Don't do 'the Maybot' - why business must be honest and direct to reconnect with society

The longer jargon-obsessed big business continues to sound like 'the Maybot', the greater the risk it runs of further alienating ordinary people.

Business must reconnect with society, says Lansons Tony Langham
Business must reconnect with society, says Lansons Tony Langham

On 18 May, the day it all began to go wrong, Theresa May unveiled her manifesto and proposed that people pay for their own social care costs, ­uncapped, down to their last £100,000.

Also see: Divest the crap: CBI and Porter Novelli call on companies to 'kill business speak'

Within hours it was dubbed the ­‘dementia tax’, sending shudders through the wallets of older Conservative voters and their children.

Four days later, the policy was reversed. U-turns happen all the time in politics, as in life, but this one entered a fantasy world all of its own. The soundbite chosen to announce it was "Nothing has changed".

That evening, Andrew Neil looked at Theresa May and said: "You need to be honest, I would suggest, and tell the British ­people you’ve changed your mind."

BBC News introduced the "nothing has changed" soundbite as ‘the change’, with Laura Kuenssberg analysing it as "a big change". Theresa May had moved from looking fairly ‘strong and stable’ to ‘the Maybot’.

By the time May visited Grenfell Tower after the terrible fire, the narrative that she lacks the common touch was established. To many people in Britain, big business sounds a lot like ­Theresa May, in three ways.

First, businesses often use words that human beings don’t. This year, in her annual jargon awards, former FT journalist Lucy Kellaway outed Infosys for describing a redundancy ­programme as "an orderly ramp-down", and eBay for telling the New York Times that "we are passionate about harnessing our platform to empower millions of people by levelling the playing field for them".

Second, too often the response to a problem is to deny it. ­Face­book has spent years refusing to take down child pornography and jihadist videos, claiming they don’t breach its ‘community standards’, while Uber and Deliveroo have maintained that drivers who work mainly for them are self-employed.

Finally, just as May dodged the election’s leaders’ ­debates, many CEOs don’t face the music by appearing on TV or radio to explain why their business has acted as it has.

None of this would matter if business were popular, but it isn’t. Less than a third of Britons (31 per cent) trust business, the third-lowest ranking among the 22 countries surveyed by ­Ipsos Mori for its latest Global Trends Report.

Labour’s divisive campaign slogan, "For the many, not the few", struck a chord. In the leaders’ debates, Jeremy ­Corbyn made it clear that the party’s election promises would involve a levy on the top five per cent of society and big business.

The Conservative manifesto, with its governance agenda and energy price-cap proposals, was hardly pro-business – Fraser Nelson, The Spectator’s editor, dubbed May "the most left-wing leader the Tories have had in perhaps 40 years".

This drift of public policy and sentiment means that it is vital for business to step outside of the metropolitan elite and ­reconnect with society – talking honestly and directly to people in a ­human way. Otherwise, at least in terms of ­reputation, it faces the same fate as Theresa May.

Tony Langham is chief executive of Lansons

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in