Implications for Corporate Public Affairs
By Doug Pinkham
Public Affairs Council President
Nearly three in four Americans think the level of ethics and honesty in politics has gone down over the past decade. And more than half feel the same way about ethics and honesty in business.
So what are you supposed to do if your job is to deal with politicians on behalf of business?
That’s the challenge facing corporate public affairs professionals as they try to manage public policy issues when levels of trust are at record lows. A new study on American attitudes about business shows the public is surprisingly supportive of major companies but has deep concerns about executive pay, corporate power and political influence.
The Public Affairs Pulse — a nonpartisan survey of 1,753 American adults commissioned by the Public Affairs Council and conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International — ranks CEOs’ honesty and ethics just behind those of public officials in Washington and just ahead of those of state/local government officials. All three categories receive extremely low scores. The highest scores for ethics are given to small business owners.
The good news is that six in 10 Americans have a favorable view of major companies. And nearly three-quarters say companies are doing a good job of providing useful products and services. Much of this support comes from younger citizens — Gen X and Gen Y — who hold more positive views about Corporate America than do their parents.
Yet three-quarters of the public (77 percent) endorse the opinion that there is too much power in the hands of a few large companies. And three-quarters think companies do a poor job of reining in executive pay.
It’s no surprise that lobbying and lobbyists have a negative reputation in the public’s eyes. In the survey, 55 percent say they think more unfavorably of a company that hires lobbyists to represent the firm. It is a surprise, however, that most people are supportive of specific lobbying activities. When presented with five reasons for lobbying, a majority say each action is acceptable. They include advocacy to:
- Protect jobs at the company;
- Open new markets for the company;
- Create a level playing field with competitors;
- Reduce business costs; and
- Secure government funding or grants.
What the public is more concerned about is corporate efforts to get directly involved in election campaigns. Sixty-three percent say they would have a less favorable opinion of a company that pays for ads to support a specific candidate. In addition, 59 percent say they would have a less favorable opinion of a company that starts a political action committee. Forty-one percent would object to companies paying for ads to promote a specific public policy issue.
In this tough environment, corporate public affairs executives would be wise to assume that employees, customers and other stakeholders are as skeptical as the general public. Leading companies are nonpartisan, state their commitment to ethical behavior, emphasize the strategic importance of public policy engagement and are transparent about their reasons for getting involved in politics. That’s a formula for earning trust.