After a harrowing 12 days held, blindfolded, by Egyptian security services, authorities released Wael Ghonim, Google's (GOOG) head of marketing in the Middle East and North Africa. Ghonim, an Egyptian based in Dubai, had administered a Facebook page that protesters in Egypt used to coordinate their activities. He said that he wasn't a hero, and that people should focus on the "youth behind this revolution."
But attention has also focused on his employer -- not surprisingly, given Google's high profile and its controversial withdrawal last year from mainland China over censorship. This has created a difficult problem for management, including co-founder and new CEO Larry Page. The company had to balance many factors, including the safety of employees and their families, corporate brand, business relationships, and employee morale. And Google's actions offer lessons for other companies doing business abroad.
Google Walked a Thin Line In Egypt
Google clearly wanted Ghonim's safe return, and support for free access to the Internet and information tie in directly with its core mission, says David Rogers, executive director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School and author of The Network Is Your Customer: 5 Strategies to Thrive in a Digital Age.
However, the company couldn't appear to overtly support Ghonim's position. "Google will probably want to nominally support its employee, [but] keep his political actions at arm's length, if simply to keep clear that if he's politically active in Egypt, it's as an individual," Rogers says. "The bigger [the business], the more of a company issue it is, in terms of potential visibility."
L. Burke Files, a consulting risk management professional, agrees, adding, "They've got to consider that if their employees take strong aggressive stances outside of Google, there could be blow-back, not only to Google, but its employees, those people who represent the institution, the people they can most easily get at."
Much of Google's support for its imprisoned executive was likely handled through back channels via the U.S. State Department. "One would have to assume that they were working actively and quietly behind the scenes," says Lloyd Trufelman, president of strategy media relations firm Trylon SMR, which specializes in representing tech companies.
Google would not address this issue when asked by BNET, sticking to its official statement: "It is a huge relief that Wael Ghonim has been released. We send our best wishes to him and his family."
Controversy Buffed Google's Brand
The incident has likely improved Google's brand image, given that the Google exec supported freedom of expression using social media tools.
"It's hard to imagine a marketing executive of General Electric or ExxonMobil leading protests in Egypt," says Rogers. "In that sense, seeing one of their employees connected to this political movement in Egypt employing the open Internet is certainly on brand. It reinforces who Google is and what it stands for. In the Arab world, it has the potential to help Google's image among the citizenry."
It will also help strengthen Google's image among its rank-and-file at a time when the company has battled to keep employee loyalty as companies like Facebook heavily recruit its talent. Too little support, and the employees could perceive Google as being hypocritical.
Anticipating Future Problems in the Mideast
The biggest question now is what comes next? Google must continue building its business, which means keeping other governments at ease about its activities and those of its employees. "It's hard to see how [Ghonim] could stay the head of marketing in the Middle East," Rogers says. "My guess is that they'd probably want to find an adjusted role, where he's not seen as getting the boot, but he's a little less involved in public affairs." Google would not comment on Ghonim's future role in the company.
"If I were Larry or Sergey and I saw what this employee did, at the end of the day, it might be a slight violation of company policy if he were posting from his company desk," Trufelman says. "But this is the kind of guy that I'm glad works for me."
According to Files, what the company should immediately do is consider additional security steps at some of its offices. "The level of precaution they need to take is directly proportional to the difference of the philosophy of their organization and the countries in which their people operate," he says. That could include staggered work times, multiple entry and exit points to the office, and have employees vary their schedules, and, in higher risk areas, arrangements for professional executive protection.
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