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To speak or not to speak: that is the question

Since late 2016, recall of business news stories has been minimal to say the least, with only a handful of companies making their way into the nation’s consciousness. In fact, “None” has been the public’s most common response when asked what business news stories they have noticed in 2017 so far.

No prizes for guessing why.

It may come as a relief to some businesses that the public has been somewhat preoccupied by the fierce political debates surrounding both Trump and Brexit in recent months; however, large corporations cannot afford to hide in the shadows much longer. In fact, doing so could seriously harm their reputations.

Sooner or later many will have to overcome their natural compulsion to shy away from politics and take sides. This of course presents businesses with a big dilemma. Most large corporations market to people sitting on both sides of the political fence and are therefore reluctant to speak out on political affairs for fear of alienating a proportion of their market. Businesses will no doubt be even less inclined to throw in their two cents when it comes to Trump and Brexit. Both the US and UK populations are so evenly divided on the issues that making a stand for or against could cost them business.

Staying out of the debate may seem to make the most commercial sense for businesses, but what happens in the event that one of Trump’s policies or the government’s approach to Brexit negotiations directly contradicts their corporate values.

Is that business’ cue to speak?

Making a stand

While businesses in the US have largely adopted a “wait-and-see” approach when it comes to Trump, one of the business tycoon’s first acts as President prompted some big corporations to speak up.

Following President Trump’s executive order to ban immigrants from seven Muslim countries from entering the US, Ford Motor Company’s Executive Chairman Bill Ford and CEO Mark Fields issued the following joint statement:

“We do not support this policy or any other that goes against our values as a company…We will continue working to ensure the well-being of our employees by promoting the values of respect and inclusion in the workplace.”

This was a bold move for the multi-national corporation which, just a few days prior, claimed to be cautiously optimistic about the future of the automotive industry now that Trump was in charge. Let’s also not forget that Ford is based in the pro-Trump state of Michigan and no doubt employs a considerable number of his supporters.

Was Ford’s decision to speak out against the order, upsetting Trump supporters both across the US and within its own organisation, the right thing to do? Moreover, what is the likely impact of taking a political stance on its reputation?

These are both questions of values.

Values vs expectations

Findings from a US study on consumer response to corporate political activism suggest that Ford’s foray into politics will ultimately have a positive effect on its reputation.[1]

The research is based on the premise that consumers’ attitudes towards businesses are not simply based on the quality of the products and services that it sells but a set of expectations on how that company should behave. The public’s expectations of businesses also vary according to whether they are perceived to be guided by their values (e.g. Ford, Apple and Google) or simply results (e.g. Goldman Sachs, Glencore and ExxonMobil).

In the case of values-driven businesses, the findings indicate that speaking up when political matters contradict the core beliefs around which their organisation is structured can actually have a positive impact on their performance.

Ford, therefore, may have ruffled a few pro-Trump feathers and cost it a few sales in the short term when it publicly opposed the travel ban, but for a business that claims to take such pride in its strong culture of diversity and inclusion, the cost of keeping quiet would have been considerably more. Not speaking up would have effectively rendered its values meaningless and violated public expectations, resulting in a loss of integrity that would have a deeply harmful effect on its reputation and proved far more difficult to recover from.

What now for UK businesses?

Trump’s extreme travel ban forced the hand of some US businesses when it came to responding to the political climate. In the UK, however, the majority of businesses have been less forthcoming with their views on Brexit. Yet it is inevitable that UK businesses will find their values to be at odds with some Brexit terms, particularly given that views on immigration played such a big part in the Leave victory.

In a recent Populus poll, we asked the public to tell us what, for them, would a “good Brexit” mean. Control of immigration was the top answer.

Indeed, some of the responses to our open-ended question suggested that there is some appetite in the UK for a Trump style travel ban:

“No more ridiculous human rights that side with minorities, we need to control what mosques etc. are doing in our country and universities.”

“A good Brexit would mean that all Eastern Europeans would have to return to their own countries.”

“Close our borders to ALL immigration.”

Suppose a similarly harsh restriction on travel, or indeed any other policy that directly contradicted any of the principles that business claim to hold dear, emerged from Brexit negotiations. Should businesses respond?

The answer, in the case of businesses that truly believe in their own corporate values is, unequivocally, yes. It is the PR industry’s responsibility to help guide the organisations they advise to ensure that they do this in the most dignified manner possible.

It’s easy for businesses to wax lyrical about their values when the political climate is working in their favour. The real test of a values-driven business is how it behaves when its values are at odds with the will of both the government and a large proportion of the population.

After all, what is the point in a business having principles if it is not prepared to speak out against political decisions that make them impossible to uphold. Surely then those principles are rendered aspirations at best, and at worst merely corporate hot air.

Yes, businesses that stand up for what they believe in may see a dip in revenues in the short-term, but they will gain something far more difficult to come by and infinitely more valuable in the long-run; the public’s respect.

[1] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2806476

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