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Public Affairs Pulse Survey – 2014

By September 17, 2014October 3rd, 2023Pulse (CT)

Public Affairs Pulse Survey – 2014

What Americans Think About Business

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What Shapes Attitudes Toward Business and Government?

Americans have a generally favorable opinion of major companies but clearly prefer small businesses, according to the 2014 Public Affairs Pulse survey. Meanwhile, majorities view state government positively but hold negative views of the federal government.

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Many factors affect these attitudes, including personal experience dealing with major companies or federal agencies, reading the news, using social media or watching portrayals of executives and politicians in TV shows and movies. When it comes to business, personal experience is the primary influence in shaping people’s opinions. For attitudes toward the federal government, news and the Internet play a larger role.

Ratings Improve for Business and State Government

Americans are looking with increasing favor on both major companies and small businesses, the Pulse survey shows. With a slowly improving economic outlook, nearly seven in ten Americans (69%) have a very favorable or somewhat favorable view of major companies. This represents a substantial increase in the past year, putting public attitudes about where they were in 2012, when 67 percent held a positive view of corporations.

Overwhelming majorities of adults feel positively toward small businesses, a sentiment that has remained unchanged since the first Pulse survey in 2011. In the current poll, 91 percent of Americans say their opinions of small businesses are either very or somewhat favorable, while only a handful hold a negative view.

Looking at the public sector, discontent varies by level of government. Six in ten Americans say they have a favorable view of their state government, while only 38 percent have an unfavorable view. Meanwhile, the federal government continues to fall short, with only 45 percent of Americans having favorable views of it, a slight improvement since last year. A majority of adults (53%) hold unfavorable opinions of Washington.

The Influence of Ideology, Race and Income

Americans’ views about big business are remarkably consistent across age groups and education level. But among other demographic categories, favorability of major companies is not as uniform. Seventy-six percent of conservatives feel positively toward these types of businesses. On the other end are liberals, whose favorable/unfavorable ratings are split 58 percent to 37 percent. Moderates fall right in the middle, with 70 percent having positive opinions of major companies and 26 percent holding negative views.

Attitudes about the federal government vary significantly by race and income. Large majorities of African-Americans (69%) and Hispanics (59%) say their views of the federal government are favorable, compared with only 37 percent of white adults. One-half of Americans with household incomes of less than $30,000 a year hold favorable opinions of the federal government, compared with 41 percent of those with incomes of $30,000 or more.

Where Businesses Get Passing and Failing Grades

One of the reasons Americans hold generally positive views about major companies is they believe these businesses handle the basics well. The public thinks major companies are doing a good job providing useful products and serving their customers and stockholders. However, Americans are more negative about business performance when it comes to executive compensation, paying employees fairly, protecting the environment, creating jobs and supporting local communities.

On the positive side, a vast majority of Americans (78%) agree that major companies do a good job of providing useful products and services. This finding represents the largest share of Americans to hold this opinion since the question was first asked in 2011 (compared with 73% in 2013 and 2012, and 72% in 2011). Some 68 percent of Americans agree that major companies generally serve their customers well.

A substantial segment of the public also thinks major companies are doing right by their stockholders. Fully three-quarters (75%) say corporations serve their stockholders well, up more than 10 percentage points since last year. Considering the dramatic turnaround in the stock market since the Great Recession, it makes sense that these particular ratings are up even more from earlier editions of the Pulse survey (59% in 2012 and 57% in 2011).

Major companies have work to do in other areas, getting negative scores in key categories that are important to Americans. A majority of adults (55%) still think major companies are generally not doing well on creating jobs, compared with 42 percent who rate their performance in this area as good. The further away the nation gets from the economic downturn, however, the fewer Americans show disappointment over job creation.

