Public opinion on business and business attitudes to public opinion

Stephan ShakespeareCEO and Co-Founder
October 22, 2014, 8:17 PM UTC

YouGov has conducted research that explores public attitudes to business and business leaders’ attitudes to public opinion.

The research was based on in-depth interviews I undertook with 21 of the UK’s leading business people, where I was looking to examine how they think the public views them, and whether the relationship among business, the public and politicians is a healthy one. YouGov also surveyed the public to gauge their views on the business community. I found on most points they largely had consistent views. (See the full list of interviewees at the bottom of this article. Quotes are anonymised verbatim comments)

A: Summary of interviews with business

1. Business is highly aware of the negative public attitudes towards them:

  • “The view is that business is just self-serving. Even when you engage in the CSR agenda and do your part, they say 'well you would do that wouldn't you?'”
  • “Issues in the finance sector have spread across to us and become general business issues.”
  • “The breakdown in trust of business is part of a general breakdown of trust in major institutions. The pension companies, the media companies, all have got lumped together, all business got morphed into that.”
  • “After five or six years of recession and uncertainty people have lost their trust in big institutions, big companies, leaders, churches, regulators. Smaller companies are trusted more than bigger companies.”
  • “The attitude is: business is bad, banking is evil. This is driven by three groups – young people generally, the media definitively, and the Westminster bubble (by which I mean politicians and bureaucrats). This was never a pro-business country but now everything is: who get the blame?”

2. They contrast this with attitudes across the world:

  • “There is much more cynicism in Britain than in the rest of Europe and if you go to the developing world multinationals are very much appreciated, even desired. The young especially see us as a positive force in fighting corruption. They see us as a solution improving governance and leading to a better society. There is a huge gap between the public sector and the private sector there, in our favour.”
  • “America celebrates success and encourages people to be aspirational, to take risks.”
  • “The classical cultural American success story is of the Horatio Alger variety, where someone comes from nothing, takes big risks and makes it to become wealthy. America is literally built on this.”
  • “Becoming wealthy by luck is acceptable, because it seems fair, but becoming wealthy by building a business is not acceptable. The more positive view in the US is also fading fast, but fairness is still a whole lot less worshipped there than here.”

3. They accept that many businesses have behaved badly in the past, and that business in general must accept its share of the blame:

  • “We've done things wrong. the banks nearly brought down the financial system, and in my own business we got very complacent, yes we doubled our customers but we also did things I regret.”
  • “Business hasn't helped itself. Lots of businesses have done well and pay rises have been reduced, but in many companies boss's pay has skyrocketed (although many of these were set before the recession). And shareholders don't want to pay for failure either.”
  • “We haven't engaged enough we haven't been open enough.”
  • “We need to deal with unacceptable remuneration - payment for failure et cetera.”
  • “When financial companies say we have to pay huge salaries to attract talent what they're really saying is 'we have no purpose'.”
  • “Investment funds including pension funds are subject to the same short-term criteria as we accuse businesses of pursuing, we often behave the same.”
  • “Something went wrong in the 2005 to 2008 period, everyone played a role - business, banks, politicians, regulators and consumers - but bankers got a disproportionate amount of blame. The regulators and the government were able to wriggle out of their share very successfully.”

4. Most of those I talked to do have some sense of grievance:

  • “The role of business in creating growth is still completely undiscussed in this country.”
  • “We have not moved on from the blame game and the bloodletting of the recession.”
  • “The treatment of Antony Jenkins was terrible - someone who is really trying hits the landmines and gets attacked. Or look at Stephen Hestor, an incredibly competent man who didn't need the money - he didn't get a lot but then is treated so badly and so publicly. So of course businesspeople will say 'I won't get support from the government, the risk to reward ratio in the public world is too unattractive, I'm going to the private world of venture capitalism'.”
  • “High pay seems to be no problem when it's an entrepreneur, but people say we CEOs don't take risks, but nowadays it is very risky.”
  • “In my experience this is potentially the most hostile situation business has faced. There are three forces, firstly the media pillories both failure and success, secondly the polarisation in society between the haves and have nots is increasing, and thirdly within a year could have a government with anti-business views.”
  • “Then you have the saints like John Lewis with their ownership structure...”

5. There is broad agreement that business has to take responsibility, it has a duty to play a major role to play in creating a better society. Many believe it is doing that:

  • “Business has to solve the problems in society.”
  • “With the digitalisation of society everyone is connected. With this higher awareness and more transparency politicians behave differently and consumers have a better ability to find out about companies, for example their irresponsible use of resources. People need to understand, we all need to work on the trust balance all the time, you always have to work hard to deposit more. Companies have to be clear that they are not there to save the financial markets or the shareholders, they are there to serve society and by doing so the shareholders will benefit. We need to get out of this short-termism that has crept in.”
  • “You can't talk yourself out of things you have behaved yourself into. You have to change things.”
  • “Things will only get better if the economy improves. That needs businesses to invest and consumers to have confidence to spend. Jobs will only come from that.”
  • “Business is a force for good, ethical businesses creating investment is a good thing.”

