'Business should have done more on Brexit; it's time for corporate comms to step up' - Sir Craig Oliver

David Cameron's former director of comms and politics says businesses should have raised their heads above the parapet and voiced their concerns about Brexit more vociferously to have a greater influence over the EU referendum.

In short, Sir Craig Oliver urges communications professionals to champion the cause of business.

In an era where ‘the establishment’, including both sides of politics and the business community, has lost the trust of ordinary Brits, it is now more important than ever for corporate comms to play a prominent role in making a better case of how a business can positively impact upon society, rather than merely using social media "as a way to sell products".

"Businesses often view social media as a way to sell products, and digital channels have become the domain of the marketing department. [There is also] fear...as people increasingly see social media as a loaded gun, with countless cautionary tales of people who have used it to shoot themselves in the foot," he said.

"The ability to have your own channel to communicate without someone interpreting it has become a necessity, not a luxury in the modern communications world. Business should take its place at the table and make its case. It shouldn’t be overtly political, but making the case for why business is important in our society, why it isn’t the root of all our ills and why it does make a contribution."

Oliver, who is senior managing director at Teneo Blue Rubicon, was the keynote speaker at Cision’s CommsCon event in London yesterday.

He recalled his time in 10 Downing Street, how challenging it was for politicians to communicate effectively in an era where "your next deadline was the time it takes to type a tweet" and how the establishment, including business, had completely lost touch with the issues that concerned ordinary voters in the EU referendum debate.

On the sidelines of the event, PRWeek asked Oliver if he believed business could have influenced the outcome of the EU referendum if it had taken a stronger position on Brexit.

"I think that it would have helped and it would have helped if it had been done over time. The problem was that the establishment, of which businesses are a part of, had allowed itself to get into a position where people didn’t trust it," he said.

"People didn’t believe it and thought that their values were not the same as them and business is just part of that. All parts of the establishment need to think about that.

"What are our business leaders doing to lead [the case] for why they need to exist and what social purpose they have and make that case over time?"

During his presentation, Oliver cited the examples of Airbus and BMW, two businesses that received some "blowback" for pointing out their supply chain concerns about Brexit.

"My [response] is ‘so what?’ - it’s not a big problem. Airbus and BMW made a very big point and the net effect was positive. I would encourage business to do that," he said.

"Too often people wait for a crisis before they start thinking about it. What happened with Brexit is there were a lot of businesses that hadn’t been out there and were used to being under the parapet...they just thought ‘oh, we need to throw something out there now’, and then they were in the middle of a campaign that was incredibly divisive and brutal, but the foundations of their arguments and ideas had just not been made over time."

Navigating a swamp of trolls and narcissists

The problem for business and the political class in the current climate is that if they don’t take a position on issues that impact them, the media, public and the "digital swamp of trolls and narcissists" will "fill the vacuum" and "tell your story for you".

"If you have a purely defensive posture, you are always going to be in trouble and defined by the people criticising you. So, what is your positive story and the places where you create moments of reappraisal where people look at you in a fresh light?" he said.

The rise of populist politics across the world is symbolised in this country by Brexit, but elsewhere by the ascension of leaders like US president Donald Trump and Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro. Oliver said this rise, as well as the popularity of left economic policies, is a symptom of the establishment losing touch with ordinary people, many of whom have been struggling with years of austerity, stagnant wages and very little hope.

Oliver said this requires politicians and business leaders to have an "honest and open discussion" about economic realities, rather than "ducking beneath the parapet or just trying to ram your world view down people’s throat".

"That was a failure [of Brexit]. The establishment had believed that it won arguments it hadn’t (like the importance of globalisation and immigration)," he added.

This presents an enormous opportunity for PR and communications professionals.

"Communications professionals have allowed themselves to be seen as a secondary function in business, but actually and increasingly, as the centre of the political universe has shifted towards populism and economic thinking has shifted towards the left, business needs to decide what its story and message is," he said.

"That means that communications professionals helping people understand the world they are actually in and helping them tell their story. That means stepping up and taking your place at the table and making clear why what you are saying is important and why should listen.

He continued: "My headline would be, recognise communications has been demoted and be a champion for it and push it, because it has never been more vital."

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