Most often, chambers find themselves at the crossroads of community and industry, at a time when representing the interests of business is challenging, especially in the Western United States. The business community can have an at-times adversarial relationship with government, earning the “bad guy” moniker from public officials.
As chamber leaders, we know better; we see how deeply our members care about their employees, their communities, and even their competitors. Chambers also face the challenge of trying to advocate for the business community while partisanship and polarization is exploding.
The policy aims of the business community are generally nonpartisan — supporting policies that allow businesses to start and grow, developing a skilled workforce, and improving the communities where they operate. However, in today’s divided world, even commonsense proposals face scrutiny and blowback.
Trust Barometer Survey
Early this year, Edelman, the global communications consultancy, issued the latest findings from their annual Trust Barometer survey. The Trust Barometer project is in its 23rd year, and surveys tens of thousands of individuals across the globe to gauge feelings about government, business, media and nongovernmental institutions and their leaders.
The overall findings are eye-opening; respondents expressed a continued slide in their faith in institutions, with one notable exception. Business was the one area where the public’s trust continues to be above water. And while CEOs in general garnered lower trust scores, respondents did trust their company’s CEO.
This dichotomy — regulators and legislators thinking that business is somehow inherently untrustworthy, while their constituents think the exact opposite — underlines the need for chambers to not only advocate, but be effective in communicating the key underlying message from the W.A.C.E. branding project. That message: thriving communities are built on foundations of strong and successful businesses.
Chambers must draw a clear line between the industries that drive their local economy, and how those industries directly contribute to their communities’ unique identities and cultures. Our industry must be crystal clear that business isn’t just one facet of a community, but literally its lifeblood, allowing all the other sectors to survive.
Though business was the most trusted, there is a recognition amongst the respondents that business cannot achieve societal goals and policy improvements without the government. Respondents identified a government-business partnership as the pairing most likely to achieve positive action across a range of issues.
That finding is the most interesting to me, as what the respondents are saying is that in order to solve big problems, a partner is necessary to bring government and business together. This is where there’s a clear role for chambers to be catalysts, conveners and champions for their communities. In fact, these findings are like a mandate for the chamber industry — the public wants business and government to work together, and we are the vehicle to make that happen!
While Edelman’s findings are heartening to the business community, they also come with a dose of caution. As the institution with the highest level of trust, the business community also is subject to the highest expectations. Respondents expressed a desire for businesses and CEOs to engage on societal issues, including climate change, economic inequality and employee issues.
The risk in this incredibly divided world is that business is whipsawed by the polarization — accused of not doing enough by some and overstepping into social issues by others. So, striking the right balance is important.
In fact, another Edelman survey found that consumers are signaling their support (or lack thereof) for the brands that they believe most align with their personal beliefs. This runs the risk of consumer choices boiling down to their ideological “camp,” thus furthering partisanship and division.
We’re seeing that now with boycotts and backlash aimed at particular brands for engaging in social causes. Interestingly, the survey found that brands that celebrate what binds us or brings us together are a key mechanism in the eyes of respondents for repairing and strengthening the social fabric.
Now more than ever, chambers must be bold champions for community solutions, unabashed advocates for their local businesses and effective messengers about the role of the business community in civic life and identity.
We not only have the responsibility to build collaborations between the public and private sectors; we must give them cover to work together in these divided times. Our communities will depend on our success.
Nick Ortiz is president and CEO of W.A.C.E. and vice president of local chamber relations at the California Chamber.