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S1E4: Why everybody thinks the government hates them

Mark MacGregor from Stonehaven tells me how every company he has ever worked with feels victimised by the government and explains what reputation professionals have to learn from the Conservative Party and from tobacco companies. 


We talk about how trust in companies has taken a dive in recent years, why that might be and what companies can do to buck that trend and reap the rewards. The main takeaway: if you don't do anything, nothing will change.


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[00:00:00] Mark MacGregor: [00:00:00] My name is Mark MacGregor. I've been involved in politics and communications for about 30 years. That includes time as Chief Executive of the Conservative Party, deputy director of a think tank, Policy Exchange, and then a variety of roles where I've advised companies on how they might address reputational regulatory issues. Most recently, I worked for the world's biggest tobacco company, Philip Morris international


[00:00:30] Daisy Powell-Chandler: [00:00:31] Welcome to Why Everybody Hates You. An audio support group for reputation professionals. If you have any responsibility for how people talk, think, feel about your organization, then you are in the right place.

My name is Daisy Powell-Chandler and today I am talking to Mark MacGregor of Stonehaven about why all companies feel picked on by the government and what they can do about it.

Welcome Mark. It's really great to have you. Why does everybody hate you today?


Mark MacGregor: [00:01:52] It's one of these interesting trends that there's a lot of anger about lots of issues in society, but I think business [00:02:00] particularly large businesses suffered a, a fall in the kind of wider reputation for over decades. and.

You know, you see it. When I was at policy exchange, one of the things I was interested in was that we would constantly, I had to deal with all of our corporate clients. And what I felt was every time I opened a conversation with it was them bemoaning the fact that they felt under assault from the government.

and that may have been. True. but I think that does represent us in a [00:02:30] wider societal shift where people are much more likely to be critical of the behavior and activities of big corporates. And


Daisy Powell-Chandler: [00:02:38] What do you think is causing that


Mark MacGregor: [00:02:41] Its interesting. I mean, if you go back to something like, I mean, I think there's been a.

There's been a long, there's a longterm trend. There are particular industries that perhaps behaved badly. and that set off a train of behavioral changes amongst the wider public relation [00:03:00] to be suspicious of particularly big corporates. And he's interesting contrast how people contrast. You know, the local corner shop the businesses, the pubs, they have a relationship with it and their attitudes towards large corporates.

So maybe it's just part of a wider trend where people have become much more skeptical about institutions, full stop, you know, from the government to the media, or maybe now to businesses.


Daisy Powell-Chandler: [00:03:28] But if it's a trend that's [00:03:30] affecting everyone, is that something businesses should be fretting about or, you know, is there a sort of.

Generalized lack of trust means that well everyone's in the same boat.


Mark MacGregor: [00:03:41] Well, I think lots of businesses are in the same boat, but I think that that doesn't mean that you can't separate yourself out from the rest of the pack. Are there, does it mean that every supermarket has to be seen the same way or does it mean that every single industry has to be seen the way, same way?

I don't. So I don't think so. I think there are things you can do that [00:04:00] have a, an impact on your, reputation. but they, I think they require. Bold action. and I, when I was working at, Phillip Morris international, for example, one of the things I said there was, you know, obviously tobacco companies have a pretty appalling reputation, but doing nothing means nothing.

I think changes. And I think the most corporates actually taking proactive big steps, to address reputational issues, requires courage. [00:04:30] And it requires you to do things that separate yourself out from the pack and that, and again, can make you more vulnerable. When


Daisy Powell-Chandler: [00:04:37] you say courage, I speak a lot to clients who think that really means money.

Do courageous actions always have to affect the bottom line. Do you think.


Mark MacGregor: [00:04:48] No effect. I think often the bottom line is the last piece that's affected. I think companies, I think that there are, I guess the three things I think about, the first is [00:05:00] companies have to learn how to talk in real language, language that ordinary people can understand.

So often you see sort of corporate communications and it, it looks as if it has gone through some, through the. mango, corporate speak before arrived in the outside world. The second is, and I'm sorry to be critical, but, the lawyers in most companies are often both hugely cautious about saying anything.

And second, [00:05:30] they are. They don't necessarily have the same connection with the adults. So, well, the head of corporate affairs would do so they don't necessarily see it through the same prism. And so actually often the words they insert make it harder to understand. and the first third thing is I do think that.

You can't lay low, you know, it's impossible to, to shield yourself that nothing bad will ever happen because inevitably, you know, companies, big companies [00:06:00] that many of which are affected by regulations in all sorts of different areas, big companies make mistakes and those mistakes are often extremely visible to the public.

