As head of global communications and European public affairs at GE Energy, Frank Farnel is one of the region’s most experienced public relations practitioners. The Frenchman joined the company in 2005, after a string of senior comms roles at such companies as Bombardier, Renault and Toyota.
In the following interview, he explains why local politics is more important than ever, how companies must become more culturally savvy, and where agencies need to improve.
What is biggest challenge you are facing, given the changes in Europe’s political and regulatory environment?
In terms of public affairs, what’s keeping us busy is that the scene has drastically changed since the crisis. In the past we were lobbying more administrative-type government bodies. Now, since the crisis, government and companies need to work together. Where we used to be dealing with administrative bodies, we need to consider the political environment. Those are the guys making the call. They also are the elected officials responsible for delivering. You have to be more politically savvy. Now you need to understand the political environment.
So are you shifting your focus away from the EU and national governments towards local politicians?
The paradigm has shifted a little with the crisis. The financial resources are much more at the level of sub-national governments than national ones. In the past, countries would deliver a message. Now, the reality is that once a government issues its programme - it is for the regions to implement that - and the situations have drastically changed. The people who make that happen are the people on the floor. We are getting closer to the implementation phase. This is a huge change in the profession of public affairs and communications. That’s the reason why I set up the partnership between GE and the Assembly of European Regions. GE is the technical expert for energy for those regions - in an effort to treat government as our customers. And to understand what their challenges are - and so they can benefit from our technical expertise.
How important is Brussels, amid all this?
It is still the organisation that regulates, pushes and promotes. But, at the end of the day, it is locally where politicians make things happen. We need to take that into account - simply because after the crisis, everybody must work together. Now it is a necessity.
Is it becoming tougher for large corporates to navigate different cultures?
The system has evolved. Who would have thought we would be communicating at the pace we are doing now? When I tell my kids my stories, they look at my as if I was ET. It makes the environment challenging, faster, more intercultural. You cannot pretend to run international activities if you are not culturally savvy. It was not possible in the past. You have to look at them from their vision. The big challenge is to really make sure that the people really take that into account. You don’t wake up in the morning and become intercultural.
How does GE ensure it doesn’t come over as a huge American company in Europe?
GE was very smart in developing its regionalisation programme - where they realised that if they wanted to play the game, they had to play with non-American and local representatives. Despite all of what you want to say, if you are Chinese you have a better chance of speaking to Chinese, French to French. Sometimes you can pass a barrier if you have mastered that intercultural element - you become like a citizen of the world. You need to live abroad a lot. GE has developed that know-how, where it is empowering regions outside of the US - therefore, GE is a member of the country in the regions in which it operates.
You work with several agencies in Europe. What is the one thing they could do better?
First of all, we’ve been working with Hopscotch Europe In One. It’s an interesting approach in how they cover Europe. When we decided to do it, people asked how can you do that? You should have everybody local. It takes talent, it takes desire to serve the customer. So far, it has been a very good choice in that sense. The fact that we were a finalist at the SABRE Awards is recognition that it is the right choice. I think the time where you had customers who didn’t know about communications and public affairs is gone. The fact that people were impressed because you knew someone or could introduce someone is gone. What we are asking as customers is for a heavy level of professionalism and knowledge, and savoir faire. When I look at an agency, is this a make it happen company?. It comes back to the talent of the people - I think the recipe here is the talent. Do you have it or don’t you. After 25 years of running a communications function, you see very quickly who you are talking to.