‘Muddled messaging’ does SNC-Lavalin’s brand no favours, experts say
April 2, 2019 by Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press
MONTREAL—Public relations experts are questioning SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.’s handling of its corporate image over the past two months, faulting a tight-lipped approach and mixed messaging for a tarnished brand.
The company has found itself in the hot seat since former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould accused top officials in the Trudeau government of pressuring her to steer prosecutors toward negotiations with the engineering and construction giant.
The Montreal-based firm faces ongoing fraud and corruption charges linked to alleged dealings with the Moammar Gadhafi regime in Libya between 2001 and 2011.
Last week, SNC-Lavalin walked back recent comments from CEO Neil Bruce, who said he never cited the protection of 9,000 Canadian jobs as a reason the company should be granted a remediation agreement. Internal documents presented to federal prosecutors and obtained by The Canadian Press show otherwise.
“Right away there’s muddled messaging,” said Chris Atchison, founder of Toronto-based Shockwave Strategic Communications.
“A lot of the coverage has been mostly negative…What you don’t want is for this brand to become toxic.”
SNC-Lavalin counts mainly governments and corporations as clients and partners, but a soured public image can nonetheless affect the attitude of foreign officials alert to the whiff of corruption, Atchison said.
Despite overhauling its board and ethical protocol, SNC-Lavalin has struggled to stay ahead of a story that continues to unfold in Ottawa. Ed Roach, an Ontario-based brand consultant, says a more forthcoming approach could yield a more sympathetic view of a company that has only posted two official statements on the affair since it broke in early February.
“To try to run and hide would be a really bad move, from a brand perspective anyway. Your brand is your reputation. And it affects all your stakeholders too,” Roach said.
“Even if Lavalin is honestly changing their culture, the government’s not doing them any big favours…I’m sure Lavalin has a very strong brand. But it’s taking a real deep hit right now,” he said.
Atchison suggested a revamped ad campaign and a more consistent dialogue with the public to showcase SNC-Lavalin’s perspective.
Bruce, who assumed leadership in 2015, has repeatedly said the organization has turned over a new leaf, and that a prosecution at this date would only punish “innocent employees.”
The company did not respond immediately to requests for comment.
SNC-Lavalin has struggled to move out from under the shadow of past scandals, despite a leadership overhaul, a major marketing effort and “fundamental changes” in its culture and governance that Bruce highlighted in a full-page newspaper advertisement last fall.
In 2013 the company was barred from bidding on any construction project backed by the World Bank for up to 10 years. It also paid undisclosed restitution in 2017 to seven Quebec municipalities as part of the Quebec government’s program to recover money paid in connection with public contracts obtained as far back as 1996 as a result of fraud or fraudulent tactics.
A former CEO, Pierre Duhaime, is serving 20 months of house arrest after pleading guilty Feb. 1 to a single charge in connection with a bribery scandal around the construction of a $1.3-billion Montreal hospital.
Yanai Elbaz, a former McGill University Health Centre senior manager, pleaded guilty in December to accepting a bribe and was sentenced to 39 months in prison. Former SNC-Lavalin executive Riadh Ben Aissa pleaded guilty to a charge of using forged documents last July and was sentenced to 51 months in prison.
Further clouding the legal front are court documents that show Quebec prosecutors are working with the RCMP on the possibility of new criminal charges against SNC-Lavalin tied to a contract to refurbish Montreal’s Jacques Cartier Bridge.