As the UK confronts the very real possibility of ‘hard Brexit’, Britain’s boardrooms are still coming to terms with their failure to wield any real sway over the outcome of June’s EU referendum.
And it’s not just at the pro-remain PLCs, such as Vodafone, Shell and Rolls-Royce, which spoke out about their fears of leaving the EU. Or the well-resourced lobby groups, such as Lord Rose’s Britain Stronger in Europe, which attempted to persuade voters to the corporate view.
A spate of new research is suggesting that the majority of Britain’s boardrooms have been chastened by their apparent lack of influence in such a critical public political debate. They believe, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers’s 19th Annual Global CEO Survey, that we are seeing a general loss of public trust in big business.
Nearly three-quarters of those polled by PwC supported Remain but, after seeing their lobbying efforts come to naught, the majority of those interviewed believe that a "division in society between big business and the general public contributed to the result".
In language unusual for the senior partner of a major accountancy firm, PwC’s Kevin Ellis reckons that the importance of the trust agenda is such that organisations need to move from "being faceless to having more humanity".
Sceptics may remember the recriminations around the 2008 financial crisis and think we have heard all this before. The jury must certainly remain out on whether this kind of corporate soul-searching is going to build into any meaningful trend. Yet the fallout from Brexit has certainly rattled corporate confidence and poses real questions about the influence of the business world on its broader stakeholders.
However, there are surely easier ways to help build up trust. It’s no surprise that more than four-fifths of companies polled by Mercer in September, for example, believed it was their duty to keep employees informed of the potential impact of Brexit on their organisations. What is astonishing, however, is that just 11 per cent of those same companies had actually started communicating it openly to their workforce.
If corporates do indeed place such a premium on trust, then their responsibility was always to be transparent about Brexit. Even before the referendum, there was a powerful argument that all stakeholders should be apprised of the potential consequences in the event of a Leave vote. And yet, according to a Financial Times poll of FTSE100 companies before the vote, only four (easyJet, Persimmon, GKN and Standard Life) had any detailed plan of what Brexit would entail.
We will never know, of course, the true influence of the lobbying by business on Britain’s decision to choose Brexit. But it is clear that there has never been a greater need for timely, transparent and honest financial and corporate comms. It might not go so far as to "humanise" business. But for all those UK PLCs looking to build bridges with disaffected audiences, this is the way to start rebuilding trust.
Patrick Donovan is MD of Citigate Dewe Rogerson