"The biggest challenge has been to cope with rumours in the web 2.0 environment"

Head of Communications, Société Générale Group

Ms. Guillaumin, Société Générale has been included as one of the top three groups in France regarding gender diversity, particularly on its communication on gender diversity indicators and practical measures to better reconcile professional and private lives. What can Société Générale teach other organisations on the subject of gender and diversity?

The first difference is certainly the way we look at gender diversity in our Group. A year and a half a go, our human resources head launched a project around what she calls ‘the bias’. Each of us, whether we are women or men, are looking at others with bias. We like to be surrounded by people that look just like us, doing things the same way, having the same background – that’s so much easier. So, we began looking at our bias at the top! We did sessions with the executive committee members to show them very bluntly what biases they had. It was extremely efficient and provoked a lot of discussions that helped us understand the way we look at each other.

And the second point?

The second thing is that we recognise that gender diversity will never happen if you don’t have at the top someone that believes in it. And for Frédéric Oudéa, who arrived two and a half years ago, this is what life is about. Your company should look like its environment, with young people, old people, women, men, different cultures. So he sent a strong message inside the company by having three women among the 15 people of the executive committee. I would personally say that it’s not enough but I have to admit it’s more than most of the CAC 40 companies. Today, the next step is to look at succession plans, making sure there is at least one woman among three potential successors for an executive position. On top of this, there’s an ongoing dialogue between the executive committee and Société Générale’s women’s organisation to move in the right direction together. For example, we are working on geographic mobility and how, if this a criteria for moving up in a company, it can be a constraint for women. In this domain, we have to be humble because progress is slow. But we’re moving in the right direction.

Société Générale’s new ‘signature’ is Team Spirit. Could you tell us about this concept and its internal and external ramifications?

The financial and banking sector had to go through major and drastic changes over the last two to three years: crisis, regulations, reputation issues, and so on. To cope with these changes and accordingly adapt our business model and our culture, we launched a major transformation programme. There are four pillars to the programme: customer satisfaction, operational efficiency, human resources, and image. We acknowledged that we – the whole banking sector – had an image and reputation problem, and had to help our employees regain pride in working in the banking sector. People were tired, frustrated, they had to go through very tough crises – particularly in Société Générale, with the Kerviel case. We therefore decided to completely rethink our brand platform, looking at who we are as a company but at the same time what could be inspirational for our employees. One word that struck us as being a part of our DNA is ‘resilience’. We, as a company managed to go through the worst crisis and still be standing. Very linked to our resilience is the strong engagement of our people and its capacity to fight for the company. From these facts, our agency came back proposing one value – team spirit. It is about resilience, it is about transformation, it is about pride. It was maybe the first time in our history that we had everyone around the table agreeing! It was new, inspirational and at the same time part of our DNA. One year later, inside the company the advertisement campaign has been a tremendous success, bringing back pride to our employees. Externally, it was extremely well received by our customers. We know we need more than an advertising campaign to solve our reputation problem. But it really gave strength to the team to go forward and reconnect with the customers.

Would you say that this signature is somehow a particularly ‘French’ concept?

It’s not a French concept, it is an international concept. I remember when we launched the concept, a lot of international entities were reluctant to adopt the concept, explaining there are differences and the concept could not work. One and a half years later, it works almost everywhere. It has been adapted locally, from Russia to Morocco to Egypt. We needed more coherence within the group and that is what we gained with this concept.

Last year, Frédéric Oudéa was quoted as saying that “In this anxious market environment, people lose their rationality. Some even spread false information to create trading opportunities.” Could you describe some of the challenges you face as a communicator in this “anxious environment”?

If we look at the crisis we encountered last summer, I would say the biggest challenge has been to cope with rumours in the web 2.0 environment. 80 per cent of our job was managing social networks and web 2.0-type of tools and especially Twitter. This crisis has been extremely difficult for all of us but at the same time it was also an extremely interesting time in terms of crisis management. The web 2.0 was making the news. It was no longer news coming from a wire or coming from a regular media that would spread on the web, it was the contrary. It would be a blog, it would be one guy somewhere in the world you never heard of before, that would publish a rumour and it would spread!

How do you deal with these challenges?

The challenge we faced during this crisis as communicators was two-fold. First, monitoring the web. Luckily enough we had put together an efficient team working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, monitoring everything that was related to Société Générale somewhere on the web and in the world. So we managed this challenge very efficiently.

The second challenge was how do you react in this new context? You have to forget all the paradigms you have in communications. A general principle is that you never deny a rumour because if you do so you’ll have to do it every time. That’s true in general, but when the crisis is that violent, when you look at the speed of the news and when you take into account the fact that a bank has a systemic impact on all the financial system, you think differently. Then you need to correctly proportion your reaction. You don’t react to a tweet with few followers. The lessons learned is that the market is very unstable and a rumour can potentially kill a company – the whole financial system nearly crashed just because a few guys were spreading rumours on the market. And you need to be closely monitoring the web, and you need to react within a second.

How do you manage to balance the demands of your responsibilities as a member of the Group Executive Committee with your duties as head of communications?

I don’t really separate the two, to be honest. It brings different value. The first is that the matters of communication are being treated at a very high level within the company – it’s not anecdotal, it’s really something seen by the senior management as being key for our reputation, for our business. So it’s always a subject put forward in every discussion we have on the executive committee. The other thing is that I contribute not only as a communications person but by bringing in our discussions other stakeholders. So let’s say we’re talking about a business topic, I’m looking at whether we are really taking into account what is good for the clients, or have we trained people within the company, or what will this NGOs think about this new product in light of our reputation. My predecessor was also on the executive committee, and this company has always seen the role of communication as a key role.

