Five shifts in public attitudes that business should act on

Matt Carter, Founder of research and campaigns company Message House brings us the results of their latest survey and looks at what business can learn from changing public attitudes:

The environment around business has changed since March, and I don’t just mean financially.

The last six months have seen a shift in public attitudes that has implications for most organisations, large or small – from the expectations of their employees to the demands of their consumers and regulatory stakeholders.

Based on research conducted by Message House and data we’ve researched, here’s five shifts businesses should watch out for.

  1. Importance of Economic Impact – according to a national tracking study, in September 2019 only 30% saw the economy as the most important issue facing Britain: that’s jumped to 55% a year later.  Obviously, this reflects public concern about a tough economic environment, with a recession, increasing unemployment and the potential for a squeeze on living standards.  For those companies still operating, it also points to an additional value that both employees and the public will place on business’s economic contribution and impact.  Whereas a year ago, there would be muted praise for companies retaining and hiring staff or training apprenticeships, today these moves will attract more interest, and any impact on local communities – positively or negatively – is likely to be heavily scrutinised.
  2. The Green Recovery – connecting environmental measures and an economic focus – the Green Recovery – has a particularly strong appeal amongst policy makers.  While global warming isn’t in the headlines like it was when Greta Thunberg spoke at Davos in January, there’s plenty of evidence that the environment remains critically important to the UK public, particularly a local dimension.  During lockdown, there was a greater awareness of the local environment and a perception of lower air and noise pollution, and alongside a drop in commuting by public transport, there’s been a big increase in the use of bicycles.  Many people don’t want to return to the problems of before and this concern for better air quality and desire for lower environment impact continues to shape attitudes towards companies, with more credit on offer for businesses that are doing the right thing.
  3. Control and Flexibility – one word that came up frequently when we talked to the public about their initial response to the pandemic was ‘control’ – they didn’t want to be in situations where they couldn’t control the environment around them.  As a result, it’s not surprising that public transport usage is down.  At the same time, for those able to work from home, there was a general welcoming of the greater flexibility they’ve enjoyed, along with more autonomy and control over their work-life balance.  These motivations – for greater control and more flexibility – are unlikely to diminish in the coming months and they have big implications for everyone from office managers to transport co-ordinators.
  4. Social Divisions – from the clap for the NHS and the national celebration of Captain Tom to the many neighbourhood Whatsapps that sprung up across the country, there’s lots of examples of ways we’ve come together during the crisis.  Forced to choose whether COVID-19 has brought people together or driven people apart, a majority (61%) think it’s helped to bring us closer.  However, for a significant minority, the same event has been experienced very differently – think of those who’ve lost their jobs, who’ve struggled to home school or who experienced lockdown not in a leafy suburb but a high-rise flat.  If you’re male, aged under 45, living in London, working in the private sector, with children aged 5-18 or renting your house, you are more likely to see the negative side of the last six months.  While issues around social divisions are often tricky for business to address, the public increasingly expect companies to have a point of view – as we’ve seen with the Black Lives Matter campaign.  These issues will also have major ramifications for political decisions and social policy.
  5. Corporate Values – attention has been increasing on the way companies do business for some time and the pandemic has brought an even greater focus on corporate behaviours.  The beginning of the crisis was marked by a positive reaction towards business, as most companies took swift action to protect their staff and customers, while others stepped in to help communities and the NHS.  However, not all business behaviours met the public’s expectations.  Some were slow to close or were felt to put profit before people, and while CEOs taking pay cuts made the headlines, for many it felt tokenistic and not a meaningful shift in corporate standards.  As the furlough ends and unemployment rises, expect an even greater spotlight on the way businesses act, with both consumer sentiment and wider corporate reputation at stake.

These trends point to a couple of key requirements for business right now:

  • Understand your audience – organisations need to have a good understanding of your stakeholders – what they are thinking, feeling and demanding of you.  It’s not enough to presume you know them or to lump together large and diverse groups thinking they have the same feelings.  They often won’t, and your messages won’t hit the mark.
  • Act with urgency – businesses need to be quicker to act to meet stakeholder concerns.  In an environment where things are changing so quickly, a slow response is often perceived worse than no response at all.  The public don’t expect organisations to fix everything overnight, but they do want to see positive steps being taken now and soon get impatient with overly cautious corporates.

At Message House, we support a wide range of clients from governments and large multinationals to educational institutions and third sector organisations, providing quick, smart insights to help them understand their audiences better and get their messaging right.  If there are areas where you feel your organisation might need help, do please get in touch.

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