If you've been involved in issues management you know the drill… an activist's challenging blog, letter to the CEO, or threatened boycott triggers a flurry of activity. The drawbridges are raised, moats are filled with key messages, and the company is hunkered down for battle. But in most cases there is a better way.
Before I began advising CEOs on dealing with activists, I was one -- helping a group of aggrieved typesetters from the Kansas City Star newspaper fight to keep their jobs in the face of computerization. There I saw first-hand how strategic engagement with activists, yields better results than a strictly defense game.
The union stage-managed a show-down with the CEO Tom Murphy at the company's shareholders meeting (Murphy later went on to become CEO of ABC/Capital Cities). As the union leaders rose to denounce him, he released his grip on the podium and wandered down to meet us. He asked us where we were from, what brought us there, how we accumulated various stock proxies. Months later the information he gathered while glad-handing, helped shape company policy. The workers didn't get everything they wanted, but Murphy demonstrated one of the great values of activists. If you engage the right ones, they can tell you things to make your business run better.
Steve Rabin is CEO at Rabin Martin
Look for the activists with unique insights and a common goal. Many activists and executives share the same mission -- improved health for patients, expanding access to essential goods, safer cars, etc. And they think about these issues all the time. A valuable advocate really knows what they are talking about from experience or as a result of thorough and honest research. Some of the greatest and fastest advances in medicine have come from marketing and research executives listening to what side-effects feel like. Activist will tell you the truth about problems in your approach which nervous colleagues and subordinates won't. And their ideas are free.
So advice to CEOs when missives fly? Peak over the parapet and invite an activist to lunch.