Taking a peek around the corner

There are a variety of ways for companies to both research and predict what issues might be coming up on activist groups' agendas.

There are a variety of ways for companies to both research and predict what issues might be coming up on activist groups' agendas.

Keeping track of what new causes activist groups or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) might be moving into may at first seem to require sleuth work. And sometimes that's true. But for the most part, activists aren't shy about revealing what they're up to - indeed, publicity is often a key goal - and the tools used to stay abreast of their new issues are fairly straightforward. Still, doing this research is crucial for companies and the PR firms that represent them. Issues management often means predicting and preventing causes that could potentially taint an organization. Perhaps the most important technique in this regard is to heed advice from the Watergate era: Follow the money. Where foundations put their money can be gleaned by reading their annual reports, income- tax filings, newsletters, and press releases. The Journal of Philanthropy is another good source, and the Center for Consumer Freedom runs a website (www. activistcash.com) that profiles where public-interest groups get their money. The site shows, for example, that several years ago the Helena Rubenstein Foundation and the Roy and Niuta Titus Foundation gave money to the Center for Science in the Public Interest to oppose olestra, the fat substitute. Companies should forge relationships with politicians and their aides, says Rita McConnell, media relations manager at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, PA. McConnell says that's because activist groups are familiar with the legislative process and are adept at getting language about their causes slipped into unrelated bills. Chris Deri, SVP of issues management at Edelman, says his group tracks regulation, legislation, and trade talks to stay on top of such issues. He points out for illustration that NGOs were able to latch onto the so-called banana wars between Europe and the US to push their own environmental issues. Chris VandenHeuvel, director of communications for the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, VA, says people in his industry often come in contact with activists and learn their issues by serving on advisory committees formed by federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency. But the mainstay research tool these days is, of course, the internet. Activist groups rely on the net, especially their own websites, to get their messages out. Recently, the top story on the Environmental Working Group's website (www.ewg.org) was its own statement that it and the Center for Environmental Health are "moving to sue" California over farmed salmon warning labels. Read the groups' press releases and sign up for their e-mail newsletters. Another important resource is the listserv. "Sometimes the warning sign is a sudden influx of messages on internet listservs that the group hasn't paid attention to recently," says David Martosko, research director at the Center for Consumer Freedom in Washington, DC, which is funded by restaurants and food companies. For example, Martosko says he's recently been noticing "chatter" on listservs about PETA and wool. At a recent event in Erie, PA, a PETA rep revealed that the group is about to put more emphasis on wool. (PETA spokesman Michael McGraw confirms that the group is getting more active about wool and has a new website, www.woolisbaad.com.) Services such as eWatch, CyberAlert, WebClipping.com, and Infonic can help monitor listservs, message boards, and the like. Martosko advises paying attention to local listservs because activists often think it's safe to say things there that they wouldn't say in a national forum. Meetings and conferences - those sponsored by the groups or others - are another avenue. They offer clues such as who attends and speaks at them. Ronald Duchin, a DC-based EVP at Stratfor, an Austin, TX-based company that researches public-interest groups, says in the past two years his company began to notice that toxic-chemical activists were talking to breast-cancer groups. "We could not figure out why these leading activists were showing up at various places they never had before," he says. Research through journals, other writings, and interviews revealed that the activists were beginning to push "chemical trespass" (outside chemicals getting into the human body), an issue Duchin says will grow in popularity. Vada Manager, director of global issues management at Nike, points out that transcripts of such meetings are often available on the web. More and more the way to learn the NGOs' issues is to ask them. David Sandor, PR director for The Home Depot in Atlanta, says the company has moved toward "constructive engagement" with many environmental groups. "For many years, we were the target of a lot of anger in terms of our wood-purchasing policy. [Environmental groups] had legitimate concerns about sustainability of forests. Instead of pitting ourselves against the environmental community, we went with them in a collaborative way to understand their concerns. We developed a program where we now know where every stick of wood we sell comes from." Finally, Duchin advises companies to push aside the schadenfreude if activist groups go after competitors. Often they may pick a big retailer in an industry - a Staples or Home Depot - and once they get an agreement from them (on say, the lumber they sell), move on to number two in the category. For example, in a November press release, ForestEthics lauded Staples for its recent annual environmental progress report, while criticizing Office Depot for not doing enough with its environmental policies. That could be you or your client. The campaign against your competitor should give you the heads up, not cause for smugness. ----- Technique tips Do research what groups foundations are giving their money to and for what reason. That can indicate what new issues the groups are getting into Do maintain relationships with politicians and their staffs. They are often in contact with political-interest groups and know what their concerns are Do learn of issues concerning products through your supply channel - buyers and vendors will often hear of what the potential pitfalls are Don't talk with groups that are not interested in dialogue and cooperation. Some groups are just too far out there to forge relationships with Don't participate in message boards or conferences anonymously. Always be honest. Don't go where you're not wanted Don't think you can't find out from many of the groups themselves what issues they are moving into. They are increasingly transparent. Pick up the phone and ask them

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