Companies that remain silent on Brexit do so at their peril

When a man gives his opinion, he's a man. When a woman gives her opinion, she's a bore. And when a company gives its opinion, then - to bend Bette Davis' famous saying further - it must be up to no good, meddling in democratic debate for its own selfish ends.

Companies keeping silent risk having their views dragged out of them, argues Conal Walsh
Companies keeping silent risk having their views dragged out of them, argues Conal Walsh
That, at least, is the lesson that the Eurosceptic Daily Mail seems to have taken to heart as the Brexit debate gathers pace. 

Former M&S boss Stuart Rose, now chairman of the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign, has persistently been accused of "scare tactics" by the paper. Its columnists ask aloud whether his talent for "selling smalls" qualifies him to lead a political campaign.

And what of the 36 FTSE100 executives – and 162 other business leaders – who put their names to an anti-Brexit letter last month? 

They were lampooned as fat cats, "foreigners" or Euro-stooges dependent on handouts from EU institutions. 

No wonder so many other leading companies – including, it’s reported, some of our high street banks and supermarket groups – are choosing to stay tight-lipped on the vexed question of Britain’s future in Europe. 

And let’s be clear: many companies have other, perfectly legitimate, reasons to avoid comment. Some do relatively little business in the EU, or even in Britain, despite being listed here. 

Some have boards that can’t agree on the issue. Many more, probably, just aren’t sure how a Brexit might affect them.

Unfortunately for corporate no-sayers, the referendum is still 14 weeks away. 

We have AGM season in the meantime, where many CEOs and chairmen are sure to face awkward questions about Brexit from the conference floor. And many journalists are working full-time, more or less, on extracting Brexit-related news from companies.

High-profile businesses hoping to withhold their opinions face a torrid time as 23 June approaches.
 
What effect will a Brexit have on your prices? On your workforce? Your suppliers, your exports? These are loaded questions, as Brexit coverage reaches fever pitch. 

But coming from shareholders as well as the media, they are questions that companies will find it difficult to swerve altogether. Some bosses risk being dragged by degrees into the shouting match they tried so desperately to avoid.

'Non-aligned' companies should consider whether it might be easier to speak up now. To do so probably won’t be as painful as they expect.

If Brexit really does threaten to destroy jobs, or to raise prices for consumers, then companies have a right to say so. 

The public looks to them for guidance – that’s exactly why Britain’s biggest companies are coveted as advocates by both sides in the Brexit debate.

Politics aside, companies have a duty to protect their shareholders’ interests. 

If 23 June really does send share prices plunging, put our currency into a tailspin or paralyse inward investment, CEOs who avoided talking about Brexit will face much tougher questions in 2017. 

At next year’s AGM, investors will demand: why didn’t you speak up for our interests when you had the chance?

 "Speak only if it improves upon the silence," Gandhi said. On this occasion, silence may not be an option.

Conal Walsh is partner and head of special situations at Powerscourt

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