As a communicator, what do you think your position on the Group Executive Committee represents for the communications profession?

Because we are very much exposed in terms of image and reputation, communication is taken very seriously. Being on the executive committee I see the subjects that could become an issue and I have the capacity to say what I think and sometimes stop an issue before it’s even on the outside. What I regret when I see companies where communication is not at an executive committee level is that they see communication as only a cure. But I think our role is also to prevent, and that’s possible when you’re at the right level to an extent that’s not when you’re not.

You have been lauded for Société Générale’s digital footprint. What is the relationship between social media and today’s communication directors?

I would say you can not be a good director of communication unless you’re completely aware of what social media can bring in terms of opportunities and dangers. For the last 10 years, I’ve been working in bringing social media to the core of what we’re doing in communications – that was the case at SFR, at Alcatel-Lucent, and now at Société Générale I use social media, I have a Twitter account, Facebook, Video, LinkedIn, I’m using blogs…

Given that the role of company spokesperson is such a sensitive one, do you think it’s necessary to undergo some kind of special training on how to use social media, not only at work but in your private life?

I think it’s good sense. Obviously I have a Twitter account and among the followers are journalists. So most of the time when I tweet something it’s either very general or linked to a specific subject, never banking. We have a Société Générale Twitter account which is run by the press team and they are very much in control of what they’re saying. My Facebook account is completely private, I might talk about sport, family, US elections – things of interest to me, but that have no impact on my company. So it’s good sense and good monitoring, and I think a communications director could not do his or her job unless they’re aware of these tools. They don’t have to be using these tools, but not knowing how it works is a problem. For me, it’s exactly the same as a communications director not knowing how journalists work. I will say that if I didn’t have this digital footprint I don’t think I would have been able to deal with the crisis last summer. That was a huge social media crisis with rumours going all round the world and coming from twitter first, and because my team and myself are aware of how it works we were extremely quick in reacting. We knew where to go and what was a good level of reaction.

Can you tell us a little about SGeneration, Société Générale’s corporate blog?

The idea is to shed some light on things people don’t know about our company – innovations, human resources, social media, diversity – and to look at it from a different angle. We launched it more than a year ago, and we still need to improve! One of the issues is that we are so much under the spotlight of media, that everything we write or say will be covered by wires and newspapers. A blog should be transmitting visions and opinions but how do you deal with transparency of opinion and at the same time with the sensitivity of banking issues? So we still have to work on this tool. We solved somehow the issue by opening a series of internal blogs, so people can say what they think, and express themselves.

Are Société Générale’s efforts on its blog, though its Team Spirit signature, and through its many sponsorships in the world of sport and society, an attempt to reveal its authentic character?

Definitely, it is! We have been sponsoring rugby for the past 25 years so when we talk about rugby within the company it’s not fake, it’s real. Our people are enthusiastic about this sport, and they attach a lot of value to this sponsorship. When we revealed the team spirit campaign, the reaction internally was “this is us” because of the sport, because of the resilience of the group. When I arrived, I was honestly shocked by the difference between the reality of the group, its employees, its values and the perception of the financial sector outside. What we’re trying to do through this Team Spirit concept is to reconcile the two worlds. So yes, it’s an attempt to show the authentic character of the company.

You joined Société Générale in 2010, still a difficult time for that particular sector. Was it the thrill of a tough challenge that made you decide to leave the comparatively tranquil waters of telecommunications?

In fact I’ve never been in still waters in my career! At Alcatel Lucent I had to deal with a tough merger, and communication in this environment was more challenging each day. For me, it’s less about leaving a company than moving onto a new challenge. What really drove me to accept this latest challenge at Socgen is that I saw a team that had the guts and willingness to transform their company at a very difficult time for the financial sector. I loved the idea I could, in a very humble way, help drive the transformation. On top of that the executive team had this feeling that this sector had to change, they were ready to learn the lessons of the past, and they had a collective ambition to contribute to a new, more stable and more transparent financial environment. So what drove me to accept was that the challenge was extremely difficult and I like difficult challenges!

Your career has taken place on both sides of the Atlantic. Are you able to draw some comparisons in communications as practised in Europe and the US?

I think the fundamental are almost the same. I would say maybe the US is more advanced in its use of social media in communications. Take the election, where the political communication is amazing. Obama has a full team working only on social media and statistics ,making sure that he can drive the opinion on this or this matter. I think there is a real capacity in the US to understand how social media can be a real opportunity. We’re getting there in Europe, but we’re still a little backward and that’s where we really need to push. On the other hand, I think in Europe we maybe a little quicker in reaction sometimes because we manage to bypass some processes. America is very much processes-driven, and sometimes that slows the decision-making processes. Other than that, I think it’s getting very comparable.

Interview: Dafydd Phillips

Caroline Guillaumin

Caroline Guillaumin is head of communications at Société Générale Group. Prior to joining the France-based bank and financial services company, Caroline Guillaumin was senior vice president of corporate communications and corporate social responsibility at Alcatel-Lucent. She had been corporate internal and external communications director of Alcatel, and before that senior marketing and communications manager at Alcatel Answare, an Alcatel company. Before joining Alcatel, Ms Guillaumin had been communications and corporate social responsibility director of the French mobile operator SFR, and also European marketing and communications director for Verity, Inc. She has also held several positions in marketing and communications at P.C. Publishing, Inc. in France and in the United States (Los Angeles and Boston).