James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
Just yesterday, there were three major stories about the behaviour of corporate executives. One looked at a senior banking executive’s alleged investigation into a possible whistleblower. Another looked at an energy firm’s alleged knowledge that payments to a foreign government might be abused. Another looked again at banks’ behaviour in the Libor scandal, this time questioning Bank of England involvement. It was unusual to have three stories in a day, but we seem to read such stories on a regular basis.
We don’t know the full details of these cases and I make no comment on them. However, there seems to be a growing gap between senior politicians and senior business executives: while senior politicians have known for years they’re working under a microscope, many in business still seem to think they operate away from any meaningful public scrutiny – as if the media is only interested in the very biggest scandals. On these occasions, mainstream media outlets broke the news. However, the greater scrutiny that businesses face reflects the explosion in blogs and specialist websites – and above all on the informal and formal campaign networks that exist on social media. There are fewer hiding places.
What, then, can business executives learn from politicians as we enter this new world? Firstly, that you have to behave as if everything is open for show. American executives (usually) find this easier to grasp because the litigious nature of the American economy means everyone is paranoid about material being subpoenaed. Just like politicians now assume everything will leak – through incompetence, malice or investigation – so businesspeople should assume the same and act accordingly. This means thinking about what might look bad as well as actually being bad. Some of the emails you read in the media from executives are extraordinary. You rarely see such things from senior politicians.
Secondly, politicians have learned how to navigate complex social policy questions – avoiding upsetting aggressive pressure groups while staying true to their party’s line. In the past, such questions never touched businesspeople. Now they’re regularly asked to justify everything from the nature of workplace benefits to the platforms they choose to advertise on. They’re endlessly dragged into political rows. Like politicians, they need to prepare to deal with hot political and social issues in advance so they’re ready to take the heat out of stories before they develop. Too many executives get caught on the hop, blurt out an ill-prepared response, and then get dragged into a row they never wanted to have.
Thirdly, politicians never under-estimate the media – reporters’ ability to make them look bad and their ability to find more dirt. As such, when crisis hits, the best politicians try to get as much bad stuff out as they can quickly so the story runs its course. In the corporate world, there’s more than a tendency to assume they can manage the story with secrecy and legal support. Businesses should take the same approach as politicians. As Senator John McCain was fond of saying: “It’s always darkest before it’s totally black.” Get the bad stuff out.
Fourthly, and finally, as I’ve written here many times before, politicians know that public opinion matters more than anything. When opinion moves, politicians, the media and regulators move with it. You can’t fight it.
We’re used to hearing about what politicians can learn from businesses – and it’s a theme that runs through this site on occasion. Politicians should indeed keep a close eye on the corporate world. But credit where it’s due: senior politicians are streets ahead of most executives on dealing with intense modern scrutiny.