Our politics may be in turmoil at the moment, but for business leaders, the communications challenges are also coming thick and fast. Shareholder activists are protesting at company AGMs, threatening corporate reputation. Trade unions are using the media to get the public on-side, and corporate virtue-signalling is being called out when it doesn’t appear to be backed up by solid fact. This means it’s more important than ever for companies to be able to defend their record and communicate what they’re doing. All too often however, they are falling short. As with our politicians, respect for big company bosses is far from automatic, it really has to be earned – and outside the corporate fortress, things are starting to turn nasty.
A high-profile case in point is Shell boss Ben van Beurden. Oil companies can never expect to be popular at a time of climate crisis but, when interviewed on American TV by Jon Stewart, trying to defend his policy agenda, at one stage he was just laughed at. Meanwhile the Shell AGM has been repeatedly targeted by increasingly well-organised protesters, who are grabbing the attention. As a New York Post headline grudgingly admitted: “Theatrical corporate-climate protesters deserve Tony Awards of their own.” Closer to home, trade union leaders such as the RMT’s Mick Lynch have been adept at using the media to get pithy points across, while the train operators have been mealy-mouthed and ineffective by comparison.
These media encounters are hugely important in shaping the public debate, especially when interview stumbles or weak responses are mocked and amplified on social media. It’s time for the people running our big organisations, if they wish to get their views across more effectively and influence the debate, to be a lot more punchy and make their “key messages” much sharper. They should be thinking: how can I get my points across in a way that ordinary members of the public and senior politicians can relate to, so that they come away from hearing me on radio or TV thinking “actually that’s a good point” rather than “what a *****”.
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