Corporations Are From Mars, Activists Are From Venus

 

If you are running a corporation, you’ve likely created thousands of jobs. You do cutting edge R&D. You contribute millions, if not billions, in tax revenue to the countries you operate in. You try to be transparent, ethical, and “do the right thing”. Regardless, you are under constant fire from activist groups, the media and a host of other stakeholders.

 

Corporations and activists seem to misunderstand each other on a daily basis, if they decide to talk at all. Activists don’t need to be right – it’s enough that they make a lot of critical publicity that must be considered, not the least because public perception ultimately shapes the political and regulatory environment you operate in.

 

For most corporations, activist or NGO attacks are often misunderstood and hard to categorize. The below list makes an attempt at identifying the 5 key areas in which criticism falls into.

 

#1 Legitimacy of the product or service: IT or gadget companies rarely face this challenge, but pesticide makers, coal extractors and tobacco manufacturers are often questioned on the most visceral, basic level asking “why are you even making these products at all?” According to this narrative, these products are not only unnecessary, but outright harmful for people’s health, or that they pollute the environment without any benefit, while cheaper, cleaner alternatives exist.

 

#2 Questioning the marketing and business ethics: Foodmakers, fast-food chains, GMO seed producers and retail companies are often accused of “sly tactics that exploit unsuspecting customers”, claiming that they are:

 

i) hiding inconvenient product features (e.g. addictive substances in your food)

ii) pushing for overconsumption of otherwise unhealthy or unneeded products (e.g. criticism against carbonated beverages)

iii) silencing critical customer reviews or media reports (e.g. outspoken or ill-advised comments by CEOs)

iv) bundling products in a way that customers cannot opt out (any antitrust case)

v) abusing a monopoly or dominant position to their benefit (e.g. challenges against search engines and platforms)

vi) betraying customers’ trust (e.g. data protection and privacy issues)

vii) not living up to their role as ‘good corporate citizens’ (e.g. tax debates)

 

#3 Ignoring externalities: Companies fall into this category if they are sourcing palm oil from tropical rainforests or if they import cocoa from African war zones. Activists might claim that their local operations “lead to the destruction of the ecosystem” or their suppliers are allegedly using child labour. Hundreds of NGOs are working to raise awareness about the externalities that corporate practices allegedly have on local communities, whether directly in their business operations or tacitly via their supply chain.

All of which, it is assumed, could be used for a ‘good cause’ 
but “they are selling out”.

#4 Wasted opportunity cost: Corporations have resources, a skilled workforce, and money in the bank. All of which, it is assumed, could be used for a ‘good cause’ but “they are selling out”, they say. They could offer micro-financing for developing countries but still choose to run hedge funds. They are operating a nuclear power station instead of diversifying to renewable energy. The list is endless.

 

#5 Lobbying: Apart from the most radical activist groups, most NGOs accept that lobbying is an important part of the democratic policy-making process. What they rather take issue with is an alleged unequal access to policymakers and undue influence on public policy so that rules get bent in corporation’s favor (with the hidden narrative that private interest cannot in any way benefit the “public interest”). Another variant on this theme is alleging conflicts of interest when former regulators transit to industry jobs or vice versa, assuming their independence is compromised by where they have worked previously.

 

Activists don’t need to be right about you – it’s enough that they put you in the spotlight. Regardless, they do often succeed in gaining a lot of attention and can harm corporate or industry reputation in the process.

 

Whatever attack or challenge is waged at your industry or company, it will likely fit into one of the above categories. Knowing this, your corporate communication department can proactively prepare the line to take.

 

Formulating effective messages and using best practices in political communication will win most minds, and sometimes, even their hearts.

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