Douglas Quenqua investigates strategies and tactics for managing activism
"We're not trying to make money and we're not running a popularity
contest," says Lisa Lange, director of policy and communication at
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). "It doesn't matter
if people like us. We can say anything we want - as long as we're doing
something to provoke discussion."
It's statements like these that keep corporate PR execs awake at
PETA is one of thousands of activist groups that use guerrilla tactics
to bring down corporations. They know corporate weaknesses, and they
know how to use the media to exploit them. "When campaigning against
McDonald's, we created a billboard with a bloody, severed cow's head and
the slogan, 'You want fries with that?'" Lange recalls fondly. The
campaign has recently been retooled to target Burger King, or as PETA
calls it, Murder King.
Antagonists and protagonists
There are two distinct types of protest groups, according to Jordana
Friedman, who recently joined Burson-Marsteller after spending more than
10 years as a consultant to companies dealing with activists. There are
protesters who want nothing more than to damage your company, and there
are protesters you can work with to effect mutually beneficial
"Many of these groups are categorically anti-globalization and
anti-multinational, and their raison d'etre is to criticize and bring
down big companies," Friedman says. "But there are many moderate groups
out there that care about promoting issues like human rights and the
environment, and that want to engage companies to influence their
policies and practices for the better social good."
Friedman warns that failing to identify an activist group as a potential
strategic partner can be a major tactical mistake. But how do you tell
the difference? "See if these groups are working in partnership
currently with any other company or industry organizations," she says.
"Check their Web sites and see what their overall strategy is. See if
their members sit on advisory boards of any major corporations."
One increasingly popular method of influencing a company is "boardroom
activism," in which activists become shareholders, infiltrate annual
meetings and present their demands in shareholder proposals. ExxonMobil
is currently the target of such a campaign led by a coalition of various
interests called Campaign ExxonMobil. Following a training session over
Memorial Day weekend, the group protested inside and outside an
ExxonMobil shareholders' meeting.
At times during the meeting, ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond acted dismissive
toward activists and criticized them for not meeting with company
officials to work out issues beforehand (PRWeek, June 4). But while
Campaign ExxonMobil did not succeed in getting its proposals passed, it
did get a large enough percentage of the vote to have them reconsidered
next year. One of the primary goals of Campaign ExxonMobil is to keep
presenting its ideas to the company, hoping that persistence and
exposure will sway other investors to insist on policy changes. Its
battle with ExxonMobil is also being played out publicly before the
press, which is happy to report its agenda, and has put ExxonMobil's
denouncement of the Kyoto Treaty, along with its multi-million dollar
support of the GOP, in the spotlight.
Even hostile organizations can often be placated or neutralized by
simple policy changes, however. For example, McDonald's restaurants were
the target of a sustained effort by PETA to brand the company as
willingly abusive to animals. But earlier this year, when McDonald's
announced that it would no longer buy chickens from farmers who debeaked
them or kept them in overly cramped cages, PETA called off its campaign,
saying McDonald's new policy was "a step in the right direction."
"The easiest way to bring about change in major corporations is to give
them bad PR," says Lange.
Most seasoned crisis communicators agree that truth, transparency and
willingness to face accusers is the key to handling such situations.
"Our method is pure and simple: give 'em the truth," says Mark Smith,
public affairs director at tobacco company Brown & Williamson. "Up until
the last five to 10 years, the tobacco industry tried to ignore protest
groups, and that certainly didn't work."
Smith says Brown & Williamson was the first tobacco company to post
links to the Web sites of its harshest critics on its own site. "We've
come to realize that we have to be open and accessible and provide
information if we want to protect ourselves," he says.
Keep your cool
It is equally importantly not to lose your cool or become overly
confrontational, which can lead to increased success and credibility for
activists. "The big issue in these situations is not to make things
worse," warns Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis
Management (ICM), which has handled situations ranging from the Exxon
Valdez oil spill to high-profile sexual harassment lawsuits. "An
activist can generate an awful lot of support and media attention
quickly if a company reacts badly," Smith continues.
Ogilvy PR's managing director of global public affairs, Jamie Moeller,
agrees with Smith and suggests adopting a friendly tone when dealing
with aggressive protesters. "One thing that we ought not to do is view
or position activists as the enemy," she says. "Dialogue is much better
than confrontation. If you engage them in conflict, you give them
additional credibility - and additional media attention."
Like all organizations, activist groups have strengths and weaknesses,
and knowing both can lead to a smoother experience. "Their greatest
strength is the news media, allies that are willing to print just about
anything they say or do," says Brown & Williamson's Smith. "They are
viewed by most members of the media as credible and having a point of
view that's politically correct. It's just the opposite for us."
ICM's Smith notes that such groups often wind up undermining their own
cause when they go too far in trying to provide the media with strong
visuals. "There was this group that wanted to distribute leaflets to
children at school urging them not to eat meat," he says. "The district
turned them down, so they dressed up in carrot costumes and attempted to
hand out brochures anyway." Smith says one news show sent cameras, but
ended up running the stunt as a humorous kicker at the end of its
What's the moral of this story? Smith says, "The school district handled
itself really wisely. It was very low-key, allowed them to demonstrate
and didn't ask the police to get involved, which would have been the
only way grown men in carrot costumes could have attained
Employees as advocates
Internal communications is also very important during activist attacks.
Providing employees with the facts quells fears, and they can be potent
defenders in a PR war. "Your employees ought to be your brand
ambassadors and your first line of defense against activist groups, but
they need to have the information to advocate on your behalf," says
Moeller. "It's important to stay in constant contact with them.
Employees have credibility, and that carries tremendous weight. If they
can speak positively about you, it can offset a lot of what activists
Activists and crisis experts agree that you absolutely should not think
the activism will go away on its own.
"The worst thing a company can do is underestimate us," says Lange.
She says McDonald's and General Motors underestimated PETA, but in the
end, both relented and changed their policies.
Lange promises, "Anywhere there is animal abuse we are going to focus
our attention, and we are not going to let up. We will be there until it
EXXONMOBIL: THE NEW TARGET
Campaign ExxonMobil: an Austin-based coalition of activist groups
- Lack of acknowledgement of global warming
- Nondiscrimination policies do not specifically mention gays
- Potential environmental damage in Alaska
- Alleged human rights violations in Indonesia
- May 8: Boycott launched against Esso, ExxonMobil's European arm,
citing environmental concerns
- Memorial Day Weekend: Nearly 200 activists representing 40 groups came
together in Dallas for the first annual "corporate campaigners"
The seminar culminated in protests at ExxonMobil's annual shareholders'
meeting on May 30
- July 11: "International Action Day" will call for activists to stage
- ExxonMobil has issued several statements concerning global warming and
refuting claims that its political contributions unduly influenced
president Bush's energy and environmental policies
- Referring to homosexuals, CEO Lee Raymond said at a press conference,
"We don't want to know who they are, and religion is not a question we
- Activist groups say ExxonMobil met with them but made few meaningful
- None of the shareholder proposals were passed, but all can be
reconsidered next year
- Raymond says the company couldn't determine the immediate effects of
the European boycott, citing "too much noise in the marketplace" but
declining to comment on whether that "noise" is positive or negative.