Can the CBI survive latest reputational scandal?

25 April 2023 | 3 min read | Crisis Comms
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins

The CBI is in reputation hell right now, and it’s hard to see any way out for it. Their members – including John Lewis, BMW, Costa, AstraZeneca – are fleeing in their droves, and now the Chancellor has said there is “no point engaging” the business lobby group following criminal allegations that threaten the CBI’s very existence”

Can trust be restored and a positive reputation regained? Is this really the end for one of Britain’s once most-valued business institutions?

Dame Helena Morrissey, Conservative peer and acclaimed author of the seminal book, A Good Time To Be A Girl, told the BBC’s Today Programme that she feels the scandal could have even greater repercussions in deterring women from entering a career in The City, and that the organisation is “finished.”

She added: “They’ve [the CBI] left it too little too late and I think that losing trust is so quick, easy to do and then regaining it is so difficult.”

Jeremy Hunt is already thinking in a post-CBI world: “It is not for us to decide who business wants to engage with but we are not going to wait for a reincarnation of the CBI or whoever, we want to engage the whole time, every week, every day, with business.”

Andy Wood, chief executive of brewing company Adnams, commented: “Zero tolerance of bullying and sexual harassment – that has to be a given in a modern organisation… It just shows really how archaic the CBI was behind the scenes.”

There are some optimists, however. Well, I should say there is ONE optimist – a very lonely figure in the form of former chairman of CBI Wales, Michael Plaut, who believes that a reputational turnaround is still possible.

He said: “I just think nobody gains if we simply cancel the CBI. Letting the CBI die is really easy…. I think we just need, as members, to get our hands dirty and rebuild this organisation, build it so it’s kind of a model organisation for the 21st Century.”

Bless.


Seriously, though, the issues within the CBI clearly run deep. Yes, through reform and clear communication at every stage of that process the CBI could regain trust and possibly earn respect once more. But it will take considerable time and even then it is difficult to see how the organisation could ever regain the buy-in from the business community it once had.

Moreover, once that reformation project is complete, will anyone actually care enough about the CBI? Especially if the meantime sees an alternative body position itself as a more effective and respectful organisation that the CBI’s 190,000 members can get behind?

Reputations can be repaired and restored, and it is possible for the CBI to remain intact and continue to support the business community. But its role will likely be that of a bit-part player.

It would take some serious root and branch reform and clear communication on how the organisation is truly living up to the ‘purpose’ it was so keen to talk repeatedly about in the CBI’s press statement. In it, they said:

“We are taking steps to address our failings but recognise these are not yet sufficient to sustain the confidence of our colleagues, members and of the broader business community. We know it will take time to rebuild trust in our purpose and culture. And to give our team and former colleagues the space to heal.”

I feel it will be a long time before businesses would be prepared to have their names associated with the CBI again.