What Business Can Learn From Cultural Influencers

Know your audience, speak with authenticity, and focus on the long term

February 29, 2024
Sir Patrick Vallance makes a point about wielding influence alongside fellow panelists Baroness Nicky Morgan and Damian Reece, with moderator Davide Taliente (left). Sir Patrick Vallance makes a point about wielding influence alongside fellow panelists Baroness Nicky Morgan and Damian Reece, with moderator Davide Taliente (left).

We convened a group of senior leaders recently in the beautiful Hintze Hall of the Natural History Museum for a discussion of what business can learn from culture, science, and media about shaping opinion and wielding influence with customers, policymakers, and society at large.

We benefited from the insights of three outstanding influencers: Sir Patrick Vallance, the museum’s chair and former chief scientific adviser to the government during the pandemic; Baroness Nicky Morgan, chair of the Association of British Insurers and former cabinet secretary for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS); and Damian Reece, senior counsel at communications consultancy Instinctif Partners and former group head of business at Telegraph Media Group. Davide Taliente, chair of Oliver Wyman’s Government and Public Institutions practice, moderated the discussion.

Here are some of our key takeaways:

  • Know your audience. Damian emphasized that businesses, just like politicians and civil society organisations, need to have a deep understanding of who they’re trying to reach and what their concerns and needs are in order to shape an effective communications strategy. They also need to respect their audience as intelligent people and try to engage with rather than preach to them. Our fragmented media landscape makes it harder to reach a mass audience than it was back in the days when two or three television channels and a handful of print publications dominated the conversation, but digital media also can help firms reach their target audiences. 


  • Be trustworthy and use your authentic voice. Sir Patrick recounted how the philosopher Onora O’Neill stressed the importance of being trustworthy as opposed to trying to build trust. The former comes off as authentic while the latter feels like a sales pitch. This is an area where politicians would do well to learn from culture, media, and science, according to Nicky. The former tend to operate in campaign mode and their appeals often feel transactional – your vote for a given policy or benefit. The latter camp will make a case for their evidence or views but let the audience make up their minds. The corollary is that being authentic also means being selective. Companies or organisations that have specific expertise and or interests should feel free to speak out in those areas, but straying out of your lane or opining on every passing controversy can undermine trustworthiness. 


  • Embrace uncertainty, don’t try to hide it. We live in a grey world of complex challenges that require business leaders and policymakers to make difficult trade-offs, yet our polarized political and media landscape skews toward black and white. To wield influence as a trustworthy opinion maker, leaders and organisations should regard uncertainty as a challenge to be met with explanation and discussion, not something to hide from. They should draw from the world of science, which advances through the presentation of evidence-based information, not preconceived ideas. That evidence then allows people to make up their own minds and informs policy decisions. That logic underpins the current drive to increase the share of civil service entrants with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, to 50%. They can bring a fresh perspective to longstanding policy issues.


  • Know when to lead, and when to follow. That can be a tricky line to navigate. Nicky noted that there was no consensus on how to regulate social media when she headed DCMS, nor whether the harms extended beyond areas like child sexual exploitation or online promotion of terrorism. There was also plenty of opposition from industry and free-speech advocates. But proponents of regulation kept the debate alive and public opinion gradually shifted to regard heavy social media use as a problem, culminating in the passage of the Online Safety Act last October. Patrick stressed the importance of focusing on the right audience in deciding when and how to lead. During the pandemic, anti-vaxxers were a vocal but small minority while many people were uncertain and wanted more information. Providing that information in a balanced discussion helped persuade most people to get vaccinated, he said.


  • Play the long game. Business leaders and policymakers often struggle to weigh short-term demands like combatting inflation with long-term objectives like combatting climate change. But it takes plenty of patience and persistence to address society’s big challenges. At a time when all eyes in Westminster are focused on the coming general election, what the business community needs is a stable policy framework that provides the certainty and confidence to invest for the long term. As Damian put it, the big question isn’t Labour or Tory, “It's the UK versus Singapore, it's the UK versus the Philippines, it's the UK versus America.”