Unilever good PR bad PR inspirational move

There was a specific business news story which caught our eye last week, reporting the fact that FMCG manufacturer Unilever had reversed its decision to relocate the company headquarters to the Netherlands.

The reason for the reversal was the fact that they felt that UK shareholders and investors would not support the move. A very valid reason indeed, but it sparked our interest (and perhaps also our cynicism) as this particular story of a multinational changing its mind was met much more positively than tales of ‘a corporate performing a complete U turn’ tend to be.

With a little more thought, we realised that we were looking at a great PR story. The initial decision to announce the relocation, and a resulting reduction of the company’s UK presence, was a brave one. Perhaps a case of rare honesty, perhaps a nod to their duty of care, in either case the Unilever board must have known that it would not be met with any degree of enthusiasm by the UK audience (their UK market). The follow-up announcement of reconsideration was akin to them giving every one of the local population a free gift. Significant jobs would not be lost, the local economy would not be stifled, smaller surrounding businesses would not have to mourn the loss of such a large, prestigious provider of income.

Here’s where our natural cynicism kicks in (or should we say here’s where our PR antenna start to tingle). Consider for a moment if the story had simply been in one part: Large multinational admits that it had considered relocating its headquarters outside of the UK. Good news that it didn’t, but not much of a buzz to be had; a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders at most. The ‘tale in two parts’ however firstly delivers a very gloomy scenario of loss and then whips it around to a feeling of jubilation, nay exaltation, at the fact that the expected bad thing isn’t in fact going to happen after all.

Perhaps it was genuinely through a process of consultation and analysis that Unilever had reversed their plans and had done this without a thought to what the 360 degree turn could achieve in terms of their profile. We see a ‘sub zero to hero’ scenario where public support for the company and its many brands will have seen the kind of positive gain in 6 months that some would be very pleased to achieve in a sustained PR campaign. If this is merely a side-effect of what was a very difficult decision for the corporate, then we salute their good luck – but if it was part of a profile-raising strategy then we say that it was genius!!

Now, on a totally different note, we are left wondering if our present, beleaguered government is performing a similar PR offensive relating to Brexit. The doom and gloom we have heard so far may just be paving the way for the jubilation we will all feel when the real terms of the deal (and the future it offers) are revealed from behind the sparkly curtain…