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
News
i100
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown, daughter of the late singer Whitney Houston, poses at the premiere of
people
News
people
News
The frequency with which we lie and our ability to get away with it both increase to young adulthood then decline with age, possibly because of changes that occur in the brain
scienceRoger Dobson knows the true story, from Pinocchio to Pollard
Voices
The male menopause: those affected can suffer hot flushes, night sweats, joint pain, low libido, depression and an increase in body fat, among other symptoms
voicesSo the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Life and Style
health
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Administrator

£13000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about custom...

Recruitment Genius: Dialler Administrator

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Main purpose: Under the directi...

Ashdown Group: Contracts Manager - City of London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Contracts Manager - City...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen