Growing disillusionment with government and "big business" is leading to a widening of the influence exerted by pressure groups, according to a report this week.

More than two-thirds of leading British companies believe that the power of pressure groups will increase in the year ahead, with 80 per cent of those surveyed by The Communication Group and its partners in the European public relations organisation Entente International Communication feeling that the influence is already so well-established that it is not possible to do anything about it.

With such companies as Shell and the tobacco producers facing great challenges from pressure groups, more than half the UK companies surveyed say that pressure group activity is significantly affecting the way they do business. In Germany and the Netherlands, it is having an even greater impact.

According to the report, "Putting the Pressure On", 70 per cent of leading businesses have already been targeted directly by pressure groups, while in Germany the proportion rose to 74 per cent.

The main issues are the environment and consumer and health-and-safety matters.

The survey, which covers more than 250 leading companies in nine European countries, finds that businesses generally feel that they are less effective than pressure groups in getting their message across through the media.

The companies believe that media organisations are either shallow or liable to distort the picture and are more ready to listen to pressure groups than to themselves.

Although directors in most countries believe that pressure groups have helped to create the legislation under which they operate, they do not appear to make dealing with such organisations a management priority.

UK chief executives are even less likely than their counterparts across Europe to be directly involved in dealing with pressure groups - only 26 per cent doing so, compared with 85 per cent in Belgium and 42 per cent in Germany, for instance.

Encouragingly for The Communication Group and its counterparts, more than half of businesses believe that effective public relations is important in responding to action from pressure groups - but only if the company policy is correct.