Google has been in the news this week with the EU issuing antitrust charges over alleged abuse of its dominant position with its Android operating system. Luckily it had Microsoft’s earlier tussle with Brussels on similar charges to draw on.
It also has its own superb team to handle such matters. They’ll be busy in the next twelve weeks.
The online giant knows ignoring regulation destroys businesses. If your CEO relegates its management to a remote part of the company, s/he’s going to be moved on pretty sharpish.
I have been a regulatory poacher and gamekeeper. Fishing for a break from competition authorities to reward enterprise when at places like Sky and Millicom, and forcing through changes to help markets work more fairly when working at Ofcom.
It requires a lot of intellectual heavy lifting. I recall one very senior official telling me that part of the regulator’s job was to know more about the companies overseen than the companies knew themselves. That’s why his organisation was stuffed full of PhDs and MBAs (who often then got poached to the poachers’ side) who dug deep and thought hard.
Back inside the company, smart lawyers and economists ran models demonstrating the fairness of its commercial stance and the iniquity of our competitors’. I’ll never forget the CEO’s 7am call to me from an airborne plane to say we’d been let off, just, by the competition regulator after an inquiry. There was only a cosmetic wrist slap and some grandstanding to endure.
We were a basis point away from further action – showing just how well-tuned the business was. My CEO had made sure that the regulatory team were fully across all the firm’s activities and embedded knowledge and practices there to avoid fines, disposals and public opprobrium. So the company maximised profits by sailing as close to the regulatory wind as allowable without capsizing and drowning it in ruinous anti-trust penalties.
But such scrupulous management is not enough by itself. Demonstrating strict adherence to the rules to investigating authorities is indispensable. But too narrow a legalistic approach can weaken the case. Compliance needs to be matched by smart communications too.
One barbed remark, from a super-smart senior colleague managing such matters at one company, highlighted this for me as a communicator by asking “What value are you adding to the company on this exactly?”.
I was quite offended. But, on reflection, it was fair. He had a very dim view of the press and media. He had supreme confidence in his own intellectual ability and a sneering attitude to his peers at the regulator. He believed only his team’s objective evidence would be admissable and would win the day with them.
I did the autopilot speech about broader strategic reputation management also subjectively influencing such matters. Such soft talk met with derision.
So I took him by a reluctant hand to do some tactical briefings for broadsheet and business media whilst gently turning up the volume on our innovation and others’ competition. It was the classic convert opponent-to-neutral and neutral-to-support operation. The fruits of such labour duly appeared: less hostility and even some signs of support.
That, with many other activities, made the job of the regulator easier when adjudicating our case. They’re not purely po-faced pointy-headed institutions. Even they have a persona and care how they are perceived. The “public” ground had been prepared sufficiently well to enable it to make a reasoned judgement without being accused of bias or incompetence.
Of course we protested at its suggestion of any anti-competitive behaviour just as our rivals complained too. Result: happy regulator, not pleasing anyone and thereby being seen as fair and impartial.
That’s the course Google will be plotting. Stand by for some clever comms from them in the next few weeks as it deploys its considerable firepower. Anchors away!