Compensation of business executives and rank-and-file employees continues to create ill feelings. Only one-quarter of the public (25%) say major companies are “paying their top executives fairly, without overpaying them.” Fully seven in ten adults say corporations are doing a poor job in this area. Americans stand firmly in the corner of regular corporate employees, with just 37 percent agreeing that major companies do a good job of paying their employees fairly, while three in five adults (59%) disagree.

Millennials in particular think major companies handle the basics of business well. Seventy-four percent of those between the ages of 18 and 33 say corporations do a good job of serving their customers, and even more sing their praises on providing useful products and services (80%) and serving their stockholders (81%). A significantly smaller share of Millennials (45%) think major companies do well at creating jobs — perhaps unsurprising for the group that has been known to struggle the most in today’s difficult job market.

Young Americans are also quite dissatisfied with the gap in compensation between regular employees and executives. Just 33 percent of Millennials say major companies pay their rank-and-file employees equitably. A strong majority of young adults (68%) say corporations are generally not doing a good job of paying top executives fairly without overcompensating them.

So what are the major drivers of all these opinions?

Personal Experience Shapes Americans’ Views of Business

Personal experiences top the list for shaping people’s opinions of major companies. Nearly two in five Americans (39%) say first-hand experience as a customer of a major company has had a lot of influence on their opinions of those firms. And over a third (36%) say such experiences have had some influence.

The Internet is the second-ranked source overall for driving attitudes toward major companies, with 30 percent saying it has had a lot of influence on their attitudes and a slightly larger number (34%) saying it has had some influence.

Another large category, the news, is third-ranked, cited by 24 percent of the public as being a major source of influence about major companies, with 40 percent saying it has had some influence.

Knowing people who work for major companies is also a factor, with 23 percent saying such contacts have a lot of influence and 37 percent saying they have had some influence.

Personal experience working for a major company is another significant source, with 29 percent saying it has had a lot of influence on their views of major companies and 26 percent saying it has had some influence.

Movies, television shows and other entertainment sources are mentioned as having a lot of influence by 16 percent and some influence by 29 percent. And, despite all the time spent on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, social media was named as having a lot of influence on attitudes by just 14 percent and some influence by 22 percent.

However, age-group differences come into play on this issue. Seven in ten Millennials have favorable views of major companies, and their opinions are often heavily influenced by personal experience as consumers or exposure to information online. Fully one-half of young adults report that their personal experience as a customer of a major company has a lot of influence in shaping their opinions of corporations.

Majorities of Millennials also say that social media and the Internet in general are driving factors in shaping their views of major companies. For instance, 53 percent of Millennials say they are influenced by social media, with one in five reporting their opinions of major companies are influenced “a lot” this way. The strength of influence wanes in older generations. Forty percent of Gen X-ers and 31 percent of Baby Boomers say social media influences their opinions of corporate America, while even fewer adults in the Silent or Greatest Generations say the same. The Internet in general helps shape views of major companies for the bulk of Millennials (82%), Gen X-ers (70%) and Boomers (57%), but less than three in ten of the oldest Americans agree.

Second-Hand Sources Drive Views of Government

In contrast, attitudes toward the government are more likely to be based on nonpersonal sources, such as the news and the Internet in general. Personal experiences do play a role, but it is a smaller role than in shaping attitudes about business.

The news is the number-one source cited by Americans, with 29 percent saying the news has had a lot of influence on their attitudes toward the federal government. An even larger group, 42 percent, say it has had some influence.

The Internet is also a frequently cited source overall for driving attitudes toward the federal government, with almost a quarter (24%) saying it has had a lot of influence on their opinions. Thirty-eight percent say it has had some influence.

Personal experience dealing with the federal government is at about the same level as the Internet in terms of having substantial impact. About a quarter (26%) say personal experience interacting with the federal government has had a lot of influence in shaping their opinions of Washington. And about a third (32%) say such experiences have had some influence.

Knowing people who work for the federal government is the fourth-ranked source of influence, with 16 percent saying such contacts have a lot of influence. Almost a third (30%) say they have had some influence.

