In a couple of days, we will be posting our Chapter 9--Non-English Speaking Blogs. Because of language issues and the number of cases we include, it has been a slow and challenging chapter to be completed. It is also likely to be our longest. Our lead case will cover Michel-Edouard Leclerc who enjoys one of the most prominent business positions of any blogger. That is not why we were so impressed with him. We were impressed with Leclerc's enlightenment and humanity. Much of what you read here, will be in the chapter we are just now finishing up, followed by the full interview with Leclerc, which will be shortened in the Naked Conversations version. Once again, we owe special thanks to Loic Le Meur who played a role in this story and was responsible for our getting the interview with Leclerc and arranging for the translation. We have made some changes to Leclerc's replies to smooth out the translation. For those of you fortunate enough to speak French, Loic will publish it later in that language on his French-language blog .
From Chapter 9 (rough draft):
LeClerc is president of the Association des Centres Distributeurs E. Leclerc, a co-op association of about 600 small and large retailers, mostly in France, but throughout Europe, particularly Italy. Its strategy is to negotiate tough and in volume with suppliers to keep customer prices low. The association was established in 1949, by M.E.’s father Edouard Leclerc, who owned and operated a single retail shop in Brittainy, then decided to organize like-minded retailers across France. The organization imposed rules of operation including voluntary limits on markups. The senior Leclerc’s ideas were well-received by retailers and even better received by retail customers. The association includes food markets, restaurants, gas station, pharmacies, travel agencies, jewelers, clothing stores, dry cleaners, toy stores, shoe repair services and sundry other merchants. There are few French citizens who do not shop at one or more E. LeClerc association stores and the popularity of the association is as immense with the general pubic as it is reviled by high margin competitors.
According to Jeff Clavier, a French citizen, who founded Silcon Valley-based Softtech Venture Partners and blogger. “The whole idea was not for the Leclerc to become a super-rich billionaire like many association competitors, but to give the people the best products at the lowest prices.” There are definite political implications. The co-op association has become a low-cost threat to high margin monopolies and the urbane, Sorbonne-educated Leclerc has become the face and voice of the organization. He has campaigned effectively on behalf of consumer rights, playing the driving role in several acts of consumer legislation. The popular Leclerc was mentioned so often as a candidate in the last presidential election that he had to go on television to declare he would not run.
He holds a degree in economics and from his blog it is clear that his interests are on global human and economic issues. You won’t find him directly promoting E. Leclerc Association agendas. In fact, he runs his blog separately and he uses it to present his insight and opinion on politics, French, European and global economic issues. the rights of the handicapped, helping tsunami victims (the Leclerc organization donated over two million euros), French hostages, a poetry book he admired, overproduction of French wine and the quixotic nature of the Italian economy.
When Leclerc started blogging in early 2005, the French blogosphere he was quick to criticize it, among them was Le Meur who put up a long post in the form of an open letter. "Mssr. Leclerc, he wrote, “ I don't know you and please don't take this personally, but here is what you would get from a real b log rather than on this website that you have made and call a blog. If you don't filter comments, you will get dialog…” listing the flaws, suc as no RSS feeds or Permalinks one at a time.
“I was hoping somebody who reads my blog could reach Leclerc,” he recollected, but doubted anything would happen. Two days later, he was driving in Paris when his cell phone rang. “I hear: ‘Hey Loic, this is Michel-Edouard Leclerc’s office. When can you meet with him?’” In one of those Marshall McLuhan moments, Jeff Clavier, sitting in Silicon Valley, had read his friend, Le Meur’s post and showed it to his wife, Bernadette who had worked for LeClerc for 10 years. She forwarded the post to her former employer—along with Le Meur’s phone number. LeClerc directed his assistant to call Le Meur who managed not to drive off the road when he received it. Less than 48 hours after panning one of France’s most influential luminaries, Le Meur found himself sitting across from him in the latter’s executive office. “Well, explain to me how a blog is so different from a website, “ Leclerc asked him and LeMeur proved his point. He went to Google and typed in Leclerc’s name. Le Meur’s recent negative posting came up first. Leclerc stared blankly at the Google screen his jaw slightly dropped: "How did you manage—on a search for my name—to get your name to come out above mine?’ I told him that because he didn’t have a real blog, he had no Google juice. And if he made it into a real blog, his name would eclipse mine”
Amazed, Leclerc paid heed and subsequently began using the functionality that not only gives him Google juice but also the authenticity. Over the protestations of his marketing advisers who feared negative comments, Leclerc lets visitors post their thoughts unfiltered. “I was really impressed with Leclerc, more than I thought I would be. He showed me a paper diary where he had has made one entry every day for 20 years. He was already a blogger. He just didn’t know it and the tools were not yet there. This is now reflected on his blog. Leclerc wants to be closer to the people. His blog seems to be the perfect tool for this.” Adds Clavier, “Despite being one of the most famous, and visible French executives, Michel-Edouard has remained very approachable and genuine. That's why I am not surprised that he got the 'blogging thing' so quickly. His blog is an enabling platform for larger scale genuine conversations.”
