A communications catastrophe

Legality vs. ethics in Penelopegate

Photo: Remi Desert

The French media is currently focused on the so-called “Penelopegate”, a neologism made from Penelope, the name of François Fillon’s wife.

Until last Wednesday, everything appeared to be going well for Les Républicains, the right wing party. While the socialists were counting and recounting the votes, trying to explain mysterious statistical miracles, the right wing party was actively preparing for the race of its selected candidate, François Fillon.

Then, Le Canard Enchainé, a highly influential satirical weekly, published a long article explaining that François Fillon’s wife, Penelope, would have been appointed during many years as a team member of her husband’s staff (each French Representative receives funds to pay some staff members). That would total more than €830,000 in salary for a work, according to Le Canard Enchaine, that was largely fictional.

This generated a sort of communications panic. The first defence, was, of course, to attack: “here come the stink bombs”, “it’s cowardice to attack my wife”, and so on. Then, several spokespersons urgently tried to justify this situation. One said that it demonstrates the positive policy of the Assemblée Nationale, as female assistants are better paid than male assistants (her salary as assistant was more than twice the average assistant’s salary). Another argued that butchers and bakers work with their wives, why not representatives? A third spokesperson discussed the amount (in reality she would have earned “only” 20% less with taxes). And a fourth spokesperson revealed that more than 100 representatives were employing their wives, explaining that it’s all quite normal; Finally, Fillon argued that he has also employed his sons as lawyers a few years ago (but, media revealed that, at this time, they had not yet graduated!).

A communication catastrophe

Why did traditional arguments not work? First, because Fillon built his campaign on the image of the honest guy. He was perceived as the trustworthy candidate: no bling-bling, but a permanent austerity; the austerity of the man who knows what hard work means. Then quelle surprise!, the media revealed that he is just like the others.

The second big mistake is the confusion between what is legal and what is ethical. Fillon’s entourage keeps trying to demonstrate that there in nothing illegal going on. That may be right, but that’s not what is at issue here. The key point here is ethics: Fillon is seen as having diverted the system for his own interest. And that’s a real problem when you have based your communication strategy on integrity and transparency.

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