It is worth noting that knowing people within the institutions was the fourth-ranked source for both business and government. Of course, the incidence of such knowledge was much lower for government, since government employs far fewer people than do major businesses. Thus, it is not surprising that personal experience working for the federal government is the lowest-ranked source, with just 12 percent saying that has had a lot of influence on their views of Washington and 13 percent saying it has had some influence.

Other nonpersonal experiences are also ranked low. Movies, television shows and other entertainment sources are mentioned as having a lot of influence by 13 percent and some influence by 26 percent. And social media sites are cited as having a lot of influence by just 12 percent and some influence by 21 percent.

Graphic - What Shapes the Public's Opinion of Business and Government

Americans Expect Business to Make a Difference

Whose Interests Come First?

Corporate slogans often talk about “putting customers first,” but many customers — including those polled in the 2014 Public Affairs Pulse survey — don’t feel high on anyone’s priority list.

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Only six percent say major companies put customers’ interests first, while 49 percent say firms put the interests of stockholders first. Interestingly, one-third says the needs of top executives get the most attention from major companies. While the percentage assuming firms exist to help their own executives is down 10 percentage points from last year, it is still remarkably high — and it is another indication of the lack of trust in corporate leadership.

What’s more, the belief that corporations pay the most attention to stockholders and top executives is consistent no matter a person’s gender, race, age, education or household income. In other words, no demographic group even comes close to assuming that companies put the interests of customers, employees or local communities ahead of stockholders and top executives.

Who do Americans think major companies should put first? Four in ten Americans (43%) say major companies should put the interests of their customers first, followed by about equal shares who say companies should serve their own employees (21%) and their local communities (20%). Only a small segment of the public thinks stockholders and top executives deserve top billing (11% and 3%, respectively). Once again, this pattern holds true for every demographic group interviewed.

High Expectations for Corporate Behavior

Americans not only expect companies to rethink priorities; they also expect them to play a positive role in society. For starters, nearly everyone believes it’s somewhat or very important that firms make sure their employees behave ethically. (Eighty-four percent say it is very important.)

The vast majority of the public would also like to see corporate efforts to minimize any negative impact on the environment, with 75 percent calling environmental responsibility a very important priority. Large majorities want companies to make financial contributions to charities, encourage employees to volunteer their time to help others and, in general, take a leadership role in helping society in ways that go beyond operating a business. (At least 85 percent of Americans believe these steps are somewhat or very important.)

Americans Look to Business for Solutions

Only 41 percent of Americans have some or a lot of trust and confidence in the federal government to solve the most important problems facing the country. At a time when trust and expectations for government are low, it’s worth noting that three-quarters of Americans say it’s somewhat or very important that major companies offer to help government solve problems.

In fact, the public would like private businesses to take on more financial responsibility for helping solve national problems that have traditionally been government’s responsibility. These costs include: improving the quality and affordability of health care (66%); providing community services such as food banks, free clinics and job training for the poor (65%); improving the quality of education (63%); and providing relief for disasters like floods, tornadoes and earthquakes (56%). A smaller share of adults (45%) thinks private businesses should shoulder more of the cost of building and maintaining roads, bridges and mass transit.

Taking a Public Stand on Social Issues

It’s hard for corporate America to avoid the culture wars. In recent years, many major companies have spoken out on social issues such as gay marriage, human rights, immigration reform and wilderness protection. Most have done so after considering the opinions of employees, customers and the general public and weighing whether taking a controversial stance would help or hurt their profitability.

At the same time, many corporations have been dragged unwillingly into public debates on social issues because of controversial statements by senior executives, campaign contribution practices and financial support given to advocacy groups.

Some firms have been lauded for their courage to speak up; others have been criticized — or even boycotted — because of their words and actions.

So is it a good thing or a bad thing for companies to weigh in on social issues?