From our interview:
Q1. What made you decide to blog?
I write notes everyday in a book I take always with me. It corresponds to two needs. One is personal: it is my way of structuring my thoughts, organising my ideas, taking the time to have a clear vision. The other is almost professional. I manage a group of 500 companies employing 85 000 people. Everyday I conduct working meetings with our executives, I chair meetings of company managers, I take part in about ten conferences. I am constantly questioned about the actions of my group but also about my way of considering the company, the economy and the social relations.
In order to save my energy and to capitalize on already formulated answers, I had decided to create a personal site. My colleagues, younger than me and more expert on the Internet, convinced me to blog in order to be more interactive and more in line with the current events.
Q2. What have you learned from blogging? Has it change your views in any way? How so?
Blogging is thinking in front of others. It is accepting that you are open to their comments, their suggestions and their criticism. This “exhibition” in front of the public leads to two attitudes. First of all, humility. You need to be prepared to make amends, to review an argument or to reformulate it. Then, intellectual strictness. When you lead a huge company, you create, against your will, expectations. As in my blog I pretend to enrich the public debate, it is up to me to be as credible as possible, coherent and not to contradict what I say in my blog with the concrete practices of the company.
Q3. You are obviously a very busy person, yet you blog quite often on a wide variety of topics. Why do you think blogging is worth so much of your time?
I spend half an hour per day on the blog. I don’t want to be a slave of my blog. And I am not anchored to my office. Every day, I am in planes and on trains, all over France and Europe. I don’t want to travel with my computer and I don’t want to feel obliged to go to cyber-offices in hotels.
I proceed as follows: I read the comments in the morning on the blog. I take with me a printed version as well as my trusty logbook. On the train, I quickly write the answers or my psot for the day. I record them on a Dictaphone and I leave the cassette in the evening for my secretary. It is more or less only during the week-end where I have more time that I am behind the keyboard. But, I enjoy concentrating on the content more than sitting in front of my screen online with other internet users.
Q4. Do you envision or encourage other members of the E. Leclerc organization blogging? Is there a blog strategy for your organization?
Several initiatives are under way. We're working on a test blog largely inspired by our friend Loïc Le Meur. It would "live" test the commercial initiatives of our Association to better interact with customers. By avoiding the panels of customers that the opinion poll institutes often propose to us, we hope the test blog will have more people taking part in the opinion poll, a greater transparency in their reactions as well as an enrichment of their comments.
Within our company we have also launched a project. On a corporate blog we want to mobilize our employees and executives to look for the “best practice in our sector.” For example, on a subject as prosaic as how fruit and vegetable are laid out, we will ask ask department managers how the best way to do it to stimulate customer interaction.
Q5. In general, how do you see business blogs evolving in France and in Europe?
Currently, we are in a period of craze. Each blogger invites himself to the other's blog, leaves a mark there and is rarely faithful. There's a lot of zapping. But the phenomenon already regulates itself and you see the implementation of a kind of segmentation of different markets. There are the blogs of young people which, better than chat, enables them to exchange ideas, music and to create a more intense associative link (around sports for instance). In the world of companies or in the environment of arts or culture there are also a lot of corporate initiatives existing.
