Working with advocacy groups requires a bit of give and take
To work well together, companies and advocacy groups must understand each other's motivation, needs, and operations. Good relationships take time, but can prove mutually beneficial and often help mitigate conflict. Once a crisis erupts, it's usually too late to establish rapport.
"Build community collateral in advance so you can have something in the bank if something does occur," says Lon Walls, president and CEO of Walls Communications, which works with groups such as the NAACP and the Urban League. "Recognize these groups are important to the community. [They often] represent large numbers of people who are consumers and, maybe, employees. They must be respected. Many things can be negotiated offline [due to] relationships."
Don't expect results overnight. "[Many] companies think they can get married on the first date," says Burson-Marsteller's MD of corporate responsibility Eric Biel, who was a senior official at NGO Human Rights First. "There are stages: Research. Open dialogue. Define common interests. Build trust."
Start with thorough research. "Advocacy is about taking sides," says Michael Cover, SVP in the social marketing practice at Ogilvy PR. "Know the entire landscape. [Know] allies and likely opponents [and] what motivates each before reaching out."
Valerie Itkin, senior counselor of advocacy relations, Porter Novelli Life Sciences, works with clients to build relationships with patient advocacy groups (PAGs).
"Understand their mission, approach them proactively, and communicate willingness to develop mutual goals," she advises. "Keep in mind PAGs are, above all, responsible to their constituents. The best relationships are based on open discussions about each party's needs. PAGs may not offer [brand] visibility, but [they] may deliver disease education messages."
Most advocacy groups are driven by passion. They aren't likely to change their position, but don't be afraid to meet with them.
Walls explains that the Army and the NAACP have common interest in supporting US troops. "The NAACP isn't going to support the war or the current administration, [but it] supports the troops," he says. "If you find common ground, that's where [organizations] can benefit."
When PN client Avanir Pharmaceuticals didn't get approval for a new drug, PAGs with which it had built relationships offered help. "That's the outcome you want," Itkin says. "You can't ask that at the last minute."
As the Recording Industry Association of America's first director of state government relations, Cover helped fend off lyric labeling legislations. He found "unlikely allies" (including Christian bookstore owners) that fought to support First Amendment rights.
"Never let the fight get personal," Cover advises. "[It's] about issues, not people.
"And don't ask a small advocacy group to take on a gargantuan task," he adds. "Set clear perimeters. Corporations often aren't prepared to pony up as much as an advocacy group might want. [Providing philanthropic support] says companies respect the work [advocacy groups will] do for them."
Too much entanglement can also damage brands. "This is a delicate point, [but] don't let advocates' passion for a cause get too far out front," Cover says. "Make sure the organization understands brand reputation and activities that compliment reputation instead of possibly tarnishing it. Some groups get headlines because they push the envelope so far."
Act carefully if groups turn contentious. "Keep [some] at arm's length and use your own tools to refute or rebut," advises Biel. "If [a group is only] berat[ing] and criticiz[ing], focus on other groups. In 12 months, the more extreme may be more reachable.
Successes with other groups might loosen something, or you may demonstrate good faith. Even Greenpeace [engages] with companies on particular issues."
Cover says working with advocacy groups can be akin to a "circular firing squad," wherein you can face violent agreement and disagreement. "Find a way to negotiate because the advocacy [should] support communications and business [goals]," he says.
"Corporations that haven't [done] anything in the community need to start," notes Walls. "Companies that aren't in touch and in tune encounter a lot of problems. They're a good target."
Thorough research before making contact
Open a dialogue and educate groups
Find common ground and unlikely allies
Be afraid to meet with groups
Wait for a crisis to reach out
Let boundaries blur or over-ask