In the past few weeks, we have seen green shoots rising out of the ashes of relentless pursuit of corporate profits, quarter-over-quarter.
Canadians are not sitting back any more and taking bad corporate behaviour. We may have arrived at a tipping point where increasingly Canadians who have been shoved, are pushing back.
And like that great line in the film The King’s Speech, we remembered that we “Have a voice.”
In February, Dave Moreau, an unknown IT worker at RBC found a receptive ear with the CBC’s Kathy Tomlinson. The story was 45 Canadians would have been fired from good jobs and replaced by Indian nationals through a third-party “strategic outsourcing” supplier, iGate. Next thing we know, Gord Nixon, Canada’s biggest banker, was all over the media—often with his foot in his mouth.
Over in Bangladesh, a garment factory collapsed in Rana Plaza, killing more than 800, hundreds still missing, and thousands injured. And many more thousands unemployed.
And just because a videographer caught a glimpse of a Joe Fresh clothing label in the debris and some editor put that on Canadian television, suddenly Canada’s best-known retail leader, Galen G. Weston, was all over the media in an unprecedented news conference on how to handle crisis PR. He said the right things and his company is taking the right actions.
The RBC “fire the Canadians” story broke on a weekend. And RBC’s immediate reaction was to put a human resources executive in front of the cameras, trying to justify RBC’s actions by quoting contract clauses with supplier iGate. RBC had no idea what was waiting for them on Monday morning.
Nixon, badly briefed by lawyers and personnel department specialists, tried to defend anti-employee actions that “maximized shareholder value” and helped earn him his $12.6 million in salary–a 25 per cent increase over the previous year.
By the start of the week, politicians had heard from constituents across Canada. Members of Parliament were trying to justify the foreign-trained worker rules while scrambling to change those same rules in order to protect Canadians.
Meanwhile, reporters in TV, radio and print got busy unearthing stories of those Canadians who were, umm, “outplaced” years ago by the foreign trained worker legislation. And, Canadians took to social media like Twitter and Facebook to vent their frustration.
Television crews seemed to have no trouble finding Canadians willing to say, on camera, that they were closing their RBC accounts. Their problem was, Where to open their new bank accounts? Turned out that all the big banks and insurance companies were using loopholes in well-intentioned foreign-trained worker legislation to boost profits at the expense of their Canadian employees.
Finally, in the face of public outrage, Nixon agreed to do more than go through the motions of finding other suitable jobs in RBC for the outplaced employees.
We have not seen this type of activism in Canada, ever. From the scandal, to the media firestorm, to the public outrage, to the almost immediate reaction in Parliament. And, activism that got results. This was unprecedented.
Galen Weston comes from one of the wealthiest families in the world. Sunday nights on the PBS channel airs the show about Harry Gordon Selfridge and the retail empire that he built, Selfridges—now owned by the Weston family. The show Mr. Selfridge emphasizes corporate social responsibility (CSR): be innovative, treat your customers well, show respect to all you deal with and treat your employees well and fairly, too.
In contrast to RBC’s “blame the supplier” approach, soon after Loblaw learned of the tragedy in Bangladesh, it went on the record pledging financial aid to the victims and their families.
The factory collapse led Canadians to re-examine their values: What is the relationship among cheap clothes, working conditions, and danger? Does someone have to die so I can get a cheap T-shirt? While Disney decided to immediately pull the plug on having its clothing made in Bangladesh, Galen Weston and Joe Mimran, founder of the Joe Fresh label, pledged Loblaw people on the ground in Bangladesh, to oversee local operations and even supervise building codes in a country known for unscrupulous business practices.
Good companies are waking up from the stupor of almost 20 years of outsourcing in relentless pursuit of ROI. Thanks to social media, bad news travels faster than ever. And smart companies are sensitive to public backlash that will negatively impact their brand. Bad public opinion is a big hill to climb.
The big development from the RBC outsourcing story and the Bangladesh garment factory collapse is that both the media and Canadians are watching. From now on, it will be much harder to fire Canadians and replace them with lower paid foreigners.
In the broadest possible sense, the job of public relations is to advise on everything that affects a company’s reputation; so PR sits at the management table along with Operations, Marketing, Finance, Human Resources, Information Technology, and other departments.
And the task of sharp PR people is to anticipate crises and solve problems before they hit the fan. It’s not to have the excuses ready, it’s to prevent the problem from hitting in the first place. In other words, turn off the fan.