In an era of polarised opinion, what role should corporates play?

Traditionally, companies stayed safely in the middle ground, keen not to alienate a certain demographic and potential revenue stream. Now it seems they cannot refrain from voicing an opinion.

Wherever you look right now, things seem a long way off-centre. Polarised opinion dominates public debate be it about Brexit, Trump, the Eurozone, fake news, trade wars, collusion, Russia or North Korea. Radically differing opinions and approaches are everywhere – and nowhere more so than in the UK.

But contrary to what you might have been told, polarised opinion can be healthy. It encourages conversations and debate, brings together under-represented groups and ideas and forces issues to the forefront which may otherwise have been ignored or repressed. Equally, polarisation can also isolate, alienate, discourage and distract from core central policy.

Perhaps it’s all just a return to the good old bad old days. We’ve always had periods in history where people gravitate towards reactive views over centralist agendas. And ours is the era of social media: by its nature a platform for sharing radically differing opinions.  Many people feel far more comfortable expressing views as keyboard warriors than in their normal life where the fear of reprisal and judgement can make them lose their voice, or at least their edge.

While this may not be a bad thing, opining can also lead to people striking disproportionately exaggerated views.

Interestingly – or worryingly, depending on how you look at it – younger generations often trust brands and celebrities more than theoretically democratically elected politicians. CEOs of large innovative companies are often far more inspirational than the Prime Minister, your local MP or a councillor in a local by-election.

What does this mean for corporates? Well, for example:

Airbus has warned a no-deal Brexit could see them leave the UK, with other firms also following suit. It’s debatable how far this is them using their position and knowledge to provide critique and advice or simply articulating a risk to their own bottom line, shareholder interest and self-preservation.

With Uber and its licensing battle with TFL, we can see the reverse – a firm attempting large changes to its business model in order to preserve its core business territories.

Facebook recently found itself being questioned on its involvement in the US elections, answering (more or less well-informed) questions over its use of personal data.

While these cases are well publicised, what’s less clear is how many corporate views of the economic political landscape are intended to drive legislative changes in a self-beneficial way and how many are symptoms of applied ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) – or simply a way of an industry championing what are effectively ‘personal’ views. You wouldn’t be called a cynic for suspecting the former and not the later.

And what is certainly clear is that recent dramatic political changes have led to a much more vivid spectrum of opinion, creating uncertainty and ultimately fear of the unknown as the very idea of a ‘status quo’ centrist default position is fundamentally challenged.

How governments, individuals and corporations assess their role in this constantly changing landscape may determine policy; is it to drive change or develop a contingency plan? Obtaining the required skills and knowledge to be able to react when required isn’t a new problem, but it is becoming more frequent and the scale of change is getting larger.

We help clients across the globe understand and prepare their businesses for the potential impact of change. For more information please contact us.

Note: This opinion piece was first published by Catalyst prior to the Sionic merger