When I accepted my company’s offer to move as head of their business to Pakistan in 1990, to Ukraine in 1996, and again to Pakistan in 2006, my mind was totally focused on the challenges of running the business. The consumer products industry is highly competitive – one faces intense competition from international brands, but also from local players that have become increasingly strong.
Normally, challenges of operating in emerging markets have to do with subpar infrastructure, high duties and tariffs, red tape and bureaucracy, and of course extremely price-sensitive consumers.
What I had not given much thought to was how much the American origin of my company, Procter & Gamble, would become part of the conversation – sometimes positive, but at times in the crosshairs of local media. At times it was expected that my company would take a stand, one way or another, on whatever the latest argument was between my host country and U.S. foreign policy actions. Of course I wasn’t going to touch that with a ten-foot pole. But it took concerted effort to stay out of matters where we didn’t belong.
This issue manifested itself at several different levels. In the course of my two separate stints in Pakistan, spanning a total of 10 years, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship went through some very troubled times. At one point, only 12 percent of Pakistanis stated that they had a positive view of the USA.
Under the circumstances, what was one to do? P&G was clearly known to Pakistani consumers and media as a prominent American company. With that came a high degree of confidence in the quality of our brands. But also, every so often there would be a drone attack by U.S. forces somewhere in the wild tribal belt of the country, and someone in the media would expect me to make a statement.
Under these circumstances I focused my company and our employees on two things:
First, never ever comment on any of the actions or statements of the U.S. government or the Pakistani authorities, outside of any matter directly related to business. This was almost a given, but one had to be reminded of this time and again.
Second, and of much more consequence, were our efforts to be meaningfully and publicly involved in corporate social responsibility work. Sadly, Pakistan presented many opportunities for us to do just that. There were disasters both natural and man-made: earthquakes, floods, counterterrorism operations that drove hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens from their homes. In each case we supported relief work, or efforts such as reconstruction of damaged schools. In addition, we made sure large numbers of our local employees were actively involved in this work. We also made sure the efforts and contributions of my company were prominently and honestly reported in the media.
As a result, P&G in Pakistan became known as a company that cares, beyond just the goals of our business. Regardless of the tough relations between the two countries, and in spite of calls for boycotts, there has never been a consumer backlash against P&G over the 25 years of P&G’s operations in Pakistan.
In 2012, the U.S. Department of State awarded P&G Pakistan its annual Award for Corporate Excellence (ACE), given to one large American company each year for good corporate citizenship.
In Ukraine I got pulled into Ukraine-U.S. government relations for totally different reasons. In the late 1990s, several Western companies were struggling with bureaucracy and lack of transparency in the newly independent Ukraine. Vestiges of post-communist bureaucracy were everywhere. At one point some bureaucrats in the Ukrainian government claimed P&G’s Tide detergent was not meeting local standards of cleaning efficacy and sought to shut down our business.
Under these circumstances, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Kiev, and I met with her to share our challenges at the hands of local authorities. The matter took on an even higher profile when the U.S. Congress announced it would cut aid to Ukraine unless the Secretary of State confirmed that there had been “significant progress in the resolution of American business issues” in the country. At that time, Ukraine was the third-largest recipient of U.S. financial aid in the world.
I was called into the office of the National Security Advisor to the president of Ukraine. I was told that if the U.S. Government cut aid to Ukraine, they would hold P&G directly responsible. This was not a position I had ever thought I would be placed in.
It took us four months of methodical work, dealing with Ukrainian authorities with close support from the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, to sort out the matter. While the crisis persisted, there were almost daily negative stories in Ukrainian media about P&G and our products. This was my first meaningful encounter with what has come to be known as fake news. It took several months after the restoration of aid to Ukraine for the public image of our brands to return to their former strength.
S. Qaisar Shareef concluded a career of nearly 30 years with Procter & Gamble Company in 2011. He is the author of When Tribesmen Came Calling: Building an Enduring American Business in Pakistan, published in August 2017 by Blue Ear Books. He lives outside Washington, D.C.