6. They believe the complexities of the world of business are often hard to grasp by the public (see our research among the public on this point): 

  • “The profit motive is still considered to be a necessary evil at best.”
  • “People should understand that their money is invested in companies and if they understand the chain they would take more interest and see were doing a good job for them.”
  • “It's not easy to run a business these days, it requires a lot of effort. Currencies go up and down like a yo-yo, input costs are going up and down like a yo-yo, markets are not growing because governments transfer the cost from themselves to individuals, there's less spending, discounters are growing like mad, so businesses is being stressed as never before and it absorbs a lot of energy.”

7. They believe that politicians are failing in their duty to show the leadership in the public debate about the positive role of business. The people I spoke to almost universally said they had no respect for politicians, who they accuse of failing in their duty illuminate the debate and show leadership:

  • “Everyone is having a pop at business, even the Conservsatives, supposedly the most pro-business. They're saying big businesses are evil and we can get money off big business. it's an easy target.”
  • “We have a low income recovery, not enough foreign investment, and decisions are being delayed.”
  • “When Pfizer sought to merge with AstraZenica it was hoping to take advantage of tax structures put there precisely to encourage companies to come to Britain, and yet they were criticised for wanting to save on tax.”
  • “The scuppered AstraZeneca deal was the first time ever that shareholders rejected a bid on the basis of public opinion.”
  • “Politicians and regulators have been very clever in avoiding their own responsibility for what went wrong in 2008. Politicians have chosen to attack business even though they say 
  • something different in private. So there's a breakdown in trust between politicians and the business community.”
  • “Bad statements damage business and the economy. We have the statist left and the populist right, the left is moving to the left the right is moving to the right, we're missing a centrist party.”
  • “Suspicion above all else is about globalisation and the effect of technology on jobs, so now there's an upswell of tribalism, protectionism, and anti-foreigner anti-immigrant sentiment.”
  • “Miliband simply doesn't listen and Cameron is dragged to the right by the hundred MPs on the right who are more worried about Ukip than in doing what's good for the economy.”
  • “I’m a Conservative but there’s a complete lack of vision in the party, they have no plan for the future, they act like retailers not governors.”
  • “We need better people in government. Take the example of Singapore for getting the best people into the government, and the payoff is no corruption and better problem solving. Our whole structure doesn't make sense, you can't get it to act in the long-term interest.”

8. Miliband is considered a particular danger. The view expressed of him was almost universally negative:

  • “Balls and Chukka are very credible and you feel you can do business with them but I don't know anyone who is comfortable with Miliband. Business is not comfortable with Miliband the way they were with Blair and Brown who gave them the freedom to build their businesses. Miliband's natural instincts are all on the left. He is just not interested, he cancels meetings and doesn't rebook them, he has zero interest in policies for business.”
  • “The mansion tax is going to hurt because business is built on talent and at the moment London is attracting some of the very best talent, but if you put a big drag on that you won't be getting the people you need. You make it more difficult and it can only hurt.”
  • “Ed really believes this stuff, he's the first real socialist we've seen since Kinnock.”
  • “So long as Ed Balls is there it shouldn't be too bad.”

9. They are nervous about intervening in the public debate themselves:

  • “It's hard for businesses to defend themselves against accusations without sounding like special pleading - everyone thinks, 'you would say that wouldn't you?'”
  • “Of course politicians don't want to take on the job of defending business. And as we are not trusted voices and don't have the channels businesses need to identify and work with trusted third parties.”
  • “The ability of NGOs to communicate is much better than ours. Their errors are never pointed out by the media... And unlike Greenpeace I can't put 200 people in Brussels.”
  • “In the referendum campaign Alex Salmond behaved more like Putin when he threatened to harm businesses with contracts and universities with reduced funding if they spoke out, and Redwood did something similar over the EU.”

10. In spite of a nervous start, they were heartened by their effect in the Scottish referendum:

  • “There were three reasons why business failed to step up early in the referendum: first, there was complacency, the sense that it wasn't needed and was going in the right direction on its own, second there was concern that we would be someone shouted down, and third was the fear of retaliation from the SNP. This was very real, Alex Salmond was always on the phone threatening us.”
  • “Business did come out and make the points about the dangers to the Scottish economy. That worked because we were talking about things we were believed on."
  • “In the end what we did in the Scottish campaign, speaking out in spite of the threats, and being listened to and having an effect, will encourage business to engage more.”