For most issues, majorities of Americans agree that corporations are right to take a public stand. (The survey did not specify whether a company should be for or against changes in public policies on these issues.) For example, seven in ten adults say firms should speak out on the protection of wilderness areas and over 60 percent believe they should take a stand on racial and gender discrimination. Smaller majorities are supportive of companies weighing in on climate change, human rights in foreign countries and immigration issues.

The one surprising exception is the debate over gay marriage. A recent Gallup poll showed that 55 percent of Americans believe married same-sex couples should have the same rights as heterosexual married couples. And yet, according to the Public Affairs Pulse survey, 65 percent of the public say corporations should stay out of the debate altogether. As expected, young adults under 30 are the biggest proponents of firms taking a public stand on gay marriage. However, a plurality of this age group (48%) still think companies should not get involved on the issue.

Where Americans Expect Business to Make a Difference

How Do Americans View Political Involvement?

Attitudes About Lobbying

Although the right to petition government is protected by the First Amendment, views toward lobbying — and lobbyists — remain quite complex. When asked how they would feel about a company that hired lobbyists, 50 percent of respondents to the 2014 Public Affairs Pulse survey said they’d feel less favorable toward the company.

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Nonetheless, strong majorities of Americans approve of most major reasons for lobbying — and support has actually grown over the past two years. Eighty-four percent now support lobbying to protect jobs, 79 percent approve of lobbying to open new markets, and nearly three-quarters find lobbying “to create a level playing field” acceptable.

Some 68 percent even support lobbying to reduce business costs, and a much smaller percentage — though still a majority — approve of lobbying to secure government funding.

In 2012, the last time this question was asked, a majority of respondents also approved of these same reasons for lobbying; but surprisingly, support has grown since then. Most notably, the percentage of people who say lobbying to reduce business costs is acceptable has risen from 63 percent in 2012. And even though Americans remain most wary of lobbying to secure government funding, the public is even increasingly accepting of this type of advocacy, up from 52 percent two years ago.

How Americans Think Political Campaigns Should Be Funded

On the question of campaign finance, Americans are strongly opposed to using federal tax dollars to finance political campaigns — with 61 percent rejecting the idea and only 37 percent saying it should be at least a minor source of funding. Instead, they prefer for citizens to contribute to campaigns — either as individuals or as a group. They also approve of candidates funding their own campaigns.

Remarkably, attitudes toward so-called super PACs have changed markedly since 2013, with 56 percent of Americans now saying these groups — also known as independent expenditure-only committees — should be at least a minor source of campaign funding. Last year, just 46 percent approved of using super PACs, while a majority were opposed.

Despite Americans’ openness toward traditional political action committees contributing to campaigns, when asked how they would feel if a company formed a PAC, 47 percent of respondents said this would make them feel less favorable toward that company.

And 58 percent said they’d think less favorably of a company that paid for ads in support of a specific candidate in a political campaign.

For this year’s survey, an experiment was conducted to see if explaining the limits on contributions or campaign activities had any effect on public attitudes. It turns out that knowing more about campaign finance rules doesn’t necessarily make people more or less favorable toward different approaches.

Among the findings:

Those who were asked about their views of PAC donations along with a mention of the current legal limits were more likely to support such a funding source, compared with those who were asked the question with no mention of the limits.

Providing information about the limits on super PACs seems to reduce the number of those without an opinion, while raising support for such donations — and opposition as well.

Interestingly, for contributions from individuals, omitting mention of the legal limit causes essentially no change.

Graphic - American Views on Corporate Political Inolvement

The Relationship Between Trust and Views on Regulation

Can Big Companies Be Trusted?

While Americans have favorable views of both big and small businesses, they have reservations as well. In particular, many aren’t sure they can trust major companies. Fifty-three percent say they have a lot or some trust and confidence that these firms will behave ethically, while 47 percent express not too much or no trust and confidence.

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The public doesn’t put all corporate employees into the same category, however. Americans rate the ethics and honesty of businesspeople higher or lower depending on which rung of the management ladder they stand. For example, 41 percent say corporate CEOs have low levels of honesty and ethics. In contrast, 20 percent think mid-level managers are dishonest, and only 11 percent consider non-management employees to have low ethical standards.

Trustworthiness of Different Industries

American opinions about ethics and trust also vary by industry sector. Health insurance companies continue to be the least-trusted category, with fully half of Americans (50%) saying these firms are less trustworthy than the average major company. Pharmaceutical companies, which are labeled as less trustworthy by 45 percent of the public, don’t do much better. The reputation of banks and other financial institutions has improved slightly since last year, with 39 percent now rating them as less trustworthy than other major firms.

On the heels of large-scale recalls, the automobile industry has taken a reputation hit in the past year. Thirty-three percent of the public now consider automakers to be less trustworthy than average — up from 22 percent in 2013.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some industries are viewed in a more positive light. Technology firms once again are out in front, with only 15 percent considering them less trustworthy than other companies and 27 percent considering them more trustworthy. Large retail companies and manufacturing companies also score relatively well.

Support for American Firms

Americans may trust some industries more than others, but they overwhelmingly favor major companies with headquarters in the United States. More than eight in ten adults say their overall opinion of U.S.-based companies is either very favorable (25%) or somewhat favorable (59%). Conversely, less than half hold such a high opinion of companies with headquarters outside the United States (5% very favorable and 32% somewhat favorable). In fact, fully one-quarter (27%) indicate that their opinion of foreign-based firms is not at all favorable.

Divided Views on Regulation

The ongoing debate over the proper role of government in regulating business is one that now divides the country almost evenly, reversing some of the dip in support for regulation revealed in the 2013 Public Affairs Pulse survey.

Forty-seven percent believe government regulation of business is necessary to protect the public interest, while 50 percent believe regulation usually does more harm than good. Last year, 44 percent were more pro-regulation and 52 percent were more anti-regulation.

Support for regulation divides sharply along party and ideological lines. Democrats back regulation as necessary to protect the public interest by 68 percent to 29 percent. Republicans go in the other direction, with two-thirds saying government oversight does more harm than good. Self-described independents are more evenly divided but are still more likely to be against regulation (54% to 43%).

Those who say they have “moderate” political views lean toward regulation, with 52 percent favoring it and 44 percent saying it is harmful.

Gender and educational attainment are also related to views about regulation. Women are more likely to favor regulation of business (52% necessary vs. 45% harmful), while men oppose government regulation (43% necessary to 54% harmful). College graduates back regulation 55 percent to 42 percent, compared with those with some college but no degree (44% necessary to 54% harmful).

In addition, age plays a role in how Americans feel about government oversight of the private sector. Millennials — those ages 18 to 33 — are the generation most in favor of regulation. A large majority of this youngest cohort (58%) believe regulation is necessary to protect the American public. Baby Boomers (ages 50 to 68), the Silent Generation (ages 69 to 77) and the Greatest Generation (ages 78 and up) are more skeptical of government oversight. Generation X (ages 34 to 49) continues to be split more evenly, with 46 percent leaning toward a pro-regulation attitude and 52 percent tipping toward anti-regulation.

What’s the Right Amount of Regulation?

Asking whether government regulation is necessary or harmful gets at general attitudes. Another question addresses whether business in general and various industries are over-regulated, under-regulated or regulated at the proper level.

Thirty-two percent of Americans say there is too much regulation of business, 27 percent say there is too little regulation and 40 percent say businesses are regulated about the right amount.

Roughly four in ten Americans say there is too little regulation of four major industries: health insurance companies (43%), pharmaceutical companies (43%), energy companies (41%) and banks and other financial institutions (41%). In each case, much smaller percentages believe these sectors are over-regulated.

On the other side of the spectrum, only 22 percent say that large retail companies and technology companies are under-regulated. It’s worth noting, however, that Americans are more likely to think these sectors receive the right amount of government oversight than to consider them over-regulated.

