Our editorial comment last evening pinpointed a few important lessons for the “political class” arising out of Senator Jepter Ince’s recent characterization of the private sector as “a parasitic plant in the bosom of Government”.
With the leadership of the private sector demanding an apology, the parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs subsequently expressed regret for the unfortunate faux pas and it has been accepted by the business community as an apology.
The reality, however, is that Mr Ince’s remark was merely symptomatic of an undercurrent of negative associations which exist in the Barbadian mind about the private sector. As such, there are also lessons for the private sector coming out of this unfortunate episode.
The first relates to the current image or perception of the private sector in the eyes of Barbadians, notwithstanding its significant contribution to economic growth, community and national development and the well-being of Barbadians through giving back in various ways.
Basically, the private sector has an image problem which its leadership ought to address frontally, as there are various issues standing in the way of the development of more wholesome stakeholder relationships. The current 21st century environment is such that these issues should no longer be ignored.
Whereas the previous mantra of business was, ‘let the customer be damned’, the 21st century has introduced a fundamental game changer. Stakeholders around the world, especially consumers, are holding business to a much higher standard of conduct.
They expect transparency, accountability and the practice of corporate social responsibility (CSR) that address issues which they care about in exchange for their patronage.
Though the private sector contributes substantially to the general well-being of Barbadians through the billions of tax dollars they pay, the provision of jobs, scholarships for young people, sponsorship of sporting, cultural and community activities, the truth is that Barbadians still hold a generally negative view of business.
One recurring accusation against the business community — and perhaps the most prominent — relates to price gouging which Barbadians see as unethical and a blatant form of exploitation. This issue has surfaced again as consumers brace for sharp price rises following hefty tax impositions, especially the increase of the National Social Responsibility Levy from two to ten per cent, announced in the austerity 2017 Budget by the Freundel Stuart administration.
Admittedly, we have a population which is neither economics nor business-savvy and therein lies much of the problem. Ignorance of an issue can give rise to assumptions that are often rooted, not in fact, but feelings. But then human beings are essentially creatures of emotion, more than reason, and often act on the basis of how they feel.
The private sector, primarily through its representative organizations, need to make a greater effort to engage Barbadians on a sustained basis about critical business issues with the aim of promoting public education, improving understanding and fostering goodwill as the basis of building better relations based on mutual respect.
For obvious reasons, including the objective of gaining an upper hand in a power relationship through use of the ages-old tactic of divide and rule, the political class has also contributed to promoting public animosity towards the private sector. This, notwithstanding the fact that businesses often are the primary targets of political parties looking to raise financing for their election campaigns. Many politicians are guilty of exploiting hot button issues related to our slavery past, for example, to set Barbadians against business. Remember the reference to “white shadows” in the 1986 general election campaign?
Again, because of political influence, many Barbadians adhere to the view that making a profit which is the raison d’etre of business, is somehow immoral. Thankfully, this perspective is changing among the younger generation, but it is a factor which probably explains the longstanding Barbadian preference to seek a Government job instead of starting a business. Our economic progress, no doubt, has suffered because of these underlying attitudes.
If the private sector appreciates the wisdom of improving its image to win friends and influence people in pursuit of its agenda, then it must create effective structures to facilitate better stakeholder engagement, given the reality of the current information and communication age.
They need to bring on board more competent persons trained in communications to effectively tell their stories, manage their image and reputation, and facilitate mutually beneficial conversations with various stakeholders.
Every successful global business pays attention to these issues. Their corporate structure includes full-fledged communications departments headed by a vice president in some cases. They recognize that strategic communication is key to their success.
More Barbadian businesses need to move in this direction. It will do a lot to safeguard their most precious asset — their reputation — and also to cultivate invaluable goodwill which impacts favourably on the bottom line.