in both directions.

As a result, a lot of French companies don't feel the need for outside help. And this means that lobbying work is much more limited there. It is primarily restricted to lobbying the European institutions and assisting with investment in France by non- French companies.

What I did was to over- estimate the market for helping French companies with the French government.

It was a double mistake - and all the more odd because the whole theme of what I generally say to business is: 'If you want to lobby, you have to understand countries. It is no good rolling out a programme in the same way to different countries.'

I say it with great conviction and that is what we do. It has helped us become the eighth largest public relations consultancy in Europe and the UK. And one of our perceived strengths is that we are not American.

So why did I make this mistake? At least partly, it was because the individual was so technically impressive that I thought that would outweigh the risks.

But it didn't work - and it has very dramatically underlined the power of that message. I occasionally recount the story now as an illustration of the dangers of getting it wrong.

The company we work with in France today has great connections, and that works well. In France, lobbying is still largely about knowing the right people. In Britain, it's about knowing the system. You have to remember that.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Guru Careers: Stockbroker

£Basic (OTE) + Uncapped Commission: Guru Careers: A Stockbroker (qualified / p...

Recruitment Genius: Financial Adviser

£20000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you recently QCA Level 4 qu...

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £22500 per annum + OTE £30K: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

Guru Careers: Application Support Analyst / 1st Line Support

£25 - 30k: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Application Support Analyst / 1st L...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence