James Frayne: Why businesses act woke and what to do about it

22 Jun

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

Those that lean right find can’t understand why businesses decide to pull advertising from mainstream news outlets such as GB News or the Daily Mail – nor why they seem so prone to trash conservative attitudes online.

Right-leaning voters wonder why businesses treat ordinary right-leaning people like dangerous lunatics, when many of their own customers must be aligned to such views.

And why they are so easily pressured from outside – particularly by manifestly ideological campaigns who exist to pursue political ends? As someone who spends most of my time in the commercial world, here are a few thoughts to try to bring some sense to these fundamental questions.

1. Marketing teams control firms’ reputations, not the board (and not public affairs teams). The single most important thing for right-leaning outsiders to understand is this: boards don’t control most of a firm’s political comment, even on the most sensitive cultural issues – indeed, particularly not on the most sensitive issues.

While they might reluctantly exert control when it hits the fan, boards generally stay out of politics, preferring to let marketing teams control political comment. Boards devolve in this way because they’re persuaded that political / cultural issues fall under “corporate purpose” or “brand positioning”; they are further persuaded marketing teams know best how to engage with the public, particularly online.

Public Affairs’ teams have a decisive say on day-to-day political or Parliamentary issues – where issues are discussed within a formal framework – but less so on those sensitive cultural conversations that might not have a clear beginning or end (such as identity, the environment, and so on).

2. Most marketing teams aren’t political and don’t know their customers’ politics. Problems for boards arise because marketing teams don’t come from a political background. While recruitment between political campaigns and corporate public affairs teams (who are usually very politically sophisticated) is common, it’s unheard of between political campaigns and marketing teams.

Most marketing teams know little of Governments’ departmental agenda, and very little about how complex political / cultural issues are likely to develop. The prospect of mistakes are therefore high.

Take Net Zero as an example: many businesses have thrown themselves into an outrageously fraught and complex debate with next to no understanding of how the issue is going to play out politically (many, many businesses are going to come a cropper on this issue in the next decade). Many marketing teams know little about their customers’ approach to politics either. They usually know everything about their customers’ finances, lifestyle and shopping habits but their research rarely extends into political values or ideology. Again, this means mistakes can happen.

3. Businesses mistake social media for public opinion. In politics, it’s become a cliche to note that social media opinion isn’t public opinion; in the corporate world, this isn’t even near to becoming a cliche; people treat the two are one and the same.

This means when businesses are exposed to political comment online, they assume it’s an accurate reflection of where their customers and the wider public stand.

This ought to be corrected by reading opinion research but, because most marketing teams aren’t across political numbers, they can’t discern between a fringe campaign and a national movement.

4. Most corporate executives lean left culturally. Most businesspeople aren’t personally very political; this is true of people on boards, as well as in the marketing teams. To the extent they are, as middle class graduates who tend to live or work in and around big cities, they tend to be “liberal” in the American sense of the term.

While most executives wouldn’t seek out a row with conservatives in their business life, their liberal leaning means they’re more likely to think culturally very left-wing opinion as ordinary, mainstream opinion. This again means that their compass can be unreliable when judging external commentary on outlets like GB News, or on various sensitive political and cultural issues.

5. Boards almost always want to avoid combat. During the very early days of the EU referendum campaign, under Dominic Cummings’ encouragement, Vote Leave was eye-wateringly aggressive – to the point of near-embarrassment – towards the CBI. Why? Because Cummings judged that the CBI was ultimately frightened of combat and it was worth Vote Leave looking a bit daft if the CBI got the message they should stay quiet-ish.

Similarly, most leading businesspeople want to avoid combat; they want to sell goods, make money and take a decent salary; they don’t want rows or political attention.

Usually, therefore, if / when boards do actually sign off a political decision that might be driven by the marketing team, they will do so for a quiet life – judging that such a path is the one of least resistance. This is why pushbacks often lead to U-turns – because businesses conclude that their chosen path wasn’t the quiet one at all. It means that pressure works.

6. Businesses aren’t generally enemies of the right, they’re just dysfunctional like everyone else. The hostile commentary on supposedly woke businesses is therefore mostly overdone.

Of course, some businesses generally have gone woke and are led so from the top. Most, however, bump up against the right because of structural and cultural failings internally.

They take anti-conservative positions because they aren’t able to think politics through properly. This is encouraging; it means there is usually a pathway for the centre-right to have a more constructive relationship.

7. Harsh counter-attacks work – but primarily from the mainstream. As we saw this week, harsh counter-attacks in the media and on social media make a big difference quickly. Many businesses correct course when exposed to reputational risk from the other side.

But while assertive online campaign movements to challenge hard-left boycott campaigns can be useful, right-leaning people should not rely on such movements to secure serious long-term change. What makes businesses reverse course is not being attacked from the right, or merely the fact of negative coverage in the media and online.

Rather, it’s being exposed to allegations – by people who are manifestly mainstream and powerful – of being outside the mainstream or being hostile to it. They hate to be considered on the ideological fringes. As such, by far the most persuasive and powerful course corrections are set via criticism from Government Ministers, MPs and activists and others from the “established order”. Aggressive third party campaigns can’t match this power.

8. Conservative MPs must lead the campaign on corporate wokedom. What does all this mean? Ultimately, that Conservative MPs should come together to challenge corporate wokedom where it appears.

They should not necessarily campaign via the official party – and ideally they should do so in conjunction with other MPs and mainstream voices – but they should do so in an organised fashion.

To businesspeople, while Conservative MPs aren’t their cup of tea, they know Conservative MPs manifestly speak for the English majority; they have the stamp of respectability by being elected officials; they are treated seriously and with some respect by the media; and they have reach and influence. Conservative MPs are the only ones that can really, consistently make businesses think.