You might think just a few weeks after 9/11 and in the wake of the dotcom bust was a daunting time to establish an overseas branch of a European PR agency – and it was – but it didn’t stop Firefly. Ten years ago, we scoured many of the 16 states of Germany to find a suitable home for Firefly’s German office. We chose Munich, known locally as the “Silicon Alps”. The name says it all: at the time, our PR clients were largely active within the technology field and many of them still are, although a third of our client base is now consumer-focussed, spanning the retail, fashion and lifestyle sectors.
The past decade has seen huge developments in the way we communicate including the launch of Facebook, the iPhone, iPad and the rise of social media, to name a few. It’s a decade that’s seen production of the VW Beetle come to an end, the first German Pope for almost 500 years, and even Germany win the Eurovision Song Contest! The face of public relations has also changed dramatically during this time.
I was recently asked what things had the most impact on me since moving here from working at Firefly London in 2001. Aside from the 187th Oktoberfest which has just finished down the road, below are 10 events which have undoubtedly had a profound effect on Germans and German society over the last decade:
1. The introduction of the Euro. My first half-year in Germany was spent getting acquainted with the currency of the largest economy in the European Union – the Deutschmark (DM) – before switching over to the Euro in early 2002. Overnight, the groceries in my supermarket basket cost more and Germans complained of many retailers and restaurants, for example, cashing in on the new currency. Today Germany is locked into wider-reaching debates, such as the EU bailout funds and the future of the Eurozone.
2. First female Bundeskanzler. Angela Merkel or ‘Angie’ as she is also known is Germany’s first female chancellor. She swept to power in November 2005 and in 2007 she became only the second woman to chair the G8 summit, after Margaret Thatcher.
3. Healing the German psyche, one World Cup at a time. Although vuvuzela-less, the noise and atmosphere surrounding the opening World Cup game in the Allianz Munich arena in 2006 is something I’ll never forget. From a personal perspective, this was the first time I had seen Germans ‘allowed’ to wave their national flag en masse since the reunification. Germany’s relationship to its symbols improved, as did its reputation, and undoubtedly the national optimism of the ensuing “Sommermärchen” (summer fairytale) helped melt away the hold of the second recession in a decade.
4. The 20th anniversary of fall of the Berlin Wall took place in 2009. I was lucky enough to be studying in Frankfurt when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. I immediately hopped on a train and made the trip to Berlin, which shortly afterwards became the capital of the new Germany. The atmosphere was unforgettable. Much has happened since that initial euphoria. The former Soviet-dominated east has struggled to catch up with the more affluent west after reunification. People in west have had to pay a higher than expected financial price. But the difference between eastern and western Germany has never been as small as it is now.
5. “Wir sind Papst” (“We are pope”) was the front-page headline of mass-circulation daily newspaper, Bild back in 2005, delighted at the election of (the then-Cardinal) Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy. Formerly in Munich, he even christened a member of our German Firefly team many years ago and another member of our team once placed water and wine on the altar for him as a “Ministrant”. We do still believe in miracles (!) but since then, Pope Benedikt XVI continues to divide German society and his nationality has invited greater scrutiny from his compatriots. His most recent visit to his homeland last weekend opened a minefield, as he continues to face criticism from liberal Catholics, MPs, gay and lesbian groups and progressive theologians. Emotions for and against him have always been very strong.
6. The economic Autobahn. Not only is limitless speed something that has always simultaneously amazed and terrified me (nothing says, “I’m back!” louder than touching down at the airport before tearing down the Autobahn at 200km/hr), it seems there are also no limits to Germany’s economic machine. Germany’s recent economic performance stands out among rich economies. Last year its GDP grew by 3.6%, the fastest rate since the country was reunified in 1990. Exports have been Germany’s economic engine: no other big, rich economy has seen its exports to China grow so quickly in the past decade.
7. U-turn for nuclear power. The strength of Germany’s Green party was apparent to me as soon as I arrived. Home recycling even a decade ago was not about two, but three, four even five different containers. Even public transport litter bins were clearly sectioned. I now live in a house that has heating bills a third of my old ones back in UK, as my hot water and central heating runs entirely on pinch-sized eco pellets that look remarkably like hamster food! So I wasn’t entirely surprised when, in the wake of March’s Fukushima disasters, anti-nuclear protests across Germany caused the coalition government to announce a reversal of policy to phase out all the country's nuclear power plants by 2022.The decision makes Germany the biggest industrial power to announce plans to give up nuclear energy. The search for sustainable energy is on. Germans aim to cut electricity use by 10% in the next decade through more energy-efficient machinery and buildings.
8. Christian Wulff was elected Germany's 10th post-war president in July 2010 to replace Horst Koehler, who was the first ever German president to resign. “Who?” you may rightly ask. Before I lived in Germany, I had no idea about the president who holds a ‘Head of State’ function in the absence of a monarchy and represents Germany overseas (including at royal weddings!). Germany's international profile has been growing over the past decade. The country sent peacekeepers to the Balkans and its forces have been involved in operations in Afghanistan.
9. The uptake of Facebook and leading local social networks such as Xing and StudiVZ was slower in Germany than in the UK. But by the time I’d returned to work after a year’s parenting leave from mid-2007, it really hit home: social media was a well-entrenched part of our daily business, radically changing the way we planned and implemented our PR strategies. By March 2011, nearly 80% of Germans (65.1 million people) were online, Internetworldstats reported.
10. It’s official! Germans are much happier than in the past! According to the first German happiness study or “Glücksatlas Deutschland 2011” and also involving one of our clients behind the scenes: “Germans are happier today than they have been in the past ten years. The financial crisis of 2008/2009 lowered happiness levels only a bit. The German happiness level is 7.0 on a scale of 0 to10. The last time it was this high was in 2001.”
Coming from a recent celebration of 10 years in Bavaria, 2000m up a mountain, I can certainly vouch for the latter.