Stakeholder Trends and Insights
Survey:
Most Americans Expect Businesses to Behave Ethically; 10% Trust Them to Do So

Americans expect companies to make a positive difference in the world and have major concerns about corporate ethics, according to study results released this week. When it comes to earning their trust and support, they say communication from companies is key.

In July, Princeton Survey Research Associates International’s 2015 Public Affairs Pulse survey polled 1,600 Americans on their attitudes about corporate behavior, big business and small business, the trustworthiness of companies and industries, levels of regulation, and lobbying and politics. The study found the vast majority of the public expects the business sector to think beyond profits and be valuable components of society. More than nine in 10 Americans say businesses need to protect the environment, including 76 percent who feel it is very important that businesses limit their environmental damage.

Furthermore, 88 percent believe companies should contribute to charities, and 85 percent believe they should take a leadership role in helping society in ways that go beyond their business operations. 39 percent believe it is very important that businesses take more responsibility in helping the government solve problems.

How can companies communicate what they’re doing for these causes? Social media is reportedly the best way, with 45 percent calling it very effective and 38 percent calling it somewhat effective. Not surprisingly, those under 50 years old were more strongly in favor of social media communication than those over 50.

In contrast, only 15 percent say social media has a significant influence on their opinions, while almost 40 percent say it does not influence their opinion at all. Personal experiences as a customer or employee of a major company were the top factors influencing people’s opinions of a business.

Regarding trust and ethics, 96 percent believe it is important for companies to ensure their employees behave ethically (up from 84 percent last year), but only 10 percent have trust and confidence in major companies to do what is right. Pharmaceuticals and health insurance were viewed to be the least trustworthy industries. The most trustworthy were thought to be manufacturing, technology and large retailing.

In the wake of a corporate crisis, 72 percent said that an explanation of what happened and what action is being taken to correct the situation would make them “feel a lot better,” and 63 percent want the company to take quick action even if it is unclear who is at fault. An apology, ads and social media were all also favorable options for communicating with stakeholders following a crisis.

While support for lobbying activities declined from the previous year’s survey results, it is perhaps surprising that the strong majority of Americans find lobbying acceptable for specific business purposes. Americans find lobbying acceptable for protecting jobs (80 percent, down from 84 percent in 2014), to open new markets (72 percent, down from 79 percent in 2014), to create a level playing field with competitors (71 percent), and to reduce business costs (58 percent, down from 68 percent in 2014). Those under the age of 50 were distinctly more supportive of CEOs taking political action.

“This means companies need to take the time to explain to employees and customers why they are involved in politics,” said Public Affairs Council president Doug Pinkham. “When people hear the business reasons, they are more likely to associate lobbying with smart strategy — and they are more likely to be supportive.”

Communication is obviously an important factor for companies hoping to engage stakeholders and earn customer loyalty. Companies must carefully consider which channels are most suitable for them and their target audience if they hope to effectively convey how they compare to the high expectations of the public.

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