Direct action at the IoD: As director general of the Institute of Directors, Tim Melville-Ross is on a mission to project a more positive image of business to a cynical public. Rob Gray reports

When the Institute of Directors (IoD) was established in 1903, Queen Victoria had only been dead a couple of years and attitudes towards commerce were very different from those today. Half a decade shy of its centenary, the IoD which was set up to represent and further the interests of business, is confronted by a public that is more informed about, and more critical of, large companies’ actions than would have been conceivable in the Edwardian era.

When the Institute of Directors (IoD) was established in 1903,

Queen Victoria had only been dead a couple of years and attitudes

towards commerce were very different from those today. Half a decade shy

of its centenary, the IoD which was set up to represent and further the

interests of business, is confronted by a public that is more informed

about, and more critical of, large companies’ actions than would have

been conceivable in the Edwardian era.



Scandals such as Robert Maxwell’s pension plundering and the collapse of

BCCI, together with a seemingly endless litany of ’fat cat’ stories have

done much to tarnish the reputation of business. Suspicion and cynicism

about corporate profits and directors’ remuneration has set in to such a

degree across a huge swathe of the UK population that there is genuine

concern that, if the matter is not addressed, there may be serious

long-term repercussions for the business community.



Consequently, the IoD has launched a pounds 300,000 campaign known as

the ’Hub Initiative’, which, says the organisation’s director general

Tim Melville-Ross, aims to ’explain why business does matter’ and to

facilitate ’a dialogue with the wider community to get a view of why

people sometimes take a slightly hostile view of business.’



More than once during our interview in his spacious office at the IoD’s

Pall Mall headquarters Melville-Ross uses the word ’evangelise’. The

longer we talk the clearer it becomes that the Hub Initiative is a

project close to his heart. ’This is my initiative as well as the

IoD’s,’ he says. ’It would not have happened at all were it not for my

feeling that it needed to be addressed. I’m absolutely determined to see

this one through because it is what the IoD is all about. It does matter

what people think. Business is much more likely to be able to operate

productively and effectively in a more positive societal

environment.’



Passionate though he is about the cause, Melville-Ross is under no

illusions about the scale of the task ahead. He concedes that research

shows that the reputation of business has taken a hammering in the

1990s. For instance, when MORI asked whether company profits were too

high in September 1990, 55 per cent of the sample agreed. When the

question was posed again last April, that number had risen to 67 per

cent. And while in 1990, 46 per cent felt that the profits of large

companies help to make things better for everyone who buys their

products and services, by 1998 the proportion was down to 28 per

cent.



The first stage of the Hub Initiative has seen the IoD try to understand

attitudes by running a pilot scheme in Manchester. Several hundred local

business people were invited to an event at Old Trafford, at which about

60 were signed up to become ’ambassadors’ who would present business in

a positive light to publics such as schools, community groups and

employees of other companies. In addition, 200 members of the public

attended a discussion at Granada Studios, where they were divided into

groups of ten and talked about issues such as profits and corporate

responsibility for the environment with some of the business

ambassadors.



’The grand strategy, subject to resources, is to do the same thing in

lots and lots of different places,’ says Melville-Ross. There are also

plans to launch a National Forum on the Purpose and Values of

Business.



This will comprise 150 business people from across the country and 50

people from other walks of life who will examine the key issues and

produce a report. It is hoped that the document will be ready in time

for the IoD’s next annual convention, on 28 April 1999.



Melville-Ross describes the National Forum as the ’intellectual

underpinning of the process we are going through’. Hand-in-hand with

this are efforts to improve the way business is portrayed in the media.

Meville-Ross and IoD director of communications, Steve Reardon, who was

until recently director of information at the Department of Social

Security, have met with BBC editors and senior executives to explore

what can be done to help journalists. The main problems that came to

light at the meeting were a ’lack of access’ to business people and a

widespread unwillingness from them to ’tell it like it is’. In response,

the IoD has created a database of 700 members who have indicated that

they are happy to talk to the media. Journalists will be given the

contact details of members with expertise and insight relevant to the

stories they are researching.



Finally, there is an educational dimension to the programme. ’Clearly

part of the problem is that our schools don’t put across the right sort

of positive message,’ says Melville-Ross. ’So much so that many young

people come out of school with no understanding of why business

matters.’ The IoD hopes to change this through its ambassadors and 33

education liaison officers.



