Tax, lies, and audiotape
There are at least three ways for PR specialists to minimize the impact of negative buzz:
- shut off the source of the buzz
- correct misrepresentations and alter the spin associated to the content of the buzz
- control the reach of the buzz, i.e. the number of people/share of the people who are aware of the buzz
Two months ago, Christian Harbulot was telling us about reputation attacks, i.e. how negative spin can affect a company’s reputation, even when the legitimacy of the source of the spin cannot be established. Sometimes, companies (or people, in the present case) are their own reputation slashers, and they can end up taking down much more than just themselves in the process. If you haven’t been following political news in France, we’re talking dishonesty, deception and utter lack of clairvoyance at the highest levels of command: after months of denial, former Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzac just admitted to tax evasion. How did the scandal get relayed in the French political blogosphere?
Among the 800+ French political bloggers in our database, Jérôme Cahuzac has received a lot of attention in the past six months: 100% of the top influencers, 71% of the bloggers with medium influence and 36% of the less influential ones have blogged about the former minister. The past six months can be divided into three periods: before the allegations of tax evasion (Oct 2012 – Dec 3, 2012), before the confession (Dec 4, 2012 – April 1, 2013), and after the confession (April 2, 2013 – now). How much of the talk is devoted to Cahuzac, and what is the general tone in each of the three periods whenever he is mentioned?
The volume of conversations mentioning Cahuzac in the three periods is very different, going from an average of less than 0.5% of all conversations before December to 30% in the past couple of days:
This massive increase in share of voice is accompanied by a drastic change in tone. The following expression clouds let us to get a sense of how talk surrounding the former Budget Minister evolved over the past six months. No need to perform sophisticated sentiment analysis to gauge what the French political blogosphere thinks about Cahuzac after Tueday’s confession of tax evasion.
In the first period, the most common expressions used in conversations mentioning Cahuzac pertain to his activity as budget minister (finance bill: projet de loi de finance, budget: budget, public finance: finances publiques, fiscal: fiscale, funding of social security: financement de la sécurité sociale, income tax: impôt sur le revenu) and to the French president and fellow ministers (President François Hollande, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, economy Minister Pierre Moscovici).
The next period sees negative expression take precedence, with mentions of laundering of the proceeds of tax fraud (blanchiment de fraude fiscale”), of a bank account in Switzerland (compte en suisse), of a preliminary investigation (ouverture d’une information judiciaire, enquête préliminaire), and of the minister’s resignation (démission de Jérôme Cahuzac). Mediapart, the investigative news site which is the source of the allegations, is also widely mentioned. At this point, indictment (mise en examen) does not apply to Cahuzac himself, but to former president Nicolas Sarkozy. Despite an audiotape released by Médiapart incriminating the minister, the principle that you are innocent until proven guilty (présomption d’innocence) is palpable in the political blogosphere, fueled by the minister’s denial and efforts to discredit the source.
In the last period, however, talk is focused on Cahuzac’s indictment and his confession (aveux de Jérôme Cahuzac), which turned him into the source of the buzz. On the one hand are his own words (devasted by remorse, dévasté par le remords, spiral of lies, spirale du mensonge), on the other are President François Hollande’s, who had been assured face-to-face (les yeux dans les yeux) by Cahuzac, the leader in the fight against tax evasion (lutte contre la fraude fiscale), that he was innocent: Cahuzac has committed an unforgivable moral fault (commis une impardonable faute morale). The picture is further darkened by mentions of far-right Marine Le Pen’s entourage (proche de Marine Le Pen, for being instrumental in opening the Swiss bank account), and of a possible dissolution of the French national assembly (dissolution de l’assemblée nationale).
In this case, failure to control the source, spin and reach of the negative buzz helped uncover the truth about the former minister’s ethically questionable actions. There are things that PR just cannot fix, fortunately, and that are best left to justice. The question is, now: how far will the ripples of the scandal go?