But what I see is that apart from corporate blogs or festivals, the managers, the animators or the artists create in parallel their own blogs dissociated from the first ones. Blogging enables one to have a greater humanization (and personalization) of communication.
Q6. How do you believe blogging will change society?
The communication systems in our modern societies have multiplied the information possibilities. Paradoxically, they have institutionalized them. Information has become merchandise, a consumer good. You take it or not. You adopt it or you don’t. The link between the reader and the media is passive. There is no mutual enrichment. With the blog, every citizen can question a politician or a company manager. You can ask him (or oblige him) to justify his remarks or to argue him. Blogging gives the opportunity in a certain way to go back to democracy because, on the net, you don’t care about social hierarchies and statutes. Every employee or consumer can question me on my blog. At the same time, they can also understand that behind my function and my position there is a man who also has passions, training, a culture that is not limited just to my job.
But be careful. The model has its drawbacks. If the brands and the companies invest the blogs for commercial purposes by skillfully hiding their objective, blogging can be discredited in the same ways that we have come to mistrust big commercial TV channels or newspapers.
Q7 You receive a large number of comments. Do read them all? What have you learned from them?
I read them all. They do not all present the same interest. But they all oblige me to polish up my arguments. These are good tests before I take the floor at conferences. I was, for instance, very fond of reducing the VAT [The European Community Value Added Tax] for products that most respect the environment (organic, fair trade, etc.). It boost their sales to the detriment of products that pollute more. But comments kept insisting the idea would be nearly impossible to implement.
Another time, I came out against a member of Parliament who wanted to forbid by law, the distribution of small plastic bags, free of charge, in order to wrap the products when leaving the outlet. He suggested to use biodegradable bags. I answered that it was not possible. I suggested using recyclable bags. I have been supported by many bloggers in their comments. So, the member of Parliament moderated his proposal.
In both cases, blogging has had a moderating influence.
Q8. What has surprised you the most about blogging?
The need to answer in a responsible manner. At the beginning, it’s like a kind of intellectual play. All these comments finally constitute a kind of social recognition. With the increase of the audience, you become a little bit of an addict. It pleases the ego. And it is here that you measure your responsibility.
If you don’t take care, a blog can not only be a tool of influence (which is good) but also a tool of manipulation. I personally consider that due to the fact that you are well-known, you need to have a greater responsibility in what you write. Of course, that prevents neither humour nor polemic.
Q9. In the last French national election, you were so often mentioned as a candidate for president, that you went before the media to declare you would not run. Is there a chance you would run in the next one? If so, would you be a candidate from the left or the right?
I like public debate. I have a passion for political questions. With my job, I happen to be at the head of an extraordinary observatory of social life. I am managing a network which works with 8 000 industrial suppliers, around 30 banks and all the administrations. My group is located in several European countries and I buy goods everywhere in the world. Thanks to these links, to our networks and to the work of our executives I have gained a certain vision of society. And I try to enrich the public debate.
Other company managers are in my situation. But they don’t dare to speak. I think it is a mistake. You should not leave the political expertise only to political professionals. I personally made the choice never to be at a loss for words and to say what I think. This is why my fellow citizens choose me by an overwhelming majority in the opinion polls. They like people who spend their energy for the society. They applaud a certain kind of courage. And I am extremely flattered by this.
But I don’t consider to stand as a candidate in elections. Indeed, I think I am more legitimate and efficient in my economic activity. Within 20 years, with my group, we succeeded in changing the French legislation which was quite dusty. We obtained from the court a decision against the oil monopolies. Thanks to our actions there is a free competition for cosmetics, parapharmaceuticals and branded textile. I did a lot for the practical transition to the Euro currency. And of course the prices.
One of the major questions today is the environment and the sustainable development. I fight for the development of fair trade, for energy conservation and for a reduction or recycling of packaging. If I were a Member of Parliament, maybe I would be heard a little bit. But as a manager of a company who expresses himself with all the strength of a commercial network I can experience ideas and make them much more credible.
Yes it is on the practical level that I feel myself the most efficient. On my blog, like elsewhere in all types of media, I can convey more positive ideas than if I would have been mayor of a city or Member of Parliament representing a district.