PR TECHNIQUE: The proactive approach to averting protests

Forming ties with advocacy groups in an early, serious manner could not only quell their wrath, it might benefit all concerned by effecting progress.

Forming ties with advocacy groups in an early, serious manner could not only quell their wrath, it might benefit all concerned by effecting progress.

Starbucks, the World Bank, McDonald's, Nike, and Trent Lott could all tell you a thing or two about what happens when you wind up on the wrong side of a powerful advocacy group. You can lose customers, public support, market share, employees, government funding, contracts, peace of mind, or even your job. All it takes is a few picket signs outside your front door to make people stop and think about whether they wouldn't feel better giving their business to someone not incurring the wrath of the righteous. Anyone finding themselves the target of an angry mob may try to defuse the situation by creating a dialogue with the agitated. They might even achieve some success. But what if there were a way to make allies of adversaries before they ever took up arms? Surely the proactive beats the reactive when it comes to making friends with those who wish you harm. Preempting the protests is easier than you may think. Most advocacy groups - even some of the truly radical ones - would rather work with you to effect change than spend their time blast-faxing journalists about your crimes or standing outside in the cold chanting tired Vietnam-era slogans. The key is in the approach, at least according to those who have done it. John Doorley, now a professor at Rutgers University, forged an alliance back in the early 1990s that, at the time, seemed as likely as a Hatfield-McCoy family picnic. As head of corporate communications at Merck, Doorley negotiated a friendship between the pharmaceutical company and some of the world's most radical AIDS activists, who were then more accustomed to staging very public, disruptive demonstrations accusing drug companies of exploiting the illness to line their already well-padded pockets. In their minds, companies like Merck intentionally took years to produce new AIDS drugs in order to maximize profits on those that were already on the market, regardless of their inefficacy. "Our strategy was not to try and reach every AIDS activist," Doorley recalls. "Even back in 1990, there were many hardened ones we knew we couldn't deal with. So we tried reaching out to a few and have them work as ambassadors." A main objective in any such endeavor, according to Doorley, is being calm. Any time you get AIDS activists and pharmaceutical executives in the same room - or PETA workers and Burger King execs, or Trent Lott and the NAACP for that matter - emotions will run high. As the accused, it's important not to get caught up in hot-blooded exchanges, but rather to stay cool and seek out the middle ground. "I remember getting so mad at a certain point that my hands were shaking because they got to be really nasty," he remembers. "We said we would not deal with anyone unless they stopped threatening us." Doorley eventually recruited key activists to sit on a Merck advisory board, even flying them to research plants to let them see the development process first hand. Understandably, transparency goes a long way toward defusing accusations of deception. But openness and communication are just the first step. After letting them in, Merck had to take the activists seriously and put their suggestions into action, thereby proving the move to be more than just a PR stunt. Doorley tells a story of a meeting where one of the activists asked him to read over the densely written consent form patients had to sign in order to partake in drug trials. "I had to admit, I couldn't understand it," he says, "and I've been in this business my entire professional life." It had taken nearly a year for the form to be written and approved, and Merck executives weren't interested in repeating the process. But Doorley refused to back down, and the form was eventually rewritten. That move, along with others like it, eventually paid off. Word came some time later that a number of San Francisco-based ACT UP members were planning an action against Merck. When the activists working with Doorley heard about the plan, they got involved. "They called the guys in San Francisco and said, 'You go to any other company you want to, but not Merck." What may be surprising is that Doorley's experience isn't all that rare. Even PETA, well known for its over-the-top demonstrations against even the smallest examples of animal "cruelty" (the group infamously came out in defense of Rat's Rights after members of the first Survivor cast ate the rodents to keep from starving to death), can cite examples of corporate cooperation. Director of vegan outreach Bruce Friedrich says he formed relationships with clothing companies such as LL Bean and Eddie Bauer during a recent campaign to prevent the use of certain kinds of imported leather. The companies made promises not to use the products and stuck to them. As a result, when PETA learns of a potential violation at one of the retailers, its first move is to call one of their internal contacts and discuss the matter. If that relationship didn't exist, the company would more likely be notified by some hideous protest scene outside its stores. "These are human relationships," says Friedrich. "Without a doubt, once you've established contact with a corporation and they have made improvements, you have somebody to call in the event they are doing something objectionable. This way, you also have someone to call when they have any questions." One thing to bear in mind, however, is that not all advocacy groups will be interested in dealing with a corporation, warns Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management. "A lot of activist groups are interested only in making noise and drawing attention to their cause," he warns. "They don't actually want to work with you to make the problem go away, because if it did, they wouldn't have a justification for existing anymore." Smith warns that it's important to be able to identify these groups ahead of time and avoid involvement with them, as doing so can easily backfire. Nonetheless, stories of successful collaboration abound, and each has several common themes: patience, sincerity, transparency, and, most important, timing. If you want to work with a potential adversary, make your move before they make theirs, because once the chorus starts calling for change, it's nearly impossible to silence them. Just ask Trent Lott. --------- Technique tips Do work with groups who are more interested in solutions than getting press Do offer transparency. Activists who feel you're not open aren't likely to keep dealing with you Do turn their suggestions into action. Activists want results Don't get emotional when dealing with advocacy groups Don't agree to work with anyone making threats Don't expect immediate results. Working with adversaries takes patience - establishing trust takes time

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