Improving the Reputation of Business

November 26, 2016

Improving the Reputation of Business

What can business do to improve its reputation? Let’s face it, this election year has not been kind to business’s image. Anti-establishment rhetoric dominated both parties and the target was not just the political but the business establishment as well.

To improve the standing of business, much work is needed this coming year. I thought I’d get a head start on some of that work by tossing out a few ideas on how to restore business reputation in 2017

Business reputation is at an all time low. Just take a look at Gallup’s annual reports on confidence in business; they show declining numbers over the years. If commentators are to be believed, much of this decline is due to large swaths of the nation not sharing equally in the economic returns of a rapidly changing world. Big business has been charged with being largely insensitive to these economic inequities, thereby dashing our people’s hopes for achieving the American dream.

Without a doubt, campaigns on both parties were replete with allegations emphasizing how business has failed much of the electorate. Outsourcing jobs and tax avoidance were two such charges. Globalism and free trade – mainstays of the multinational corporation – also became dirty words.

Yes, big business took a beating this fall. There is, nevertheless, much that may be said in favor of big business. According to McKinsey Global Institute, 10% of the world’s public companies generate 80% of its profits. Big business does an admirable job keeping many jobs alive and many families afloat. It is essential to the nation’s economy and can be the economic engine that improves the lot of those whom our economy seems to have passed by.

So how can business engage better than it has? Can it be a force for good in this finger-pointing, hyper-politicized environment? Here are a few ideas – many more need to be considered – for spreading the economic good of business more equitably and effectively:

  1. Business should dig deeper. Going out to the heartland to hear what’s not working in America is important. But just as important is for businesses to listen closely to how their own messages are being received. Shouldn’t business leaders, for example, talk more about “job creation” than merely “wealth creation?” Business simply can’t ignore how integrally related they are to the society around them.
  2. Business should train workers for what’s ahead. In 2016, for the first time, workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher are a larger proportion of the workforce than those with a high school diploma or less (Georgetown Center on Education and The Workforce). As the new administration focuses on job creation, it’s best to pull in all sectors to find solutions. One particular area where business can help is in the rapidly accelerating field of artificial intelligence (AI). Many believe that AI is in our very near future. Businesses need to be training people from all sectors of society for that future, especially since AI may lead to additional job loss without such training.
  3. Business should invest in the next generation. Leaders should be placing their bets on pre-K education. Studies have shown that such early education can do much for America’s children. Businesses should also consider helping in narrowing the “vacation gap” where children with less opportunity stop learning during summer vacation and have a harder time catching up when school opens again. Such long-term types of investments are important in developing a productive and employable workforce. They are in part an answer to those parents who question whether their children will be better off than they are.
  4. Big business should lend a hand to small business. Why can’t big business work more closely with small business to help them succeed? A friend of mine mentioned that in the U.K, there is a plan for top firms to pay their small suppliers on time instead of the usual 60 to 120 days later. Small changes can make a difference to small business. Why not give it a go?
  5. Business should put a face on business. In recent months, we’ve seen more CEOs speaking up about hot-button social issues and taking a stand. Our work on CEO Activism confirms that this is a growing dynamic. Employees will increasingly expect executives to speak up on their behalf and defend against social injustice. Business leaders, many of whom are not interested in being in the spotlight, might want to work collectively instead of individually to safeguard doing social good and answer to rising criticism.
  6. Business should commit to the universal values of making diversity and inclusion work. In many workplaces, people are introduced to diversity for the first time. For many people, life outside of work is decidedly less diverse. Let’s continue to do our best at building diversity and inclusion into our workplaces. Let the workplace be a model for the melting pot that represents all Americans.

To be sure, there is a lot more business can do to lift its reputation. Business as usual is not a good choice. It is time to restore trust in the role that business plays in society.


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Leslie Gaines-Ross
Leslie Gaines-Ross

As Weber Shandwick’s Chief Reputation Strategist, I focus on the ever changing world of reputation. For the past 25 years, I have relentlessly observed, researched and commented on the rise and fall of corporate and CEO reputations.

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