11. Some believe business should play a much more activist role - as one interviewee put it, "we must create coalitions of the willing" with companies, government, and citizens; but most say they prefer to 'keep their heads down' and see their best route as being the direct one over which they have the most control: through serving their customers better

  • “The most important thing is to take responsibility to make sure you don't feel victimised and that you don't feel 'it's unfair', that you think people don't get it: that is the worst attitude to take. You have to be mindful that we are at a crossroads in the way we run our economies, the way government works, the way business functions, and the incentive systems that drive certain behaviours, in a world where increasingly many are feeling they're not participating and they are paying the price for issues that happened in other places.”
  • “The recovery needs to be seen as a fair recovery. Business would be wrong to see this as a political debate, as left/right. The call for fairness, like the anger about immigration, is really a cry for help.”
  • “People do trust Amazon because it is efficient and has good customer relations where utilities have shown such poor customer service.”
  • “What can we do now? Only one thing, look after the customers.”
  • “If all that has happened makes us think harder about consumers, it's a good thing. It's clarified on minds about what we need to do, so it can't be a bad thing in the end.” 

B: The public opinion survey

People most attribute progress to new technologies and new infrastructure rather than consumer products and services, and they think investment should come from both private and public investment, though they lean towards private investment. About half the sample consider themselves 'shareholders' of businesses either through personally held investments or funds such as pension funds. They believe a fair ROI on a low-risk shareholding such as a utility company should be around 7% and on a higher risk shareholding in a company developing new technology around 11%.

Even after questions in which the public gave very negative views on trust for some types of business, given a choice between two strong statements about business, they strongly prefer the positive one over the negative one: 61% chose 'Overall, business is a force for good' compared to 12% for 'Overall, business is destructive'. People are fairly evenly split about whether their attitude to business is best represented by Labour or the Conservatives, and also between whether businesses these days are behaving better or worse than 10 years ago, and indeed 50 years ago. We also asked, "In a free market, or one might say capitalism, the pursuit of high financial rewards is seen as a key driver of behaviour - do you think that leads to a better overall standard living?" 67% acknowledge that it does; but while 7% of them say it leads to a 'basically fair society', 35% say it's 'with some degree of unfairness', and 25% 'with huge unfairness'. Only 17% say 'it makes people poorer'. And by 40% to 29% they prefer to live in a democratic free market/capitalist democracy than in a socialist democracy.

In spite of all this, the more specific questions revealed strikingly negative attitudes. We asked: "Imagine if there were no government regulations and things were left to the free market. Do you think big businesses would tend to abuse their staff (for example by making them work too long hours or for too low pay, and firing them at will)?" 74% said 'yes' (v 16% who said 'no'). We then asked: "Again, imagine if there were no government regulations and things were left to the free market. Do you think big businesses would tend to abuse their customers (for example by selling them poor products or services at unreasonable prices)?" 68% said 'yes' (v 21% who said 'no').

The public overwhelmingly considers teachers, doctors, nurses and engineers as being trustworthy (respectively net +61%, +77%, +80%, +67%), but among businesses only 'managers of small businesses' receive a net positive rating (+8%), while 'managers of big businesses' and even 'entrepreneurs' score net negative (at -56% and -27% respectively). The public is favourable towards high tech, car manufacturers, construction and pharmas, but negative towards banks, utilities and oil & gas extraction companies. They believe 47% of the price of a McDonald's hamburger is profit, 39% of a new car, and 33% of their utility bill. They believe an office cleaner should be paid around £17,500 a year, a plumber £30,000, a teacher £35,000, a politician £45,000, a lawyer £50,000, and the chief of a big business around £75,000. 

We interviewed 1,997 GB adults between October 17th and 20th 2014. We randomly split the sample and gave one of the split samples five additional questions at the start of the survey, designed to make people deliberate a little about the role of business in social progress, investment, risk and reward. If those with the additional questions at the start showed significant difference in their answers to the rest of the survey, it would suggest that opinions on these topics are naïve and subject to influence from new information. However, opinions did not show significant change.

See the full public opinion results here

List of interviewees (in alphabetical order):

Nick Baird, Group Corporate Affairs Director, Centrica plc

Simon Borrows, Chief Executive, 3i Group plc

Sir Ian Cheshire, Group Chief Executive, Kingfisher plc

Adam Crozier, Chief Executive, ITV plc

Peter France, Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director, Rotork plc

Paul Geddes, Chief Executive Officer, Direct Line Group plc

Martin Gilbert, Co-Founder and Chief Executive, Aberdeen Asset Management plc

Richard Glynn, Chief Executive, Ladbrokes plc

Ali Green, Group Head of Strategy and Development, Wood Group plc

Martin Griffiths, Chief Executive, Stagecoach plc

Bob Keiller, CEO, Wood Group plc

David Nish, Chief Executive, Standard Life plc

Gavin Patterson, Chief Executive, BT Group plc

Alistair Phillips-Davies, Chief Executive, SSE plc

Paul Polman, Chief Executive Officer, Unilever plc

Sir Michael Rake, President of the CBI, Chairman of BT Group plc, Deputy Chairman of Barclays plc

Adrian Ringrose, Chief Executive Interserve plc

Don Robert, Chairman, Experian plc

Michael Tobin (then) CEO Telecity Group plc

Johanna Waterous, Non-Executive Director of RSA Insurance Group plc and Wm Morrison Supermarkets Plc

George Weston, Chief Executive Associated British Foods plc