ED MILIBAND’S move against energy firms at this week’s Labour conference was the latest in a long line of political attacks on British businesses. Drinks firms, airlines, supermarkets, food retailers and, of course, banks have all been recent targets for politicians. This trend shows no sign of abating.
It would be wrong to suggest that every politician that criticised or took action against UK businesses was driven by naked politics. Sometimes, intervention to deal with specific companies or even entire industries is required – for example, to protect the public or promote the health of the wider economy.
But it would be equally wrong to say that political opportunism is only rarely in play. Politicians know that targeting certain types of businesses at specific times can secure decent media coverage and a corresponding rise in the polls. Firms can be a convenient opponent.
It is hard not to conclude that Labour’s energy announcement was driven primarily by politics. When the public is feeling the continued effects of the relative rise in the cost of living, announcing political intervention to keep prices down makes complete electoral sense.
It is undoubtedly true that the public has little affection for “big business”, or even for free markets. The hiring and firing practices of big firms, their use of cheap labour, and their desire to keep down their tax bills can all be unsettling. And firms that provide vital services, like those in the energy sector, find themselves particularly vulnerable. It is hard for them to explain how they can make big profits, pay top executives well, while raising prices in a downturn.
British firms have faced a tough time politically. But it is important to keep a sense of perspective. For companies, things are not as bad as they seem. As I always say to my business clients, there is one thing you should take comfort from: the British public will always hate politicians more than they hate you.
This usually raises a laugh but it is only partly intended as a joke. When it comes down to it, in a public disagreement between politicians and senior business executives, people will regularly come down on the side of business. Think of how the public backed the drinks industry against politicians who proposed increasing the price of alcohol, or how they backed car-maker Porsche against Ken Livingstone’s proposed congestion charge for bigger vehicles, or bakers Greggs who fought against the pasty tax.
Not every company starts out in the same place, of course. Realistically, it is always going to be harder for energy or train companies to secure support. But the public are fair-minded. Despite any scepticism they may have about the way business works, they recognise that growth and jobs depend on firms making a profit and taking tough decisions.
But one of the reasons politicians have been so willing to target British businesses is because so few fight back by securing public support or understanding. Firms must put an end to this and start exposing politicians themselves to risk. They need to show politicians that criticising them publicly is not cost free and that reputational damage can be inflicted in both directions. If more businesses took this approach, the number of attacks would dramatically reduce.
Sometimes this approach leads to direct confrontation with politicians. And for many senior executives, unused to the way politicians and their allies in the media operate, this can be a difficult experience. But nine times out of ten, confrontation is neither desirable nor necessary. Businesses ought to be able to create a sense of public sympathy around them such that politicians never attack them in the first place.
Above all, businesses need to reconfigure their communications operations so that they are focused overwhelmingly on the general public. That means following the lead of modern political campaigns, permanently engaging in the public conversation that takes place about them online.
Businesses must do everything they can to ensure that people understand them, sympathise with them and, ideally, that people are willing to speak out on their behalf when they are criticised or threatened. While some companies will never manage to mobilise the public on their behalf, they should at least be able to provide the public with crucial context that would reduce public support for moves against them.
Companies often hope that backroom lobbying and a low profile will keep them out of the firing line. It never has and never will. Politicians will always be prepared to attack businesses publicly if it suits their agenda. The only way for firms to avoid being on the wrong end of such an attack is to secure support themselves. If they do so, they will find politicians are a significantly less daunting enemy than they first appeared.
James Frayne is a communications consultant and former director of communications in government. His new book Meet the People shows how businesses can learn the skills of public persuasion from campaigns.