We must be prepared to work with the vilified

All businesses, however unpopular, have the right to PR representation and to have their voices heard.

A class full of seven-year-olds at an exclusive New York City school are asked what their fathers do for a living. The teacher is amazed to hear a little girl say: "Daddy is the pianist in a whorehouse." Confronted by the teacher, the mother reassures her: "My husband is chairman of Goldman Sachs. Just imagine the shame that would provoke in a child of her age."

An old joke in which the fill-in-the-gap profession chan-ges to suit the times. Today, many different sectors could be nominated. Bankers, payday lenders, anyone appearing before Margaret Hodge and – most heinous of all – energy companies are all targets for derision and tabloid bile.

The blame game extends to our own practice. When I joined Diageo in 2000 I was disconcerted to hear bafflement that I would stoop so low as to join an alcohol company. They clearly didn’t know me very well. Now, my executive search friends tell me that many serious candidates come armed with a list of sectors in which they won’t work. 

It’s difficult to be too critical: the CFO of an energy giant recently quit to join a much smaller FTSE company, explaining that he wanted to carry on with his life away from unfair personal and intrusive scrutiny.

Some public anger has justification. Six years on from the crash, some banks don’t seem to have learned the need for humility and a sense of proportion in their remuneration. Equally, the Big Six power giants have failed to make the case for investment in infrastructure and instead have to defend their tax exemptions.

But these are symptoms of a scary lack of trust in business. Since the crash there has been a growing suggestion that business is on the take. It’s ‘them’ – the rich and the bosses, ever ready to take unfair advantage – and ‘us’ – the constantly screwed consumer.

This caricature ought to worry everyone who makes the case for individual companies of any kind.

First, it sets a mood of cynicism and an assumption that commercial organisations are always to be mistrusted. It is almost impossible for us to do our jobs if that is the starting point. 

Secondly, it creates a climate in which talented people will increasingly opt out of publicly quoted businesses altogether. That has profound consequences for the accountability of those companies and is bad for everyone who relies on the revenue they generate. Finally, it corrodes the machinery of a free society.

I never really accepted the notion that barristers must take any client because it guarantees everyone a fair hearing. Now I think it applies to us. Unless we are prepared to represent even the most vilified, their voice will be stilled and some important – albeit not very popular – elements of our freedom will be lost, never to be recovered.

Ian Wright is corporate relations director at Diageo

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