Grassroots campaigners force companies to alter strategies

Every day, nascent grassroots groups are popping up and winning David-and-Goliath battles.

Every day, nascent grassroots groups are popping up and winning David-and-Goliath battles. These organizations have made the biggest corporations cut ties with allies or change course on key goals. This trend has resulted in corporations and PR shops implementing a slew of communications strategies to save their own and a client's reputation.

The most notable effort this year has been the battle between Color of Change, a seven- year-old grassroots group, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Upset by the once low-key lobbying group's support of Voter ID and Stand Your Ground laws, Color of Change mobilized its members to turn to social media and convince corporations to stop funding the group. Financial backers included McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and Kraft Foods, among others.

"The ability of these groups to use technology has allowed them to create critical mass in an effective way they may not have been able to do previously," says Dave Samson, general manager of public affairs at Chevron.

The rise in power of grassroots groups has meant the company has become more proficient to counter these groups.

GE's battleplan

General Electric has turned to its staff to help battle messaging of some grassroots groups.

When the company got into the crosshairs for allegedly not paying taxes, the company sent its employees home last Thanksgiving with a set of talking points to share with friends and family about the situation, says Gary Sheffer, VP of corporate communications and public affairs at GE.

The method was effective by making staff confident in the company and empowered by being looped into the communications strategy. It also aided in keeping morale high and turnover low.

"People want to feel good about where they work," adds Sheffer.

Power shift
However, Samson emphasizes that face-to-face discussion with grassroots organizations is still his company's go-to method in settling disputes: "You have to engage. There is still no substitute for sitting across from someone and having a constructive exchange of information."

Engaging in dialogue isn't always fruitful as there are some groups not open to it, according to Gary Sheffer, VP of corporate communications and public affairs at General Electric.

"There are people who disagree with your company on a particular issue and use your brand as a platform to promote their own agenda," says Sheffer.

In these instances, companies need to be vigilant and hope the general populace will ascertain the true motives of a grassroots group. In the battle against possible reputation damage it is also helpful to have a network of communications professionals and staff around the country, notes Oscar Suris, EVP of corporate communications at Wells Fargo.

All staff members at the company are encouraged to get involved in their communities. This allows Wells Fargo to track 
any dissatisfaction working its way through a particular area.

Having a spread-out team also "gives us an opportunity to develop those media relationships on a local-market level, which can make a difference," adds Suris.

Helping hands
PR firms are increasingly helping clients face the rising threat of grassroots groups by first determining if the organization is legitimate, says Lance Morgan, chief communications strategist at Powell Tate.

This analysis involves a complicated alchemy of evaluating the validity of the message, membership stats, reputation, followers on social media sites, and Web impressions. If the issue and the organization are legitimate, the firm tells clients to get ahead of the story by apologizing and saying how they'll fix the issue and be as transparent as possible.

"If you properly communicate with stakeholders, eventually [the problem] will go away and, with no oxygen, the fire goes out," says Morgan.

Not all grassroots groups are antagonistic. Some can help, as long as both parties want the same outcome, such as putting an end to deforestation.

The relationships tend to be gratis to avoid tainting the credibility of the advocacy group's work, says Brendan Daly, EVP and national director for public affairs at Ogilvy Washington.

"They'll send emails or write letters. It's another tool to use to get the word out," says Daly.

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