Recently the Prime Minister’s advisers have, according to the Financial Times, ordered pro-European Union business leaders to shut up in advance of the pending referendum. Among their arguments is that the public is turned off when firms speak out.
They are, in fact, wrong – as polling for MHP Communications’ Effective Comms report has shown, people most definitely want to hear from business about policy issues. And the Scottish referendum demonstrated how dangerous it is for companies to sit on their hands until it is nearly too late.
Not only are the PM’s aides wrong, they are also wasting their breath. In the past few years, many company leaders have become reluctant to express their views on big issues or, in fact, on anything very much at all.
There are several reasons why this has happened, but foremost among them is the toll taken by repeated criticism and revilement of ‘evil big business’ since the global financial crisis. Executives seem to lack confidence and have apparently taken a collective decision that putting their heads above the parapet is more trouble than it’s worth.
Defaulting to silence
This is crazy. Businesses play a pivotal role in our economy and in our society, and clearly have as much right to be heard as unions and pressure groups, for example. And the views of senior executives are likely to be rather more informed and salient than those of media pundits and political talking heads. Yet the default position is silence – or at best a willingness to talk about sustainability and charitable donations and various other forms of ‘giving back’.
So it’s time for everyone to man up. Yes, it is tremendous that companies care more these days about their responsibilities to society and the environment, and anyone who wants to build a genuinely sustainable business that is focused on more than quarterly earnings statements needs to believe in and deliver on corporate social responsibility.
But companies are not just good because they give back to society. They are good because of what they are, in themselves: because they employ people, they invest in innovation, they pay taxes (notwithstanding what we read about the various miscreants), they fund pensions and deliver value to their shareholders, and they fuel economic growth and societal development.
The power of popularity
But, above all, companies are good for society because they actually do things that people rather like. They make iPads and furniture and clothes and cider and TV programmes and a whole host of other stuff. They deliver insurance and sushi and holidays. It turns out that people like cars and driving around. They like keeping their money in banks. And, yes, they even like electricity and all the things it allows them to do.
Humankind has not yet discovered a better way to produce and deliver all these things other than through the company model. So if you like buying products and services and you like living in the 21st century, you probably should like businesses too.
Let’s press the reset button. Companies need to regain a sense of pride in what they are as well as in what they do. They need to have confidence and act confidently, rather than constantly adopting a defensive crouch.
And companies and their representatives need to defy the doubters and speak out on the big political, economic and social matters of the day because they have important things to say – things that we should all want to hear.
Gavin Devine is chief executive of MHP Communications