Beware of being ‘big’: no-one will like you

Placing the word ‘big’ in front of the name of any industry or sector automatically means assumptions will be made about how you operate and how you behave. So even if you are a larger player take care in everything you say and do. Use public affairs to help you avoid being ‘big’.‘Big’ business along with ‘big food’, ‘big defence’ or any other sector you care to mention, now including ‘big charity’, all come with a health warning and mistrust by stakeholders, not just politicians. Assumptions are made about how you operate and behave. This will include the tactics you might employ and the money you are prepared to spend on defending yourselves or advancing your own cause.

Stakeholders will consider you arrogant and merely self-serving rather than appreciating any work you do with other stakeholders, such as employees or the local community. Action against opponents will be considered the norm and you should get used to hearing the phrase ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’, in other words ‘big’ organisations lose all sense of priorities, humility or proportionality.

Just look at two recent examples. In an article in the latest Wired about Hampton Creek and the trouble they have had with ‘big’ food in trying to introduce egg-free products. As the editor says,

“the powerful egg lobby in the US was recently found to have used dirty tricks to keep Hampton Creek’s products out of American shops. Guess it must be doing something right.”

The leaked emails certainly made the more established players look bad.Even a joke in this week’s Freakonomics podcast, Who Needs Handwriting, asking whether pen and paper are obsolete joked about research having been paid for by ‘big’ pens and pencils!

So how can public affairs help?

  1. Realise you are part of ‘big’ and understand that assumptions are being made about you. This means all your actions will be viewed through this prism. There is a requirement on you to understand the position of stakeholders and their views of you. Once you have this then how you engage with those stakeholders will become more effective. The messaging, the types of campaigns you get involved with and when / where you stand up for yourselves all need to be considered with this information in mind.At the moment, being ‘big’ also says something about the way you treat tax and is being turned back onto corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes as well. The attitude of some ‘big’ businesses is adding to the likelihood of more regulatory and reporting requirements.
  2. Bring employees into your public affairs campaign as well as into wider communications efforts. Employee engagement is a whole communications field in itself but for ‘big’ organisation it is imperative the political audiences hear from your people. They are often best able to challenge any preconceived ideas politicians have and, at the end of the day, are potential voters as well.
  3. Be careful of how you engage with others in the sector. Putting to one side the often stringent regulatory requirements of how you deal with competitors, you must not simply come together for campaigns. The implications of such collective action need to be fully considered. By treating sectors as a collective, i.e. ‘big’, also brings with it a need to consider the role and position of trade bodies as well.
  4. Do not forget the advantages of ‘big’ as well. These could be in supporting larger government initiatives, contributing to growth or providing the UK with a presence abroad for instance through exporting. Government also needs help in developing policies as well and these need to support existing industries. Larger organisations often have the size of teams needed to engage and provide support.
  5. Innovate. Being ‘big’ doesn’t mean that innovation is not possible. Often, especially in some sectors, large amounts of investment are needed and that only comes with being ‘big’. Stakeholders need to know and appreciate this rather than just focusing on the negative aspects that often come with larger profits.
Of course, ‘big’ government is arguably the worst of all the ‘bigs’! It is something that all organisations and the electorate often complain about and especially in a US context is always guaranteed to be an election issue. Arguably part of George Osborne’s austerity drive since 2010 has been about reducing the size of ‘big’ government in the UK as well. With government finance being cut and the civil service shrinking we are going to have to get used to smaller government.There is nothing wrong with being organisations being ‘big’ but it does mean that you can’t be afraid to stand out and behave differently. The collective label will bring you down.

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Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

  1. I think this is a really interesting article Stuart. It seems that being an organisation of any size is a challenge! As a small consultancy (and proud!) we constantly come up against concerns and misconceptions that our size could affect the service we offer. We happily prove these fears wrong of course, but I think you’re quite right – regardless of how ‘big’ or ‘small’ you are, it’s about having the right skill-set, effectively engaging and communicating with stakeholders, and championing your size!

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