So you have to go and earn some credits and some of those things are about taking big steps, but I don't think, I don't think at the heart of it is about, about money. It's about being sort of honest, talking in a way that people understand. And actually, if you do want to make some changes about trying to both see what you're going [00:06:30] to do and then to deliver on those commitments,


Daisy Powell-Chandler: [00:06:33] and how did that manifest itself at Phillip Morris, where you were busy telling them they needed to be more courageous?


Mark MacGregor: [00:06:40] Well, I actually remember the time when someone phoned me up and asked me if I would to be corporate affairs director in the UK for the world's biggest tobacco hump, I actually actually laughed and said, well, of course not, why not what I want to do that. But then they explained that the company, but he was on a journey to exit away from [00:07:00] cigarettes.

And I thought, you know, this is a, that should work to party. back in the early two thousands when they were incredibly, popular. and I thought this is a, this is an incredible reputational challenges. It feels like it's the ultimate reputational challenge to help them move away from being. A tobacco company into one that sold less harmful alternatives.

So in some ways I felt that it was the, it was like the ultimate, reputational challenge. And of course I [00:07:30] saw myself as an external, even when I work there, I still saw myself as someone who had that external perspective and was able to say, look, if you want to meet society's expectations, then you've got to make.

Proper commitments about not just saying we're going to go smoke free, which their expression, but how practically are you going to achieve that, that goal?


Daisy Powell-Chandler: [00:07:53] Do you think that's something the old corporate affairs professionals, reputation professionals need to achieve that external [00:08:00] perspective?


Mark MacGregor: [00:08:02] I think so.

I think it's what I think is one of the things was that the, and it's even more true now during the sort of Covid crisis. It's more true now than ever that corporate affairs professionals are the other voice in the boardroom, advising the CEO or the MD, about how their company's actions might be reflected in the wider world.

And, you know, you've seen some very good, very bad [00:08:30] examples of companies. And not really understanding that their activities actually can reflect really badly or really well, during a crisis like this. and I, I think there's an expectation in society that companies are not there just to simply make a profit and employ lots of staff and pay tax.

They actually have as well. It's the society. And during a big crisis like this, not just the government, but the wider public [00:09:00] expects companies to step up and play their part. And I've seen plenty of examples. I saw British aerospace, for example, that had taken part in the ventilator challenge I saw they'd been helping out on PP front.

So there are companies that are stepping out of what they traditionally do. They have a have that wider row. I


Daisy Powell-Chandler: [00:09:16] suppose the important question then, though for corporate affairs professionals is how do you embed yourself within a company enough to get the rest of the team, to trust you and to affect real change whilst still maintaining that external [00:09:30] perspective to help them understand how other people see them.


Mark MacGregor: [00:09:34] You're right. That is an incredible challenge. And the longer you work in an industry or the longer you work for a particular company, the more divorced you can become from that external perspective. One of the things I. One of the reasons why I think it's important to use agencies is that often they bring not just that external perception of your industry, but how other industries and companies that are acting.

[00:10:00] And that is a important piece of the puzzle. But you know, when you're advising the CEO, Then actually all the borders are whole new advising. Those people. One of the things that you are trying to bring is not just, well, look, this is what our competitors are doing, but this is what other industries or other companies are doing.

And it's actually often you learn your best lessons about how you change perspectives about your organization by looking outside your industry. So I think that's an incredibly important [00:10:30] part of that, of that process. And often when you're in a. You know, when you're in a particular sector, there is this sort of tendency kind of man, Mark the other companies, and spend so much for your time, both on what you're doing and what you're doing, competitors doing, that you don't lift your eyes to see that actually some of the best examples, of things that you might do, or actually, from other industries.

And that particularly if you want to separate yourself from the pack, so to take. For that Morrison example, there were four big tobacco companies in the [00:11:00] world. Phillip Morris is the one that's made a commitment to going smoke free. It's the only one that's made a commitment to exiting the cigarette market, but actually the things they have to do to demonstrate that I think a lot of those things are the lessons they're going to learn from other companies that have faced similarly big reputational reputation, reputational challenges, because they want to, they can't learn much from the, from the direct competitors.


Daisy Powell-Chandler: [00:11:24] What do you do though? If you are. Number two or number three, I often talk to clients who say, [00:11:30] Oh, well we, there's no point in us going for a net zero pledge, for example, because someone in our industry is already done. What do you say to those people?


Mark MacGregor: [00:11:39] There's a very simple way of thinking about this. You, you can, there are a whole bunch of wider societal trends and companies do face a choice.

