The EU referendum is a bit of a minefield for businesses considering making a public declaration about where they stand on the issue. If you have a trusted voice, lending that to the debate could potentially influence the outcome of one of the biggest decisions for our nation in a generation, and one with significant ramifications for companies and the economy as a whole. But this needs to be balanced with the possible ramifications on reputation, and ultimately the bottom line, if customers don’t agree with your position.
To unpick the extent of the risk, Ipsos MORI’s Reputation Centre conducted research among members of the public to understand whether interventions from business leaders are cutting through and what has been the impact on companies that have been prepared to put their head above the parapet. This focused on five questions that needed answering before wading into the debate:
1) Do people want to hear from you?
According to our research, three-quarters of the public say that small and medium-size British businesses should participate in the debate. Seven in ten (69%) say the same of big businesses. But not all voices are seen as equal. SMEs are much more trusted - 57% say that they trust small business owners on issues relating to the referendum, whereas leaders of large businesses are trusted by just three in ten (29%). For all types of businesses there is a risk of being seen as self-interested, but for some types of organisations, trust is so low that it might be counterproductive to make an intervention. The sectors we found had lowest levels of trust in terms of their views on the EU were media and banking.
2) Who are your audience?
The risk of damage to your business and reputation lies with your customers. One of the first steps should be an audit of who they are and what way they are leaning in the debate. Polling companies publish broad demographic breakdowns of their polls on the referendum, which can be used to get a steer. If you find that your customer base tends towards one side of the debate, this can feed into how you shape your messages – and give you an idea of the scale of potential fall-out. Being informed about how they are likely to respond is key, whichever side you plan to take.
3) Do you have realistic expectations?
According to our research 73% of people have already made up their mind on how they will vote. There is some scope for impacting how people will vote, and the indications are that those on the "remain" side are more easily influenced than Brexit voters. But ultimately, some people have been waiting for their opportunity to have their say about the EU since the last referendum in 1975 – so if your expectations are that your customers will be fully mobilised behind your position that is unlikely.
4) Can you do it alone?
One thing that has become clear as the campaigns have progressed is that there is power in unlikely alliances uniting in support of the same cause - just look at the scene of David Cameron sharing the stage with former TUC leader Brendan Barber to make the case for remain. When we asked the public about business leaders who have taken a public position on the EU debate, just 8% were aware that Lord Wolfson, CEO of Next, had written in the Daily Telegraph in favour of leaving the EU. More (13%) were aware the Chair of EasyJet, Dame Carolyn McCall, was just one of 200 signatories of a letter in support of staying in the EU published in the Times. This suggests a joint venture of diverse voices will have more impact, and mitigate the risk of backlash.
5) Are you prepared for the immediate fall out?
We examined three examples where businesses or their leaders had taken a position on Brexit and found that while the move definitely changed some people’s attitude towards the company, there was little sign that there would be long-term impact. So, of course, if you’re going to take the leap, be ready to back up your position to staff, customers and social media complainers. But in the long term the impact may less significant than you expect; just 1 percent of the people we asked were aware of the Lord Wolfson intervention, and planned to take action against Next as a result.
Milorad Ajder is co-director of the Ipsos Global Reputation Centre