How have the mighty fallen. One minute we loved Google and now we hate them. Just a few years ago almost anything the internet giant did was marvelled at and lauded as it seemed to break all the rules of business and defy commercial gravity. We heard about its fun and funky office and zany business practices while experts on corporate communication praised the way that it managed relations with its various audiences.
And then the tax story broke. As a corporate speechwriter who advises companies on their communications I’ve been interested to watch Google’s fall from grace – and how CEO Eric Schmidt has defended the company. First things first, why has the media decided to attack the company. Well, the tax story is high on the agenda at the moment so it will always be of interest. Meanwhile, almost anything that Google does is newsworthy, so put to the two together, and you’ve got a great media story. The media also gets bored with idolising a person or organisation and they probably sense that the public is to. Since news is about what is new and different, abruptly changing tack and suddenly gunning for someone or something that you’ve previously praised is great in media terms.
What about Eric Schmidt’s defence? What lessons are there here for those interested in corporate speechwriting and corporate communications? The best form of a defence is attack and Schmidt had a go at the current tax system. Clearly aware of how Starbuck’s act of contrition complete with an offer to donate to the tax authorities had backfired Schmidt said: “The Google view here is that taxes should not be up to Google. We are following the international tax regime.”
Having been attacked by a politician, Ed Miliband, he took the argument to the door of the politicians. “I don’t think companies should decide what tax policies should be. Governments should,” Schmidt told his audience. This argument works because it moves the discussion on. Instead of focussing on the activities of companies, he’s pointing out that government has a role here. This is particularly relevant given that he’d just been attacked by a politician.
Later he said: “Virtually all of the American companies have tax structures like this. And there are analogous structures for European companies in America. But governments have a lot more power than we do. We have to follow the law and if the law changes we will absolutely follow it.” Broadening out the argument so that the focus is not just on Google but on all major international companies is sensible.
At one point Schmidt said: “We love the United Kingdom”. As a corporate speechwriter I always advise my clients to compliment the audience – but do it subtly. This is a bit gushing and frankly, sounds rather insincere. Schmidt also said that the company will continue to invest in the UK, “no matter what.” This is a more convincing compliment because it’s understated and it has substance.
When is an attack a debate? “We completely endorse the idea of having a big debate,” said Schmidt. Actually, the other participants in this story, including Ed Milliband, were scoring points off Google. However, by inviting a debate rather than simply retaliating Schmidt sounds more reasonable, considered and intelligent. After all, it sounds churlish, arrogant and aggressive to refuse to engage in a debate. Again, to a corporate speechwriter like me, this seems like a good move.