Like climate change, human rights laws and EDI policies, changes in businesses' awareness of their communication needs come slow as well as fast, says Dr Magda Pieczka of QMU’s Division of Media, Communications and Performing Arts.
“Every big business needs its own Chief Political Office claimed Financial Times columnist, Camilla Cavendish (2 June 2023). I admit, I was excited to see this headline: it sums up the argument that I made to my university a few years ago pitching our new Master’s in Political Communication and Public Affairs
I was curious, but this is hardly news, I thought, as I read on.
In my field of study, public relations or strategic communication, it’s been well understood for decades that reputation matters to business, that reputation depends on what stakeholders think of your organisation, and that how people rate you ultimately depends on how the public think. What flows through public discourse matters: the issues we speak about, the values we recognise or argue about, furnish the world we live with goods and practices, with comfort and success, as well as pain and failure. Any organisation, whether business, public or non-profit, has to understand political issues and public opinion, with its long-term trends as well as quick fluctuations. Isn’t this why organisations lobby, engage in philanthropy, corporate advocacy, brand management, corporate social responsibility or more recently in ESG reporting?
So, you may wonder, if it’s all so well known, why is the Financial Times bothering to write about it?
The business world has by no means fully accepted that profit is not necessarily the only thing they should really be concerned with. While The Nobel Prize economist Milton Friedman in his famous 1970 New York Times article claimed that ‘the social responsibility of business is to increase profit’, the business ethicist Edward Freeman, originator of the Stakeholder Theory published in 1984, took a very different view, as explained in his engaging 2013 Tedx talk on the topic, “We need a new story about business”. Business is about value creation, not simply profit, he said. Money is not the only or the supreme value that matters. Things may have changed since the 1980s, but the debate has by no means been settled for good.
The looming climate change crisis has made the discussion about values in business not only familiar but very tangible. Tidying up my desk at work recently I found a little plastic fork. I must have brought it up from the canteen with my lunch on some distant day. A blast from the past? In fact the The Environmental Protection (Single-use Plastic Products) (Scotland) Regulations 2021, which made my plastic fork illegal, only came into force in July 2022. It seems like years ago. That’s how quickly change can take root.
But it is worth reflecting on how long it often takes to bring about change. Polyethylene, the material of which most plastic shopping bags are made, was created in the 1930s.The plastic shopping bag started its life in the 1970s, but it was arguably not until the discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997 that plastic pollution was put on the map, literally. The first country to ban plastic bags was Bangladesh (2002), and others have followed. Scotland chose not to ban plastic bags, but discourage their use by requiring that shops charge customers for the bags (2014). The battle about plastic waste is by no means won yet and all countries, industries and citizens around the world are part of it, whether they support it or not, whether they know it or not.
The reality of change is complex in other ways too.
Change can be regressive as well as progressive. We may be witnessing restrictions and bans on plastic across the world, but we are also witnessing retreats on human rights in a number of countries, with anti-abortion legislation or anti-LGBTQ+ crackdowns, for example in the state of Florida in 2023, notably resisted by a number of big businesses such as Walt Disney Company, Apple, Uber, and Bank of America.
While some new ways of doing things can be accepted surprisingly smoothly, others continue for years and years as running battles between different sides. Sitting on the side lines becomes increasingly hard. For example, pension funds are forced to take a position on investing in fossil fuels; educational establishments may need to take a position on religious matters, such as the wearing of the hijab or the display of religious symbols. Organisations not only need to manage their engagement in policy and, consequently, in politics, but clearly many of them do so already.
The key message to take away from Cavendish’s column is not that business needs political officers — it already has specialists in public affairs, government relations, policy, and engagement — but rather that they need to have a particular kind of expertise. “Not some political has-been, peddling a list of contacts,” as Cavendish warns, but “a technocrat who understands that government is a constant triangulation between parliament, party and press; that politicians rarely move ahead of public opinion on any issue; that unlike business there is no simple bottom line.” Except that business does not have a simple bottom line either any more.
Fancy the job? Your eventual job title may not be Chief Political Officer but start planning your way to get there now.
Find out more about QMU’s Master’s in Political Communication and Public Affairs