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What are MPs’ views on responsible business?

MPs say excellent employment practices, supported by evidence of local community investment, are the most important features of a responsible business. So how can global businesses demonstrate local impact?

Businesses spend considerable time and money attempting to communicate their responsibility and sustainability to all kinds of stakeholders, including politicians, journalists and regulators. In order to be effective, however, it is important for corporate behaviour (and communication of such behaviour) to align with stakeholder expectations.

Talking about something people don’t care about will just result in being ignored. Recent Populus research among MPs has shown that they expect excellent employment practices and community investment from a responsible business, rather than commitments to tackle global issues.

When asked what were the most important features, behaviours and commitments for a responsible business to demonstrate, most MPs named features connected with employment conditions and treatment of employees.

The top five features included:

  • Employment conditions/employee treatment (named by 62% of MPs)
  • Commitment to local communities (28%)
  • Transparency/honesty (27%)
  • Environmental sustainability (27%)
  • Customer care (26%)

 

Paying tax (23%) and making financial returns (18%) were also fairly frequently mentioned, though treating employees well was by far the priority.

Figure 1: For a business to be regarded as a responsible business, what do you think are the most important features, behaviours and commitments that it should demonstrate?

As a follow-up, MPs were also asked for features of particularly effective corporate responsibility strategies. Again, the most common responses included references to local communities and employment conditions with Labour MPs, in particular, emphasising the latter. They also looked for transparency and evidence of action and impact, while companies not following up their promises with action was the sign of an ineffective corporate responsibility strategy. Similarly, poor communication and irrelevant activity (including irrelevant or inauthentic sponsorships) were also named as features of ineffective strategies.


Figure 2: Lots of companies spend time and money trying to demonstrate that they are responsible businesses. What do you think are the features – whether in general or from specific examples – of particularly effective or ineffective corporate responsibility strategies?

It seems crucial, therefore, that businesses attempting to communicate their responsibility understand that MPs will be looking for evidence of good employment conditions (or at least no evidence to the contrary) in particular. Evidence of the business’s commitment to local communities was also welcomed, so demonstrating care for employees (either directly or via main suppliers) locally is particularly important.

Evidence of commitment and impact is also important but, for global businesses attempting to demonstrate they are tackling macro issues, this might represent a problem. How can global businesses engage and impress politicians, who are primarily looking for evidence of excellent employment practices, local investment and action on micro issues?

The United Nations Global Compact, for example, is supporting businesses to advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which include “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” and “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”. Considering such dauntingly ambitious goals, how can a business that is focusing on such huge issues provide MPs with the evidence required to demonstrate genuine commitment? After all, MPs warn against “frothy initiatives which promise much but deliver very little”, “bland mission statements which lack transparency and are difficult to evaluate” and “meaningless press releases using language not understandable to most readers”. Numbers of local employees and micro investments in the local community are much easier to prove than actions taken to tackle global problems.

For a business, recognising this challenge will be important. But, it will also be important for businesses to understand the views and expectations of stakeholders in order to ensure communications teams are able to land their messages regarding responsibility and sustainability.

Methodology

Populus interviewed 97 MPs online and by self-complete postal questionnaire in July and August 2018. Questions were open-ended and responses were grouped into similar groupings after fieldwork was completed. Data were weighted in order to ensure the sample was representative of the party political composition of the House of Commons at the time of fieldwork. Populus is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. For more information, see www.populus.co.uk.


Owen Thomas

Owen Thomas is a Director at Populus managing a wide variety of stakeholder, political and reputation research projects that aim to equip clients with a better understanding of the issues that matter most to them and their stakeholders. He is a key member of the Reputation & Strategy team who has developed his expertise overseeing qualitative workshops and consultations, examining the reputation of some of the UK’s largest companies among political stakeholders and conducting extensive research into senior opinion-formers’ attitudes towards the post-crash economy.

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