When activists attack

Douglas Quenqua investigates strategies and tactics for managing activism

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

are saying."

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



The activists:

Campaign ExxonMobil: an Austin-based coalition of activist groups

At issue:

- 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

worldwide protests

The response:

- 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

ask, either"

The results:

- 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.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in