As Westminster prepares for a likely change in government, companies and charities are currently fine-tuning their lobbying operations. But which brands have succeeded in getting their messages across to parliamentarians, and which have largely failed?
To provide the answers, PRWeek has teamed up with the PoliticsHome website to launch the PoliticsHome/PRWeek Reputation Index. This tracks the reputation of the top 50 political brands in the corridors of power.
The 50 brands are the editorial choices of PRWeek and PoliticsHome and include as many major players as possible. The brands' reputations will be tracked every quarter by a prestigious panel of political heavyweights (see box). The index will be published on a quarterly basis, beginning this week.
Fleishman-Hillard head of corporate comms David Hart says winning over Westminster decision-makers is crucial for brands: 'The development and maintenance of brand awareness among all stakeholders, including political ones, is crucial if companies are to build their long-term corporate reputations. Companies that are well regarded in the corridors of Westminster will clearly be better placed to raise their profiles through thought leadership opportunities.'
Insight Public Affairs MD John Lehal says many parliamentarians still form their opinions based on their daily experiences as consumers, adding: 'When MPs have regular interaction with a brand in the course of their parliamentary or ministerial responsibilities, then there may be further perceptions to tease out.'
To make inroads in the Westminster village, Lehal advises: 'Target MPs and ministers for whom your brand is relevant; use your CSR and community affairs programme as a platform for political engagement and consider if there's a constituency perspective so they can experience your brand outside the Westminster bubble.'
To find out in detail how your company or organisation fares in the Reputation Index, contact PoliticsHome Brand Research on 020 7227 0420 or visit www.politicshome.com
WHO'S ON THE PANEL?
The PoliticsHome Phi100 panel is arguably the UK's most authoritative survey of insider political opinion, with ministers, shadow ministers, special advisers, political editors and heads of think-tanks on board.
Some are anonymous, but those happy to be named include higher education minister David Lammy, shadow home secretary Chris Grayling, former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith and Liberal Democrat frontbencher Lynne Featherstone. Journalists taking part include Sky News political editor Adam Boulton, The Observer's chief political commentator Andrew Rawnsley and The Sun columnist Richard Littlejohn. Others on the panel include Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti and RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor.
For the reputation index, panel members were asked to choose those organisations of which they have a positive impression - and those of which they have a negative impression. The percentage with a negative impression was then subtracted from the percentage with a positive impression to produce a net 'favourability rating'. The total percentage having an opinion either way is measured as 'mindshare'.
MARKS & SPENCER TOPS THE POLL
Marks & Spencer has always been held in high regard by the political classes - and especially Tory ladies. Former health secretary Virginia Bottomley was such a fan she persuaded the store to open early so she could shop free from interruption by pesky members of the public.
More recently, the store has developed its £200m five-year ethical trading initiative, called Plan A. The plan was given a fresh advertising drive last month with a national press and digital campaign and a swipe at companies that 'have jumped on the bandwagon but have not really committed'.
The retailer, which uses Fleishman-Hillard for public affairs, says it has achieved 39 of the 100 commitments outlined in the plan. Furthermore, it claims the £200m cost has been more than offset by savings made through policy changes relating to energy efficiency and waste.
Graham McMillan, CEO of Open Road, says Marks & Spencer clearly benefits from 'its reputation for great service and being a great employer', but also from its ethical credentials as underpinned by Plan A. 'You go into the stores and it's everywhere; there's a lot of communication around it,' he says. 'It all adds to the general halo effect of it being a good employer.'
BAA, USUAL SUSPECTS BRING UP REAR
The mismanagement of the Royal Bank of Scotland has, unsurprisingly, not endeared the bank to Westminster's elite. In February 2009, RBS reported a loss of £24.1bn in 2008 - the largest annual loss in UK corporate history. Soon after, the Government stepped in.
Consequently, RBS is viewed through the same negative lens as British American Tobacco. Airports operator BAA scores better than these two, but is also overwhelmingly seen as having a negative reputation.
DLA Piper Global Government Affairs director Eben Black says: 'It's no surprise that RBS is held in low regard but what has BAA done? Oh yes, it withdrew free parking at airports for MPs a number of years ago.'
James Frayne, head of campaigns at Portland, blames campaigning by NGOs for BAA's lowly position. He says: 'While many factors drive perceptions of businesses in Westminster, clearly firms such as BAA and Shell suffer from having well organised NGO campaigns against them. NGO campaigns are often weak and laughably out-of-touch with public opinion but they still have to be dealt with. Businesses should never rely on MPs to see through bad arguments and must instead hit back hard, not least by influencing and mobilising mainstream opinion.'
MCDONALD'S GRILLS BURGER KING
There are no Burger Kings close to the House of Commons, but there are two McDonald's nearby. Whether this explains McDonald's higher position in the reputation index has yet to be confirmed, but public affairs chiefs could not rule it out.
'It is interesting that Burger King, a British-owned brand, is less well thought of than McDonald's, which isn't British-owned,' says DLA Piper Global Government Affairs director Eben Black. 'Also, Burger King's "flame-grilled" healthier message is clearly falling on deaf ears in Westminster.'
McDonald's lead over Burger King in the reputation index would suggest the company has made up some lost ground with Westminster insiders, even if it still ranks a lowly 42 out of 50.
The company's reputation hit rock bottom in 1997 with the conclusion of the McLibel trial but since then it has focused relentlessly on improving its corporate responsibility credentials, aided in the UK by Blue Rubicon. Meanwhile, Burger King has been considerably quieter on this front.
'McDonald's used to not take the environment seriously,' says Open Road CEO Graham McMillan. 'Since McLibel, it has done a lot of work on McJobs, taking recycling seriously, taking sourcing seriously. It looks like that could be paying off.'
GOOGLE SECOND DESPITE CONTROVERSY
Google's strong showing in the reputation index comes despite the increasing concern from some quarters about its energy consumption and carbon footprint. Earlier this year, The Sunday Times caused something of a storm by publishing a story based on research from a Harvard physicist claiming every Google search generated high levels of CO2.
Google hit back, saying this estimate was many times too high: 'In fact, in the time it takes to do a Google search, your own personal computer will use more energy than Google uses to answer your query.'
Google also recently faced a barrage of negative press after Street View launched in the UK. The mapping service, which provides 360-degree images of 25 cities in the UK, was criticised by campaigners - and some MPs - for invasion of privacy.
Yet Westminster's movers and shakers appear largely unaffected by these concerns. 'I suspect the favourable rating comes down to the fact that all MPs and journalists find it incredibly useful,' says one public affairs boss. But others ask how long Google's V-P of global comms Rachel Whetstone can maintain its healthy reputation in the face of concerns about privacy and the environment.