Corporate Eye

Collaborating with Activists: Catalyst for Change

The Corporate Responsibility and Reporting conference wound up with a session from a panel of activism experts talking about how companies should respond to defuse a potential crisis before it blows up.

The description of the activist strategy was fascinating. Having identified a potential issue, and done their research to establish the scale and detail of the problem, they will target brands that they see as a catalyst for change: either the market leader, where potentially the most publicity is available, or the laggards, where potentially the most change is possible.

The first approach will be a fishing letter raising the problem; the purpose of this is to establish what your likely response will be – will you call in the legal team, pass the letter to PR, or hide the letter at the bottom of your inbox?

If a respected organisation such as Greenpeace have sent you a letter like this, it is because there is a problem… hiding won’t help, and may trigger an active campaign.

The activists advise:

  • don’t ignore the letter
  • do acknowledge receipt
  • do investigate the claim
  • and call them to organise a meeting with as senior a member of management as possible.

Interestingly, they say:

  • talk directly to the activists
  • don’t send a lawyer or your PR company, as doing this is likely to confirm to the activist group that there is indeed a serious problem and that you have something to hide.

Better by far is to work with the activist group, visiting the field with them to see the problem. Then establish an action plan and communicate your progress against these targets. Not only to the activist group, but also – to aid transparency – publicly.

Best of all would be to have established a good working relationship with the activist organisation in advance – and if CSR is ‘in the DNA’ of the organisation, then they would have such relationships in place.

Transparency about the challenges an organisation or industry faces would deflate any potential campaign in the future; and, just as in the case of blogger outreach, relationships with respected organisations might mean they come to your support if you are criticised unfairly by other – perhaps less respectable – activist organisations in the future.

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