During the EU referendum campaign I encouraged my team to turn off all social media. As the Director of Communications for Vote Leave, this might seem like an odd instruction, given we were charged with understanding the mood of the British public. But the truth is it’s all too easy to get distracted by the noise created by a small minority on social media platforms which doesn’t reflect either the opinion of everyday people, or their priorities.
What has often been a problem for politicians is now an all-too common trap for businesses as well. Business leaders have limited time and resources when it comes to knowing what to prioritise in their communications. Using data to identify what’s noise, what’s not and understanding priority issues for the general public is more important than ever.
The zeitgeist for corporate social impact has accelerated dramatically in response to crises including the pandemic, climate change and racial equality. Interested in this trend, Hanbury Strategy and Stack Data Strategy decided to look into what the public thought about how British business has positioned itself in the media. There was a real disconnect.
There was an overwhelming hunger for CEOs to use any media appearances to address how they will treat their employees better and improve services for customers, rather than weighing into social issues. Of those surveyed, 69 per cent of people wanted a greater focus on staff and consumers, compared to 31 per cent who desired companies to engage on the politics of the day.
There was also an important wariness of businesses over-prioritising ESG: 30 per cent described them as a distraction, while 44 per cent acknowledged they were important but agreed that “customers and employees should alway be the priority”.
But there is a mismatch between public priorities and CEO communications: FTSE CEOs were 50 per cent more likely to raise social and political issues than they were to focus on core issues like employee welfare or improving their products for customers when speaking to the press.
As we head into challenging economic times and increasing concern about the cost of living and rising energy bills, it is more important than ever that CEOs reconnect with the public and focus on “bread and butter issues”. Demonstrating how your business improves the lives of your customers and employees should be the top two priorities for CEO public-facing comms. This is hardly revolutionary advice. But when businesses are distracted by the politics of social media, it can be easy to misread the room.
For example, the “culture wars” largely pass the majority of the public by. By far the largest group of people sit squarely in the middle on noisy, controversial issues. This is why it has never been more important to filter out the noise and use good data to focus on what key audiences of customers, employees and policy makers really care about.
There is one important caveat: climate change. It has shot up the public’s agenda. Given its pervasive effect on us all, it is not seen merely as a problem of the moment. It is no longer seen as a tangential “nice to have”, but a core expectation of business leaders. There is still public scepticism towards ESG issues and charges of “greenwashing” will continue to stick until businesses set out concrete steps to make sure their actions on net zero match their words.
There are many important social issues which are not currently seen by the public as core priorities for all businesses. This is not to say they shouldn’t get attention, but business leaders should focus on what it really means to be a company: concerning itself with its direct community of employees and customers before getting mixed up the broader social picture.
Despite laudable efforts by businesses to step up their social responsibilities, including moving mountains to protect employees and society during the pandemic, business at large has a perception problem in the UK. In political campaigns one of the key metrics is which candidate is perceived to best “share my values” by the public. It is a good indicator of who will win. Only 9 per cent of Brits think businesses share their values.
There is a strong and motivated minority of the public that is very anti-business – but no equal pro-business grouping. Unless businesses can find a way to turn that around then we should be concerned that this hostility will grow, driven by an indifferent population and politicians with a keener eye on the public’s priorities.