Alex Maalouf on Taking influence too far?
Posted on 2019 Jul,05

As French prosecutors investigate whether Monsanto and its agencies breached French data privacy laws, will the fallout affect how the communications industry engages with select groups of people, asks Alex Malouf*

Lists, they’re wonderful things. I have lists for my music, my movies, and even my groceries. But some lists are better than others, apparently. Just ask Bayer and FleishmanHillard, both of whom are in hot water for compiling a list of journalists, researchers and lawmakers, which was then used in campaigns to influence opinion on issues relating to the German life sciences and pharma firm. (According to The Holmes Report, French law prohibits creating personal databases that include people’s political opinions without their consent).

Much attention has been given towards the wonderfully named GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and its implications for both marketing and communications. But, what is fascinating in this story is that the accuser, French newspaper Le Monde, filed the complaint using a pre-existing French law, which neither FleishmanHillard nor Publicis Consultants were aware of. Given the importance of the law to what we as communicators can and can’t do, shouldn’t agencies at the least have some legal expertise and knowledge, which will guide their work and their advice to clients? It seems not, and from experience here in the Middle East, far too few agencies seek legal counsel.

“Will the Bayer story change how the communications industry engages with select groups of people? With the exception of France, I doubt it will.”

What’s also revealing is that Le Monde, one of France’s best-known dailies, which has a history going back to 1944, would raise the complaint rather than, say, an individual on the aforementioned list. As a newspaper, surely they would know that all public relations firms (and many people on the client side) work based on the notion of compiling lists of those individuals who are influential in a given area. I’ve yet to meet a journalist worth his or her weight in salt who doesn’t compile their own lists.

In a digital age, influence is often thought of as how many followers or likes one has. That view is mistaken; influence is much subtler. While the social networks may have changed how communicators engage the public, much of what is done with those people who have influence over issues such as policy development is still conducted as it always has been. Even on the media side, I can’t imagine the better public relations professionals out there not using journalist lists to engage with a select audience.

The final question I’d pose is this. Will the Bayer story change how the communications industry engages with select groups of people? With the exception of France, I doubt it will. Should it make both agencies and clients think about the legal basis of what they’re doing, and if all laws are being complied with? I’d hope so, particularly given how the notion of influence works today in a digital, borderless world. As I’ve said before on other issues, the basis for building influence is trust, and the basis of trust is good governance. If we’re breaking laws before we’ve even begun our work, we’re headed for trouble.

*Alex Malouf is a former chair for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa at the International Association of Business Communicators