Like many mature European economies, France has suffered some tough times in recent months. The poor economic climate resulted in mass layoffs and high unemployment, in a country where social progress is prized.
In an atmosphere of widespread discontent, criticism of politicians has been unsurprising. As examples, the French government has come under fire for rejoining NATO, and for spending too much public money on swine flu vaccines.
More significantly, perhaps, the Clearstream slander trial of Dominique de Villepin captivated the country, with the former PM accused of plotting to blacken the name of current PM Nicolas Sarkozy. Trust, it appears, is becoming a valuable commodity in Europe's second-largest economy.
In business terms, France already assumes an important international position, home to major global players such as LVMH, Danone, Total, Carrefour and PSA Peugeot Citroen.
Groups such as those have helped spawn a marketing communications industry that includes two of the world's biggest holding companies: Publicis Groupe and Havas. Both are relatively underweighted in terms of PR revenues, and both are attempting to rectify this.
Most notably, Publicis Groupe merged its two global PR networks – US-based MS&L and France's Publicis Consultants – under a new MS&L Group banner, adding in various other agency resources from around the world.
Moves such as these point to the influence that Paris is beginning to exert over the international PR market. A 2006 report from trade association Syntec Conseil en Relations Publiques, estimates that French companies spend approximately 17.5bn Euros domestically on ‘non-advertising communication'.
Approximately 60 per cent of this figure could be classed as traditional PR. Anecdotal evidence points to a relatively large role for in-house comms departments, rather than outsourced PR agencies.
In addition, says Weber Shandwick France MD Arnaud Pochebonne, the ‘online comms' market is now worth 2.1bn Euros, an increase of six per cent over 2008. He forecasts growth of eight per cent in 2010.
According to a recent TNS Sofres study, trust levels of media are high in France, although considerable doubts about the independence of journalists exist.
The French print press, says MS&L Group France president Fabrice Fries, ‘is in a state of turbulence'. The evening daily Le Monde is the biggest general newspaper, and is considered the voice of the political establishment. It is flanked by the left- and right-leaning Liberation and Le Figaro, respectively.
The three dailies cover just 25 per cent of the national newspaper market, because of the strength of local and regional titles. In particular free local dailies 20 Minutes and Metro, have a combined circulation of 5.2 million. Fifty-five regional newspapers currently exist, led by Le Parisien.
Key financial dailies include Les Echos and La Tribune, while sports newspaper L'Equipe is also popular. 2009 was also a strong year for media group Groupe Lagardere, which owns such magazines as Paris Match and Elle.
TV retains leadership for family viewing, led by private channel TF1 and public broadcaster France 2. The TV landscape, says Euro RSCG C&O's Benoit Viala, is ‘undergoing a profound transformation' because of the rise of digital TV offerings.
Radio, though, remains France's most popular medium - with 58 per cent of people trusting it as a reliable source of information. This makes it more trusted than the press (55 per cent), TV (48 per cent) and the internet (35 per cent).
Fries points out that the French were relatively slow, in European terms, to adopt the internet. That has rapidly changed, to the point where France is now the region's second-biggest internet market. ‘This is highlighted in a surge in demand from our major clients for long-term online strategies focusing on e-influencers, while at the same time monitoring conversations and conducting reputation surveys,' says Viala.
Key channels include Twitter and Facebook. Boursorama is an important forum for monitoring shareholder opinion. News commentary is led by Le Figaro, citizen journalism site Agoravox and tech blog Mashable. Pochebonne also points to Rue89 and Mediapart as key opinion-based community websites. Specific bloggers are also highly influential, such as fashion blogger Garance Dore.
Fries points out that France is one of the world's more ‘brand-conscious' countries, as illustrated by a recent report from eMarketer. Domestic companies noted for effective stakeholder engagement include retail powerhouse Carrefour, water brand Evian, and automotive giant Peugeot.
Lifestyle and luxury players are also highly visible, led by L'Oreal, Hermes, Chanel and LVMH. Notably, luxury groups are currently engaged in an important lobbying battle at Brussels to prevent their products being sold on auction websites.
Both Pochebonne and Fries, surprisingly, use McDonald's as an example of an international brand that has built effective stakeholder engagement. The fast-food giant has developed strong community outreach, including a particular focus on environmental activites, such as a ‘green' magazine. ‘It really tried to improve its ethical image, and it must continue in 2010,' says Pochebonne.
The important challenges for brands, says Viala, are transformation and CSR. ‘The human aspect in particular will become the most important factor; this involves several sensitive issues such as the right balance between professional and private life and the fair distribution of earnings within companies.'
An example of this trend comes from Renault, which came under severe criticism for its response to a spate of employee suicides in 2007. A number of worker suicides have also occurred at France Telecom, with some observers noting that rudimentary employee comms and change management processes are exarcebated by the difficult economic environment.
Agency activity is led out of the capital city Paris. The three biggest PR agencies are understood to be Havas-owned Euro RSCG, Publicis Consultants, and TBWA Corporate, the PR arm of Omnicom-owned ad agency TBWA.
The merger of Publicis Consultants with sister agency MS&L has created, at a stroke, the world's third-biggest PR consultancy by revenues, led by Publicis Groupe senior executive Olivier Fleurot and MS&L president Fabrice Fries.
Global networks activity is led by Edelman, Porter Novelli, Fleishman Hillard, Ogilvy PR and Weber Shandwick. ‘Most of the largest international firms in France find it hard to make money because they are not big enough,' asserts Viala.
Key local players include FHCom, I&E Consultants and Wellcom.
Viala points to crisis management, CSR, digital and public affairs as important practice areas.
A thriving political environment, coupled with an interventionist public sector and strong proximity to the EU means that public affairs, in Fries' words, ‘plays a key role'.
‘However, lobbying remains a bad word in French, as it is synonymous with undue influence of private interests in policymaking,' he adds.
A spate of new legislative initiatives by Sarkozy has only increased the importance of public affairs. Lobbyists, says Viala, exert ‘considerable pressure on social issues'.
The area is dominated by Euro RSCG C&O, Publicis Consultants and respected lobbying firm Boury & Associes. Burson-Marsteller, Fleishman-Hillard, Edelman and Hill & Knowlton all offer credible PA practices. So do various law firms, such as August & Debouzy.
Both France's National Assembly and Senate have attempted to regulate lobbying in recent months, with little success. Registration remains voluntary and client disclosure often, says Faulkner, is vague.
Government spending on PR, estimated at 22m Euros last year, should not be underestimated.