Trust Wars – There are still too many casualties

By on January 22, 2014

The reputation of business in the UK is still at an unacceptably low level, says Management Today (MT) editor Matthew Gwyther.

Last week, under the banner of explaining MT’s Most Admired Companies, I addressed an assembly of two dozen very senior comms folk from FTSE 250 companies.

What struck me was how fed up and defensive they all were about how their companies were treated by the public, the media and politicians in the UK at the moment. Although the green shoots are now coming through nicely they remained wary and rather cheesed off. There was a bit of ‘why do we bother’ in the air.  

Yet again, one of the major issues was executive remuneration. Most felt that even when their company was doing pretty well against the odds of the last few years it was always a serious uphill struggle selling the pay packets of the board to the public. 

One of the chief annual tasks of the Director of Communications in a listed company remains to get his or her boss’s reward basket through with the minimum of reputational damage. Heaven forbid if it took a haircut on their watch. They were all horror-struck by the ambush that Sam Laidlaw of British Gas suffered at the CBI when he was forced, live on stage, to give his bonus to charity. 

One flak even admitted that years back he sneaked through his CEO’s ample deal by not announcing it to the media formally but hiding it in an obscure database. You’d be hard-pressed to get away with that now. 

I think reward levels are going to be a continuing ugly theme this year. George Osborne has the political nous to realise that he’s onto a vote-winner by meddling in the affairs of the Low Pay Commission by suggesting a very substantial rise in the minimum wage. (He will never be seen dead defending pay at the other end of the scale.) When the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) questioned the wisdom of this intervention, John Cridland was immediately the bad guy.

For the rest of us not unfortunate to be down there on R113 an hour but not up in the pay stratosphere, things have been tough and tight since 2008. Wages are lagging badly behind inflation and resentment of fat cattery is back big time. Not that it ever really went away. The middle classes are not happy. 

Any chance of sustained engagement and argument from these comms people about their organisation’s positive role in society appeared most unlikely. It’s ok to do some steady background work about Corporate Social Responsibility but even that has diminishing returns these days because it’s so tick-box and everybody does it.  

Many felt there was a broad and unremitting anti-business feeling abroad and few, if any, saw any benefit whatsoever in coming out of the trenches to attempt to fight back a bit. What on earth would be gained by that? Just getting by beneath the radar was the most they seemed willing to hope for. ‘Stay out of trouble’ was the watchword. 

If they will not stand up for business and the value it has for society then who will? Who is willing to attempt to unpick and discuss sensibly the Guardian’s pre-Davos story – given to it by Oxfam – that showed the richest 85 people across the globe share a combined wealth of R17.5 trillion, as much as the poorest 3.5 billion or half of the world’s population.

All this seems confirmed by today’s results from the annual Edelman Trust barometer. The 2014 study shows that, for Brits, there is a growing trust gap between government and business. This year trust in government dropped from 47 percent to 42 percent and trust in business flat-lined, remaining at a very poor 56 percent. I always wonder quite what ‘trust’ means in this context – would you leave your kids with Unilever or GlaxoSmithKline for the afternoon? – but you get the drift. The numbers don’t look good. 

The only potential “good news” for business is that the public is more cynical about politicians than those in commerce. Half of British people said they have less belief in government doing the right thing than last year. But a similar proportion (52 percent) credit Britain’s business community, rather than its politicians, for recent improvements in the economy. Only 25 percent of respondents thought government was responsible for any recovery. But I do not think these kind of weary, mistrustful attitudes do anyone any good.

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