How to survive and thrive in the age of modern activism

From the playbook to the players, the face of activism has changed significantly due to social media. Industry leaders joined Gideon Fidelzeid in New York City for this inVentiv Health PR Group-hosted roundtable to discuss how outreach is evolving in an era where single individuals can wield reputation-changing power.

Click here to download the exclusive eBook from this roundtable

Roundtable participants (clockwise from top left):
Matt Stewart, VP, Antenna Group; Michael Jones, senior campaign director,; Andrew Topen, VP, head of global and digital media, Pfizer; Meg Alexander, issues management and corporate reputation lead, inVentiv Health Public Relations Group; Doug Hesney, EVP, head of asset management group, Dukas Public Relations (not pictured: Ken Inchausti, director of corporate branding and reputation, Novo Nordisk)

Ultimate conundrum
Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
The social media assets brands work so hard to build are also their greatest vulnerability to today’s activists. How do you balance the risks and benefits?

Meg Alexander (inVentiv Health): Social media offers incredible power to engage stakeholders, but also exposure to those who don’t agree with you or seek change. Companies must never be dissuaded from engagement.

We all increasingly work with Millennials who are ushering in what Harvard Business Review recently called "a new power environment." This means companies now face stakeholders seeking to be much more participatory. They’re looking to co-create content. They seek brands to engage with them. The question about whether or not to engage is moot. The real question: how do you engage effectively?

Doug Hesney (Dukas Public Relations): Outside of pharmaceuticals, financial services is the most heavily regulated industry in terms of what you can and cannot say. The activist situations such companies will most likely encounter involve stock or equity activism. In those instances, Twitter is particularly good for sentiment analysis. It helps you see what people are saying about your research, your activist position, and how it’s being portrayed in the press.

Ken Inchausti (Novo Nordisk): I’m not sure it’s so much of a risk/benefit analysis. It’s more about knowing exactly what you want out of using social media. Historically, Novo Nordisk has had a unique voice and culture among pharma companies. Twitter, for example, allows us to highlight not just our commitment to patients, but also to be a voice for patients and other stakeholders.

With social media, you’re abdicating a certain amount of control. It brings out the best and the worst in activism and engagement. So, before jumping in, an organization must be prepared for the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Michael Jones ( When you see your company at the heart of something taking off on Facebook,, Twitter, look to see what the story is at the center of it. Often, the petitions that work best start with a personal story. And if it’s connected to something currently resonating on the larger news cycle, your brand will realize it could have resonance. now offers a decision-maker’s tool where people can communicate one-on-one with not only the people who start petitions, but also those who sign them. Tumblr, WhatsApp, and Imgur all have vehicles to create traction for petitions, online campaigns, and the like. Brands must be fully familiar with all these platforms and how they work. That is the best way to temperature check what movements can take off and become something your brand will have to deal with.

Matt Stewart (Antenna Group): A lot of the old rules still apply for dealing with activists. It’s common sense and listening. However, the speed with which you must respond, as well as how fast things can snowball has changed dramatically.

One thing that can really help any brand is to simply show you care and are willing to listen. Build an authentic culture of "We hear you. Thanks for your feedback" and then execute your strategy after that.

Alexander (inVentiv): And even if your brand doesn’t have a Facebook page or Twitter handle, it doesn’t mean social media activism might not happen to you.

Jones ( Absolutely. If you have no social media presence you’re even more vulnerable because you’re losing out on the opportunity to communicate your message. You can get pummeled from one direction without that opportunity to engage.

Andrew Topen (Pfizer): We want to engage. We see our channels as a two-way dialogue. It’s important we respect all constituents who want to speak to us. The dialogue we can have on social channels is a tremendous opportunity to put a face on what can be a completely faceless organization.

Inchausti (Novo Nordisk): Something else to consider: once purely local issues have easily been transformed into the national or global scene. Organizations must be more mindful and aware of conversations and issues across their markets. This creates so many different approaches to issues management. The biggest shift is that companies must get to know those activists and their issues because of their ability to drive public opinion in an instant through their constituencies. 

Stewart (Antenna): Tesla CEO Elon Musk provided a great example – and it wasn’t even in response to an activist, but rather a New York Times review he felt was inaccurate. He went point by point, which I first felt was crazy. But I soon realized the message he was sending was, "I am behind this car and I will fight for it." You easily got the sense if there was a problem, the company will fix it. It’s an example of building brand equity through a strong response, which is not something we necessarily always lead with.

See the exclusive eBook of this roundtable for much more from this insightful conversation, including a look at how brands are starting to think like activists, the rise of e-petition sites, and case studies on dealing with modern activism from Dunkin’ Donuts, Kraft, T-Mobile, Taco Bell, Sonic, and Marvel Comics. The eBook will also share other brand-defending tips, while our roundtable experts opine on how prepared the average company is to deal with modern activism.

In addition, click here for proprietary research from inVentiv Health that will offer further analysis and advice on how to deal with social media activists.

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