What corporates really want in employees during revolutions

Egyptian Google executive Wael Ghonim was a major figure in the uprisings over the last fortnight. A positive thing all around, surely?

Don’t be so sure.


A Google Inc executive who has become a hero of the Egyptian revolution is public relations gold for the Internet power, but analysts say the company must be careful not to overplay its hand.

Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim became the public face of the uprising that led to President Hosni Mubarak handing power to the army on Friday.

Ghonim was detained by security forces and came out swinging on his release, calling for Mubarak to step down.

When Internet access was shut down during an early phase of the Egyptian protests, Google engineers hacked together a way to allow Egyptians to use Twitter by dialing a phone number and leaving a voicemail message.

Despite its association with the events in Egypt, Google has not commented on the politics of the country’s upheaval.

Instead, it has focused on values surrounding freedom of information and the Internet. “We’re incredibly proud to see Googlers take a stand on those issues,” spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said on Friday, when asked about Ghonim.

That has played well for the company.

“This is going to get Google some positive publicity,” said Rosabeth Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School. But she added, “They have to be careful.”

Consumers and businesses would love the tools for communication that Google supports and provides – but less democratic governments might see Google as a threat.

“Google will not be their search engine of choice,” she said. “You’re going there to sell products and services, you’re not going there to topple the regime.”


In “How to Handle Employee Activism: Google Tiptoes Around Cairo’s Hero,” the Wall Street Journal has stumbled upon the silliest possible angle on the Egyptian protest saga — the threat to a multinational company’s brand that might accrue when employees get involved in politics.

As the world marveled this week at the remarkable story of Wael Ghonim, the Google manager who helped organize a popular rebellion in Egypt, a great sigh of relief could be heard rising from much of the rest of American business:

“I’m glad,” came the exhale, “the guy doesn’t work for us.”

Wall Street Journal reporter John Bussey ends up quoting only one unnamed executive to support his rather dramatic generalization, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true, even if despicable. You might think that a charismatic young man willing to die for his country in pursuit of liberty and freedom for his people would resonate with the very core of American values, but the most important insight offered by Bussey, although perhaps unintentionally, is that American corporations do not share American values.

A lot of U.S. companies, which now manage millions of employees abroad, watched with trepidation. Many of them now earn more abroad than they do in America. And much of that income comes from the sale of big-ticket items — power systems, infrastructure equipment, aircraft, telecommunications –that only governments can afford to buy….

Reflecting on Mr. Ghonim’s extracurricular activities, an executive at one big U.S. manufacturer operating abroad was adamant: “Anything that affects the brand — we hate that,” he said. “It wouldn’t be allowed.”

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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