Marie-Louise Burman, Cohn & Wolfe: Changing the conversation

Talk is key, as it demonstrates transparency, openness and a willingness to listen.

The influence of NGOs in Western Europe is probably at its highest level right now. Their emotive and compelling campaigns, combined with a skilful mastery of comms channels, means attacks on corporates are frequent, sophisticated occurrences and the pressure to act according to NGO wishes and demands can be immense.

So, is there a way of mitigating an NGO offensive or even pre-empting and preventing it in the first place? The answer is not as straightforward as a clear yes or no - even the most worldly-wise PRO can be taken by surprise with an NGO campaign. The hallmarks of these tend to include a 'no-prior-warning' announcement of the issue, often accompanied by a report or study, an urgent call to action for the corporate in question, thirdparty recruits to pile on the pressure and often a creative stunt on or offline. The campaign could begin and end in a 48-hour period or linger on for months or even years.

Preparation is key - good crisis comms is based on a plan already in place: knowing your strengths and limitations, friends and advocates, can go some way to controlling and continuously managing an attack if it happens.

Before immersing yourself in the crisis plan, a first step could be as simple as talking to the NGO, preferably face-to-face, in a neutral space, perhaps with a third-party mediator. This willingness to talk is key - it demonstrates transparency, openness and shows you are listening, seriously listening. If the NGO refuses to engage in this way, and most credible, serious NGOs will want to talk, then it is about influencing and changing the conversation that is going on around you quickly and consistently.

If you are genuinely at fault, then the simple mantra of regret (we are sorry), reason (this is why the issue happened) and remedy (this is what we are going to do about it) with tangible timings attached to the actionable elements can go some way to help close down a crisis relatively quickly. If the issue is more complex and there is a need to defend your company and its actions from the NGO, this is where conversations are critical. Talk to everyone - not via statements or press releases or corporate websites, but through human beings - and listen to the feedback you receive in return. Through engaging with the NGO's own communities of influence - the people they talk and listen to - this may go some way to influencing their campaign positively. This willingness to talk and listen should be extended across all key audiences, not just media or stakeholders, but consumers, customers, suppliers and internal employees too, and through all channels, use of digital media can be key.

Show the NGO and other influencers you are taking the campaign seriously by opening up your own operations, showing them your internal procedures/audits and providing them with independent analysis of the issue. If you are serious about defending your reputation, do it proactively, transparently and with passion, but make sure the language and tone reflects that of their own campaign. The reason NGO campaigns tend to be so effective is they explain the issue in simple terms, in words the man on the street understands, so your own comms should steer clear of emotionless corporate jargon and acronyms.

Finally, accept you may never fully change their minds, they may always view what you do and how you do it as a issue. Yet only through meaningful dialogue, not corporate monologue, lies the path to crisis containment and effective reputation management.


Which crisis did you learn the most from working on?

We worked with Starbucks when it was accused by Oxfam of opposing Ethiopia's plans to trademark its coffee. The campaign was swift and unexpected, so the challenge was to answer the actual charges levelled by Oxfam and explain Starbucks' position to key audiences as quickly as possible.

What were the most important lessons?

We handled 200 media enquiries, set up 20 media interviews and briefed 75 key influencers in a 72-hour period.

So the need for dedicated, credible spokespeople who can explain complex issues in straightforward terms is crucial.

Marie-Louise Burman is UK head of crisis and issues management at Cohn & Wolfe London

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