They can either go with those trends and you mentioned that's going to the growing importance of climate change and the commitment. And that is there. You can either say we're going to need to get on board that train. [00:12:00] And we're going to need to do recognize society’s moving this direction, and we're going to have to adjust our behavior building, or you can resist it, but actually resistant kids comes at a, a cost, a potentially big cost further down the line to both your reputation, but also it might have an impact, commercially.

So you're right. It can be difficult to be the second company, to, for example, I've seen them. BP have made a big commitment to net zero and you might then argue, well, other companies might, it might be more difficult to do. [00:12:30] Yes. But in the end, it's not just about making a statement. It's about what you are practically going to do as a company.

So it's not simply issuing a press release. We've signed up to this. It's like a, what are the direct practical steps that your company is doing? Day in day out to live up to that promise. And one of the things that I think is easy for companies to get caught up is, Oh, we've made this commitment. It's done.

You mean? Yeah. That's not how the public sees it. So actually I think companies that don't go first can [00:13:00] often, if they play it, cleverly can actually be either ones that, that do it properly. You know, they actually take their time to put in place the programs that are actually going to be measurable, changes, not just simply a press release.


Daisy Powell-Chandler: [00:13:13] And how do you help the companies that you've worked for and with, to quantify not only the upside of making those big announcements, making those changes, how do you help them to see the losses that could be incurred if they don't [00:13:30] act.


Mark MacGregor: [00:13:32] That is one of the most difficult areas because often many of the companies that people like are surviving of tremendously successful commercially, and therefore there's often the sense of why does our reputation or corporate reputation matter.

and I guess the only answer is to point to examples, of corporates that have suffered. I've read a longer period of time, all industries that [00:14:00] has suffered, blows to their reputation and then to think, well, has that had an impact on their ultimately on their bottom line, but you're right for a company that is doing very well.

then it can seem like. Worldwide there is this sort of sense of why should we, why should we bother? and I think the only thing I would say is that often the people who work at the top of companies live in with a live themselves within a slight bubble, where they talk to their [00:14:30] clients, they talk to their suppliers, they talk to their staff, but they never really reach out to the wider world.

And so one of the things I've always enjoyed doing is, asking. The CEO, the MD, whoever it might be to actually attend the focus group. So you hear what people directly say about their company when they can see it, but they're not in the room to make the argument, because I think that's what brings it home.

That actually, if people think that about you, how on earth are you going to not just survive [00:15:00] now, but how are you going to build your brand in the future?


Daisy Powell-Chandler: [00:15:03] That is one of my favorite techniques as well. Video Vox pops are also a great backup. If you can't get into a focus group, because some of them are resistant and further back, you are CEO of the conservative party, which was a bigger reputation challenge tobacco or the conservative party.


Mark MacGregor: [00:15:22] I think working in politics. One thing I want to say, I do think that working in any form, a [00:15:30] public facing position, making the argument, whether you're an MP, whether you're a corporate affairs director, the comms director, or the CEO, I think it has been, it has become a lot more difficult. I think that's the principal thing.

That's, you know, the criticism of via the viral tweets and. Messages on Facebook about you and your family and your behavior. I think a lot of that actually make people does actually have an impact in terms of making people more cautious. You know, you think about [00:16:00] who on earth in their right mind, apart from political obsessive.

So now decided they want to career as a member of parliament. You know, I remember a time when there were plenty of people who'd achieved. A big things outside politics. Aren't you normal, for example, in the early two thousands, you know, done great things in business decided we want to be an MP and then become a minister.

Well, who on earth in their right mind, if that, who are the Archie Normans. Now that decide to step forward? The answer is they're very few and far between, so I think there's been, and I [00:16:30] think so I think the sort of negativity around people who are the public, I do actually have a. I mean, it's just, it's an interesting, the other side of the coin, they have an impact on people's willingness to put themselves forward.

And therefore you end up with companies, politicians actually becoming even more cautious about what they're willing to say, because they think, well, we put our, we put ourselves up about the power of it. We're only going to get shut down.


Daisy Powell-Chandler: [00:16:58] What was the hardest [00:17:00] part of that job back in the day, pre Twitter.

What was the hardest bit,


Mark MacGregor: [00:17:04] I guess the hardest part was making, again, coming back to reputation, making, helping the party to understand precisely how disliked it was and how much it become disconnected from, Britain as it is. and I mean, just as one example, at that point there were, I think there were six out of 150 odd MPS cause it had had six women and they had, To, [00:17:30] BME, members of parliament.

and there was no particular side that that was going to change anytime soon, but there are large members of Poland, those members of the party who simply did not see that as a, as a problem. Fortunately, is one of the things that certainly under David Cameron was, was addressed. but helping again, giving that external perspective, helping the company, serve the party to understand that if you wanted to have a chance of getting back into power, you had to take some.

