My Biggest Mistake: Michael Burrell
Sunday 06 March 1994
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.
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Weather bomb in pictures: Storms cuts power for tens of thousands – and snow is on the way
Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
Russell Brand was rendered speechless on Question Time by this man
Fury at Airbus after it hints the super-jumbo may be mothballed
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food
iJobs Money & Business
$200 - $350 per annum: Carlton Senior Appointments: Managing Producer Office...
$125 - $225 per annum: Carlton Senior Appointments: San Fran - Investment Advi...
Up to £70,000 per annum + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accoun...
Up to £65,000 per annum + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accoun...