Graphic - Which Companies Are Most Trusted?

Public Values Privacy Over National Security, Cost Savings

Information technology has provided many benefits to society, but it has also put Americans’ personal privacy at greater risk, forcing people to examine trade-offs with much greater scrutiny.

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While the public expects the government to protect it from terrorism, many are outraged about the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance program. While everyone enjoys the convenience of credit cards and e-commerce, huge identity theft scandals have compromised the data of tens of millions of people and upset consumers. And while social media and smartphone users love free or low-cost apps, users often get access by allowing companies to track their Internet browsing/buying habits, friendships and locations.

Are we willing to give up our privacy to protect national security? How about to obtain lower-cost products and services?

The conventional wisdom says the answer in both cases is “yes,” but the 2014 Public Affairs Pulse survey reveals that the answer is generally “no.” Even more surprisingly, younger adults are more concerned about protecting their personal privacy than are older adults.

Privacy vs. National Security

Only 42 percent say they are willing to give up “some privacy in order to help protect national security,” while a majority (56%) say it is more important that their personal privacy be maintained in all or almost all situations.

Age is a factor in the willingness to sacrifice privacy for national security purposes. Millennials are the most vocal in preferring to maintain their privacy (61%), followed by Gen X-ers (57%) and Baby Boomers (55%). Older adults are much more split on the subject, with about as many saying their privacy should be maintained as saying they would give up some privacy for the sake of national security.

Privacy vs. Lower-Cost Products and Services

When asked if they are willing to trade the loss of personal privacy in order to receive lower-cost products and services, more than seven out of ten Americans (72%) prefer to maintain their privacy in all or almost all situations. Only 25 percent opt for access to lower prices.

Age plays a small role in this second privacy question, although each generation — young and old — would rather preserve its privacy in all or almost all instances. Generation X adults are the most insistent about their preference for maintaining their privacy over gaining access to lower-cost goods and services. Baby Boomers and Millennials are almost as adamant.[1]

Understanding Privacy Preferences

About half of all Americans (48%) say they want to maintain their privacy in both situations. Just under one in five (17%) say they would trade their privacy for greater national security and for lower prices.

A further breakdown of the responses on these two questions reveals sometimes surprising and often puzzling results:

  • Republicans (39%) are less likely than Democrats (45%) to say they are willing to give up some privacy for national security.
  • Attitudes toward the federal government, including favorability and trust, make little difference in the trade-off of privacy for national security. Opinions about the ethical standards of public officials and federal workers are not related to views on privacy.
  • Those making $75,000 a year or more are less likely than those at other income levels to say privacy should be maintained in the face of national security issues (49%), but they are more likely to say their privacy should be protected (76%) rather than being exchanged for lower prices.
  • In terms of national security trade-offs, those living in the Northeast show the least concern about holding onto their privacy, with 48 percent taking that view, compared with 58 percent across the other three Census regions.[2]
  • Attitudes toward major companies have only a minor relationship, with those who are favorable toward major companies being slightly more willing to give up privacy for lower prices. Opinions about the ethical standards of corporate officials and workers likewise have little relationship to these attitudes.
  • A majority of civic activists (50%) are willing to trade privacy for enhanced security, but only 40 percent of non-activists would make this trade. Civic activists are more engaged in the public sphere than others, whether by inclination, personality, passion or focus. Roughly two in ten American adults are categorized as activists.

The Public Affairs Pulse survey, conducted June 16-29, 2014, by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, is based on telephone interviews with 1,609 adults nationwide.


[1] Results across generations are not statistically different.

[2] This regional difference does not appear to be related to age, race, party, ideology nor a number of other variables.

Graphic - How Much Do Americans Value Privacy?


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Slides and infographics highlighting survey results are available for members to use for company briefings. Our senior staff are also frequently called on to make presentations on topics covered in the Public Affairs Pulse.