Big steps, big changes, to actually [00:18:00] demonstrate that you weren't the party that people might've thought you were, and then assume the same with your big corporates. If you want to achieve anything to change your reputation, you do have to do big bold initiatives because otherwise it's simply won't it won't cut through,


Daisy Powell-Chandler: [00:18:17] been the thread running through all of those jobs.

Then what motivates you to keep working in this field?


Mark MacGregor: [00:18:24] The sense that, reputation matters and that you can do something about it. [00:18:30] And the pleasure of being able to persuade those in either running the conservative party or a senior policy positions in all sorts of businesses that actually you can take.

Proactive big steps, that actually can begin to shift your reputation. It's not easy to do. but you know, you can, I think it is possible. And to take the, you know, some of the things we talked about earlier, which was. No, they've been [00:19:00] shift downwards in how the wider population and politicians or regulators do businesses.

I don't think that's inevitable. I think that that could change. Maybe business has to change in order to help make that happen. But I think it is possible. If many businesses decide to, to do the right thing, to make the changes that are necessary to address those concerns. I think you could see a shift in that, that negative perception of, of sort of corporates.

and, and in [00:19:30] a way it's of course in the, in the end, it's in, it's actually in the image. It's just that those businesses to take those steps because businesses clearly businesses with the better reputations will do better in the longer term.


Daisy Powell-Chandler: [00:19:41] Right now things are quite topsy turvy. Has that changed what businesses need to do in order to make those


Mark MacGregor: [00:19:47] big changes?

I actually think there are more opportunities now. Post-covid that obviously it's going to be a many businesses, large and small. It's going to be a [00:20:00] very tough time just to survive. But I do think that the government is open to businesses that come up with a big. Pitches that can actually deliver on the government's own agenda.

and one of the other advantages is that the government has just spent a month, total amount of money, but when Liam Byrne left his famous note for. David Cameron saying there's, there's no money left. well, it's like [00:20:30] that note on steroids. So I think that because the government is going to have very limited money to spend on some big projects, whether it's infrastructure spend, whether it's making improvements to health or education, I do actually think that there is a real genuine opportunity, for companies that have big ideas to take those to government and then help.

Both fund them and implement them. so in some ways there is a bigger opportunity now than they might have been, pre COVID to [00:21:00] actually have maybe ideas that you've had sitting in a cupboard somewhere. And maybe it never had the courage to bring out. Maybe now's the time to say, look, we've got something.

Very significant, very important. We can do not just for our business, but for society as a whole. So maybe some of those things, maybe it's time to see whether those things are actually possible to achieve.


Daisy Powell-Chandler: [00:21:22] And before we wrap up, do you have any tips that you could offer for reputation professionals who are out there who are [00:21:30] perhaps aren't getting the external stimulus?

They would like right now don't have as many colleagues to bounce ideas off. What should they be doing to help the organizations in which they work?


Mark MacGregor: [00:21:41] I guess. So there'll be three. The first is that doing nothing changes? Nothing. So actually taking, taking some positive proactive steps to, to communicate to the wider world must be a good thing.

And if you can come up with something bold and imaginative, that actually cuts through so [00:22:00] much the better. The second is I think so many companies are, are focused on when their relationships with government are ask almost feels like they're asking for favors. Well, I think they need to look at it through the other lens.

How is it that your company, your organization can help solve the government's problems, not just help you organization. And the third thing is, I think for people like us, then looking at. [00:22:30] examples from other industries. It's so easy when you work for a company to get caught up in, you know, what you and your direct competitors are doing, but sometimes you forget that actually, some of the best lessons you learn about changes that your company can make.

Are those not from your industry, but from others. And I think applying those ideas in a big, bold way, Could be hugely useful for, for many colleagues.


[00:23:00] Daisy Powell-Chandler: That's everything from us. A big thank you to my guest Mark MacGregor of Stonehaven for sharing experiences from across his fascinating career and giving some useful tips to inspire our locked-down brains.

I hope you'll join me in two weeks time when I'll be talking about why data matters for your reputation. In the meantime, if you've enjoyed this episode, please do find us at whyeverybodyhatesyou.co.uk, subscribe and leave us a review on your favourite podcasting app.

Thank you for listening to Why Everybody Hates You. And remember: you are not alone.

Copyright Meyland Strategy Ltd 2020