OP-ED: US business must account for transatlantic tensions

The best strategic advice often involves helping a client to comprehend broad new realities. Now is the time to engage in that kind of analysis for US companies that operate in Europe. From the run-up to the war in Iraq through the recent Group of Eight summit in France, it has become clear that the US' status abroad - and the state of the transatlantic relationship - affects countless companies in countless ways.

The best strategic advice often involves helping a client to comprehend broad new realities. Now is the time to engage in that kind of analysis for US companies that operate in Europe. From the run-up to the war in Iraq through the recent Group of Eight summit in France, it has become clear that the US' status abroad - and the state of the transatlantic relationship - affects countless companies in countless ways.

Media coverage of the summit revealed the dynamics, as commentators labored to appraise the body language between President George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac. Was the ice breaking? Or were there signs of continuing tension? These are important questions not only for diplomats and politicians, but also for communicators counseling clients. Anti-Americanism was on the rise well before Saddam Hussein was targeted. Iraq unlocked anti-US sentiments in Europe and a backlash against France in the States. We have been approaching a crossroads for a while. For 50 years, the transatlantic partnership focused on European regional issues. Today, transatlantic relations are defined less by US engagement in Europe and more by the abilities of both sides to cope with the challenges of globalization, crises worldwide, and increasingly divergent political and business approaches. Anti-Americanism has grown as a natural extension of this shift. It has gained additional steam from worries that multinationals would trample local traditions, uproot economies, and disrupt the way people live and work. This all started well before the current US President came to office. In many respects, Bush's willingness to unilaterally project America's power preemptively as a direct consequence of the post-September 11 environment has only brought these fears to a head. Iraq was the tipping point. As the statue of Saddam was toppling in Baghdad, Weber Shandwick conducted a survey of consumers in the US, France, Germany, and the UK to determine the impact of the war on global brands. We learned that war might be over, but US consumers, in particular, are not ready to disarm. Global brands are likely to face residual effects and potential challenges in the marketplace. The results provide more evidence that we operate in a marketplace with a bold new consumer activist. We found that 43% of Americans are less likely to buy French products, 36% are less likely to buy German products, and 45% are more likely to boycott certain products now than they were five years ago. Once a protest march might have been an outlet for frustration. Now, increasingly, it is the cash register. How long will these attitudes last? Some frustrations are caused by an undertow from a stagnant US economy. Others will fade as Iraq leaves the front pages. Widespread boycotts are unlikely. But these attitudes threaten to infect political and economic relations between our countries. Sometimes the news will be in the noise of boycotts and protests. Sometimes the news will be in the silence as consumers continue with their habits. In our business, we must know the difference between the two. Here is what we know today: We know that companies with major brands often find themselves at the receiving end of small but highly visible boycotts. We know these reactions can differ widely from market to market, demographic to demographic. We know that companies are wise to pay attention to their local roots. We also know that anti-Americanism in Europe will lead to active and passive resistance against American products. We know that NGOs are experienced in consumer guerrilla tactics. We know that, in normal times, small but symbolic boycotts affect companies at the margins. Finally, we know that these are not normal times. Europeans living on both sides of the Atlantic are becoming more alarmed about the economic ramifications of the war and our divergent business practices. Europeans speak passionately of the importance of employees and their future; US companies have been forced to speak increasingly about the importance of accountants and transparency. Every business is different, and every business imparts different values. But the companies most associated with American values, the well-known American brands, are the ones most at risk. They may face a resurgence of national identities - of companies emphasizing their local and national heritage against international or US-based companies. In this atmosphere, companies must continue to react quickly and act locally. The job for American companies now is to tell the story of the many benefits that flow from solid economic ties with Europe. Understanding what is at stake on both sides of the Atlantic is a job not just for governments, but also for anyone who is in a position to educate, communicate, and shape opinion.
  • Jack Leslie is chairman of Weber Shandwick, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. This article is adapted from remarks he delivered on May 20 to the French-American Chamber of Commerce in Paris.

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