NGO accountability - who's keeping watch?

Perhaps it's the passion that is the problem. It seems that when an NGO spokesperson gets on the soapbox, the sheer intensity of delivery leaves most corporate commentators in the shade - that and the encyclopaedic armoury of headline-inducing facts at their fingertips.

Is it any wonder that in surveys, NGOs inevitably emerge as the public's most trusted source of information on how the world (and business) works, with corporate PROs trailing at the bottom of the league alongside lawyers and tabloid journalists?

Witness last week's ICCO Summit in Prague. As the event organiser, PRWeek had invited veteran environmental campaigner and executive director of Friends of the Earth Tony Juniper to join McDonald's Nick Hindle and Middle-Eastern PR specialist Mohammed A. Al Ayed to debate the politicisation of PR. We were sure it would lead to a lively debate.

We weren't wrong. Even before taking the stage Juniper was barracking Lord Robertson, former secretary-general of NATO, about the impact of climate change on global politics, before moving on to Coca-Cola's Jonathan Chandler and his claims about creating accessibility to clean water.

Juniper's argument was that Western brands are too powerful and that before whingeing about consumers politicising their products, corporates should stop interfering in international politics. Moreover, it was clear that Juniper regarded CSR as a mere sticking plaster on the damage caused by corporate greed.

Not surprisingly, by the time of the Q&A session there was a backlash. In fact the questions from the floor were more a series of diatribes about NGO accountability. Later on, I found a group of senior players muttering about the need for a watchdog to keep an eye on the claims of pressure groups.

Concerns about free speech aside, they may have a point. Although Juniper is respected and frighteningly well informed, not all spokespeople for NGOs have such a pedigree. But such is the public trust accorded to NGOs that their claims are often accepted by consumers and media alike without question, no matter how damning their effect on the reputation of the companies concerned.

In order to effect real change, pressure groups need to actively work with those companies  rather than sending them retreating in fear of an NGO-induced media storm. The voice of sanity was supplied by that equally impassioned campaigner and businesswoman Anita Roddick, when she told delegates: 'NGOs that don't engage drive me nuts.'

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