Big can be beautiful

Guto Harri, managing director, external communications at Liberty Global, sees a critical need for communications in a new climate that holds big corporates in contempt

Few assaults have been as firmly focused on readers of this magazine. In the newspaper column he’s now had to give up, Boris Johnson warned last April that rejection of Brexit would mean victory for an industry he found easy to mock.

‘Among the vast clerisy of lobbyists and corporate affairs gurus – all the thousands of Davos men and women who have their jaws firmly clamped around the euro-teat – there will be relief,’ he wrote. ‘ Things will go on as they are; indeed, things will go into overdrive.’

My old boss, who rarely missed Davos, wasn’t the only one knocking this profession, and the companies we represent. A former director of Weber Shandwick, recently re-appointed to the Cabinet, Priti Patel, piled in enthusiastically: ‘The EU works for big, foreign multinational companies but it doesn’t work for the British people who have to pay Brussels £350 million every week. Of course Brussels is good for big businesses and fat cats who care about their bonuses – they can afford to spend huge amounts of money on lobbyists and lawyers to help them stitch-up the rules.’

Time to pack up then? Seek new opportunities? Acknowledge that we are loathed, and, more importantly, have been rejected by the British people.

Or, listening to our new Prime Minister Theresa May on the steps of Number 10, time to tell our employers that they need communicators more than ever: ‘The Government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours. When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you,’ she said.

‘When we pass new laws, we’ll listen not to the mighty but to you. When it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you. When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few.’

Tony Blair will be thrilled that his ‘many not the few’ quote is now a Conservative catchphrase. But it was a dangerous slogan in his hands, and it could be a blunt instrument for the new Government too, if the target is not wealthy and powerful individuals but so-called ‘big business’.

In a nutshell, those of us paid to tell the tales of these companies have to articulate why ‘big’ is beautiful. In my case, we are very big. Liberty Global is the largest international TV and broadband company in the world, with operations in more than 30 countries across Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean.

We made a substantial donation to the Remain campaign, and warned against many of the consequences of Brexit that were swift to materialise. But we did so because we are rooted in the UK, registered as a public limited company here and locked in to a £3 billion investment that will deliver superfast robust broadband to four million new homes over the next three years.

This investment, alongside the substantial sums we put into innovation and content, is designed to empower our customers to make the most of the digital age.

And there is another angle. Project Lightning is expected to create 6,000 jobs over five years including 1,000 apprenticeships. Most of them are in so-called blue collar jobs and 90 per cent are outside London. Their general profile bears a pretty close resemblance to the typical voter who opted for Brexit.

We rightly respect that their view prevailed. As our chief executive Mike Fries told the BBC Media Show on 27 July: ‘We did not support Brexit but we support the decision and like all good corporate citizens we will manage through it.’

Liberty Global is not unique in this respect. In countless boardrooms this summer, practically minded people are working out how to minimise the damage and seek to make the most of Britain’s decision to leave the EU. They’re doing so in order to safeguard the jobs, investment, growth and products they provide for customers.

Communicating that commitment is critical, and if there was ever a need to justify the hiring of staff or safeguarding of your communications budget, now is the time. It is not only big companies that face this challenge. The bruising Brexit battle drew many other targets onto the field, people and organisations we would normally respect and listen to, like the Treasury, Bank of England, Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and others.

Remember this from Leave campaigner Michael Gove: ‘I think the people in this country have had enough of experts, enough of organisations with  acronyms saying they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong… Those who are arguing that we should remain have a vested financial interest in the operation of the European Union.’   What an extraordinarily crass and destructive thing to say.

There is an urgent need, therefore, to rebuild the battered reputation of these institutions that are so vital for our public life. A world when the Treasury isn’t trusted on figures, and the Bank of England is viewed as partisan on key economic indicators is a tough one to navigate.

Just as we trust our doctors with our health, architects to build our homes, or engineers to complete Crossrail, we need to have confidence in our civil servants, academics, economists and investors.

Sadly, it doesn’t help that some of those who caused this damage have themselves taken a big hit on reputation. The political demise of Gove has been spectacular, and the catalyst for the fatal collapse in confidence in Jeremy Corbyn [leader of the Labour Party] was prompted by his own ambivalence and lethargy in this debate. It is a tribute to Theresa May and the sure-footed female staff around her that calm has been so impressively restored and her position as PM secured so quickly.

But the public have understandably been alienated by politicians making promises which evaporated quickly or dismissing experts who turned out to be right. Readers of this magazine, practitioners of this profession, have a busy time ahead.