Business and politics. Like oil and water, they simply don’t mix. At least, that has been the consensus view of many in the corporate world, for a generation or more.
The business of business is business, so the mantra goes. And it explains why so many CEO’s have stepped back from venturing into the public arena, beyond the narrow confines of their industry.
Such well-honed caution is now being blown apart by the new world into which we have lurched. Establishment politics has fallen victim to an upsurge of anger and alienation. Now, the populist wave that has crashed over successive Western governments threatens boardrooms that had thought themselves far from the political fray.
You need only to look at the actions and statements of some of the world’s most prominent CEOs in recent months. Uber’s Travis Kalanick, no stranger to controversy and protest, beat a hasty retreat from a role on Donald Trump’s advisory council in the face of public outcry. Starbucks chief Howard Schulz responded to the Trump administration’s immigration ban with a pledge to hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years. Apple’s Tim Cook, visiting the UK last week, was vocal on an issue far from the comfort zone of the product launch, lamenting that fake news is “killing people’s minds.”
Many company leaders feel that they have no choice but to take a political stance, but be in no doubt these tentative steps are just the beginning. For business, the new reality of an ever more volatile world means the fence-sitting of old is no longer an option.
A growing number of consumers are being empowered by technology. It connects them and provides a stronger ability to hold business to account and scrutinise where it stands on the big issues of the day. And then to vote with their feet and launch a public boycott if they don’t like what they hear. To give just one example, the #DeleteUber campaign has reportedly led over 200,000 users to deregister their accounts.
As the tide of consumer volatility continues to grow, many brands have found themselves on the defensive, scrabbling to defend reputational capital. Others are starting to shape a more proactive response: take the Super Bowl adverts celebrating the importance of immigration, most notably Budweiser’s spot tracing the migrant journey of its founder Adolphus Busch. Or Tim Cook’s comments about the responsibility of the tech world to tackle fake news: “All of us technology companies need to create some tools that help diminish the volume of fake news… Too many of us are in the ‘complain’ category right now and haven’t figured out what to do.”
He could not be more right. With its reputation under the microscope, business cannot afford to complain about more problems than it solves. Consumers, employees and investors alike expect more and demand better. Where indifference was once the great fear of the body corporate, backlash and outcry are the new threats. A polarised world cannot be navigated with a passive compass, and business will increasingly need to pin its colours to the mast. No longer a CSR issue, this is mission critical and central to everything from share price to the ability to attract and retain talent.
Moreover, if companies think the kitchen is heating up, there is much more still to come. We are still in the foothills of the debate that will define a generation— the impact of technology on people’s lives and jobs, as a liberator or a destroyer. The technology brands that have won such quick consumer buy-in as innovators, could quickly see themselves re-cast as wreckers. Business, which likes to see itself as a force for reason, needs to reorient itself for a post-truth world where what you feel can matter as much as what you know. Where hero or villain are the only options, business needs to start picking sides.