“The war in Ukraine is dramatic, unbearable for both Ukrainians and Leroy Merlin in Ukraine. It affects us all,” said the company’s chief executive, Philippe Zimmermann, in a recent video address to employees. But he did not stop there.
“[But] there is no reason to condemn our Russian teams for a war they did not choose. There is no reason to turn away 45 000 employees representing 100 000 people with their families. There is no reason to stop being useful to Russians who need to repair, insulate, insure, protect, and light their homes. We sell them essentials. It is our responsibility as employers and companies. Leaving Russia would risk having the company’s assets nationalised, to the detriment of Russian employees,” added Zimmermann.
The above is cited in a New York Times report. It relates the reluctance of a major French retailer to respond positively to growing calls for Western companies to shut down their operations in Russia in response to growing sanctions and to express their own outrage at what is termed Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
To the message by Zimmermann, one of the company’s Ukrainian directors, Yevgeniy Kuzmin, responded by saying that “they are talking about the well-being of Russian employees but we’re facing life and death in Ukraine – this is war”.
Other Ukrainian employees posted calls on the company’s digital platforms for it to “stop sales in Russia”, but management ignored the calls and chose, instead, to shut down the company’s internal Gmail account, blocking the employees’ ability to communicate with the company’s home office and with one another using its platforms.
To some observers, the message by Zimmermann could be compared to the unfortunate, notorious, utterance by BP’s Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP, when he said during a media address following an environmentally devastating oil spill that “I would like my life back”. The comment cost him his job and robbed BP of massive reputational credit at the time.
To quote an unlikely source, former premier of the Western Cape – and subsequent ambassador to Washington DC, US, Ebrahim Rasool, who now travels the world as a peace negotiator and speaker – companies, just like countries, must choose which side of their lenses they approach the world with.
“They can either approach complex situation looking from the perspective that emphasises their humanity, ethics, and values, or they can do so from the perspective that focuses only on their national or corporate interests,” says Rasool.
He acknowledges that there are consequences for each, just like there are consequences for decisions brands – be they destination, corporate, personal, institutional – must take all the time.
During the many years of apartheid in South Africa, or in more recent times of state capture and other forms of ongoing, institutionally devastating, corruption, the private sector has largely remained quiet, even benefitted from the mayhem instead of speaking out.
Some have been blatant in their assertion that they do not mix business with politics, so they stay out of politics to focus all their resources on maximising shareholder value. This is often disingenuous, of course, because history shows us that there are often funds that flow towards despotic, kleptocratic, regimes, directly and indirectly, that, cynics would say, serve as some form of protection fees from harassment by powerful politicians, and to secure government business.
Similar arguments have been given by those who opposed sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa, that they took such a stance to avoid situations where innocent people would be affected if their livelihoods were destroyed. They could have been genuine in their claims, but no one can say that for sure, particularly when some continued to adhere unquestioningly to the apartheid government’s race-based job reservation system in their recruitment and promotion practices.
But comments by prominent people in business and politics, even if they contain kernels of truth, must never be made without reading the public and, increasingly, global moods and sentiments, as what could be said without malice could backfire in a big way if all stakeholder – not just shareholder – expectations are not considered. It is, of course, likely that Hayward had spent days dealing with the aftermath of the oil spill, that his family life was badly impacted at a crucial time the details of which we do not know, and that Zimmerman really has the plight of innocent Russian employees at heart, as well as, of course, the fear that the Russian government would carry out its threat of nationalising the assets of any Western company that shuts its operations in response to the sanctions by the West.
It is by no means a straightforward matter, but brands cannot ignore dominant public sentiments when making decisions or issuing statements, irrespective of whether they could be factually or legally correct.
In fact, reputational wars are not always won through legalese. The courts of public opinion can easily destroy a brand that has won a case in the legal courts by simply depriving it of space to express itself. Some call it an element of “wokenism”. There can also be a sinister mob approach to some of what happens that experienced reputation management strategists can guide brands through to ensure that they do not end irretrievably on the back foot, the last place any self-respecting brand wants to be. An example of this is the retort by many to the call that “Blacks Lives Matter” with the true, yet often clumsy in terms of timing, counter claim that “All Lives Matter”. All lives do matter, of course, but saying so amid genuine cries by the affected, be they black people or white farmers who felt under siege at one point in South Africa, is never helpful. At best, it lacks empathy.
The era of corporate brands being concerned only with the interests of shareholders is long gone – despite some still behaving as if it hasn’t – and unlikely to return. Increasingly, they must demonstrate genuine consideration for the rights and plight of humans in general and, specifically, minorities, women, and children, as well as the environment in general and, specifically, fauna, flora, microbiological, and oceanic forms of life. These are all forms of stakeholders that get directly and indirectly impacted by political and corporate decisions and actions. They form part of a global life ecosystem that, when impacted negatively in one part, experiences the reverberation of such impact elsewhere in the system.
The disruption of the lives of populations and their forced migration during conflict or protracted periods of human rights abuses, be it in Syria, the DRC, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, or Ukraine, requires that businesses are considerate of what it means to be perceived to side with despots and aggressors for the sake of profitability. In the case of Leroy Merlin, it has not helped that employees leaked an internal management message to the effect that the company has been planning to “expand its Russian inventory – where it operates 112 stores – to adjust to sanctions and (take advantage of) the departure of rival Western chains”, as reported by the New York Times.
Managing political and corporate reputation during fast moving times of strive and conflict can be a treacherous task requiring skilled, experienced, reputation strategists, not spin doctors or simple public relations runners.
Solly Moeng is the founder and Convenor of the Africa Brand Summit. Subscribe to his LinkedIn newsletter, “I’m So Solly” by clicking here.