But Melville-Ross would also like to see business studies given a

greater role in the national curriculum. He fears that many youngsters

are being discouraged from pursuing careers in business because they

perceive it to lack creativity, so he would like to see more initiatives

to foster entrepreneurial and other business skills. He applauds, for

example, the efforts of businessman Ram Gidoomal who several years ago,

with the support of Midland Bank, arranged for 400 groups of young

people to be given pounds 1 with the objective of using it to create a

business. Each business had to generate as much money as possible for

charity in just 48 hours. Between them, the businesses raised pounds

100,000 - leaving charities better off and the kids with an appreciation

of commerce.



Unipart Group chief executive John Neill agrees that more needs to be

done to educate children about the advantages of a career in

business.



Several years ago, his company commissioned research which found that 75

per cent of youngsters believed that the Japanese were good at

manufacturing, while only three per cent felt the same way about the

British. To help change this perception, Unipart has invited local

schoolchildren to its factories. ’Business has got a job to do to

communicate what it is all about,’ says Neill. ’We have got to attract

talented young people into business because it creates the wealth that

ensures our quality of life. I think the IoD is going about things the

right way to change attitudes. You can spend a lot of money on a TV

campaign and people will remember it for a while and then forget.’



Melville-Ross was himself relatively youthful when, at the age of 39, he

became chief executive of the Nationwide Building Society. After ten

years in the post he resigned - to make way for an older man! He was

attracted to the IoD because of an interest in policy issues,but is

quick to point out that he harbours no party political ambitions.



’I’m not a politician manque. I’m too inclined to see the other person’s

point of view.’ Tall, genial and eloquent, Melville-Ross is every inch

the acceptable face of capitalism. His belief is that business can be a

force for good and that business leaders should set greater store in

communications so that the positive elements of commerce come to be

appreciated by a greater number of people. Says Neill: ’Tim is a good

representative of business. He is very straightforward and believes in

business with a passion. And he has a deep-seated conviction that

business must be ethical and carried out decently.’



Before joining Nationwide, Melville-Ross worked as a stockbroker and at

oil giant BP. Still active in business, inter alia as deputy chairman of

Monument Oil and Gas, he has a can-do approach that may well reap

dividends.



He is adamant that he is prepared to ’slog away for month after month’

to make the Hub Initiative succeed. However, he will need all of that

commitment. In the week after we met TUC president John Edmonds

lambasted company directors who award themselves substantial pay rises

as ’greedy bastards’. Edmonds’ words, which were a gift to the headline

writers, brutally express the enormity of the task facing the IoD. The

reputation of business is repeatedly being battered.



It is to be hoped, therefore, that Melville-Ross succeeds in building a

better understanding of what is, after all, the foundation of the

economic system in which we all live. It is a crusade that deserves the

wholehearted support of business leaders and PR practitioners, because

if more young people develop an antipathy to business, in the long term

it is UK plc that will suffer.



TALKING TURKEY: TIME TO JUNK THE JARGON



One reason why many members of the public feel alienated by and

dislocated from business is the language that business people use when

talking about what they do. Rather than provide explanation, the jargon

and industry abbreviations that all too frequently crop up serve only to

intimidate and obfuscate, making the public distrustful of corporations’

intentions.



Put simply, plain speaking aids understanding and engenders trust.

Quentin Bell, who is acting as a consultant on the Hub Initiative,

believes that business people will do their own cause a power of good if

they devote much more attention to how they express themselves. A

balance needs to be struck between a patronising tone and blinding

people with impenetrable terminology.



’When people use jargon they are actually talking to themselves,’ says

Bell. ’When business does that it distances itself from the people it

wants to communicate with. But people do actually want to be talked to

as equals. There’s a job for the PR industry to do, because we are also

guilty of using our own and our clients’ jargon. PR people have to be

brave and say to clients ’what exactly is it you mean when you say

this?’’



Melville-Ross agrees that there is a need for businesses to use more

plain English in their communications. He does not think that

businesses, by and large, set out to conceal or confuse through their

use of language.



But he concedes that this may on occasion be the outcome.



’When businesses are talking about human resources, why not say people?

And when they say finance, what’s wrong with money?’ he asks.



Melville-Ross does not however advocate drawing up a list of prescribed

and proscribed words, trusting that common sense will prevail as

awareness of the issue grows. The public is more wary of faceless

multinational corporations than the brands they own and the services

they provide. Therefore, when talking about what they do, business

people should try to work in something the public can easily relate to -

such as a famous brand name.



It may also help to draw parallels with businesses that the public

better understands, such as the high street hairdressers or local pub.

This may be far from simple - the similarities between a cut and

blow-dry salon and Glaxo Wellcome may not immediately be obvious - but

understanding what the public already knows is an essential starting

point for fostering deeper understanding of business in general.



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