Once dismissed as sandal-wearing extremists, single issue pressure
groups are now expert at getting support from the media and co-operation
from business. Lexie Goddard reports
The media dubbed it David versus Goliath. Dave Morris and Helen Steel,
two unemployed environmentalists from North London, locked in a
courtroom feud with McDonald’s, a global giant with19,200 outlets in 94
The ‘McLibel’ trial began in June 1994 when McDonald’s sued
environmentalists over the distribution of a damning leaflet entitled
McCancer, McDisease, McHunger and McDeath.
Campaigners later turned the tables and counter claimed against
McDonald’s stating that a ‘McFact’ sheet about their action libelled
Aside from being the longest libel trial in British history the McLibel
trial is a clear warning to businesses that far from being sandal-
wearing extremists, pressure groups have become a force to be reckoned
with. Morris and Steel’s support group, The McLibel Support Campaign,
now has its own office space, several thousand supporters and alliances
with pressure groups in 25 countries.
It also has McSpotlight, a website containing case details and
campaigning photo material, which has been accessed by over three
million people since its February launch.
Its structure is typical of the 1990s pressure group. Ex-solicitor Dan
Mills is the group’s unofficial spokesman, but he takes pains to explain
he is just a part of a ‘grass roots’ movement with no central co-
ordination but alliances with animal rights, fair trade and
environmental pressure groups. In a bid to become more organised the
group is gathering volunteers to leaflet local stores ready for its
World Day of Action Against McDonald’s on 16 October.
But most of all, Mills is media friendly. He has been interviewed by
‘countless’ TV and radio stations from places as far flung as South
Africa and New Zealand and is eager to send information about the
McLibel Support Campaign to interested journalists.
At McDonald’s, meanwhile, it’s business as usual. The burger giant’s UK
director of communications Mike Love acknowledges the case has damaged
the McDonald’s reputation but refuses to be drawn into a proactive PR
battle while it is still running.
‘It has been debated in various journals whether this is a PR disaster
or success,’ says Love. ‘I feel strongly that this is not a question of
a PR campaign. The time for that will not start until the end of the
trial,’ he adds. ‘Then we can talk about the messages coming out of the
judge’s decision. Until then it’s a legal, not a PR matter.’
Outside the UK, however, it is already a PR concern. A confidential
internal memo It reveals the company’s PR strategy in the light of
requests for interviews from the Australian investigative programme, 60
Minutes, which was filming anti-McDonald’s campaigners. The document
which concerned the possibility of interview requests from McDonald’s
personnel in Australia discusses the need to ‘contain it as a UK issue’
and ‘keep it at arms length -not become guilty by association.’ It ends
thus: ‘...hopefully we can deal effectively with each situation as it
arises and minimise any further negative publicity.’
John Grey, chairman of Media Natura, a PR agency specialising in
environmental development and social justice issues believes McDonald’s
was right to stay silent. However he adds: ‘If they had been pro-
actively and consistently auditing their vulnerability in terms of the
human rights agenda this would not have happened.’ Grey believes that,
despite the rapid expansion of pressure groups, many businesses are
still slow to take them seriously.
‘The idea of pressure groups consisting of Mr-sandal-wearing-angry-
person-from-Islington is a relic of the 1970s but a lot of corporations
don’t notice that things have changed and are very vulnerable,’ says
Grey. ‘Token gestures will also not wash. There are still many companies
who believe that by launching environmental award schemes or having
discussions with pressure groups they are building lasting
relationships,’ he adds. ‘They are deluding themselves.’
Media Natura was originally set up to help pressure groups communicate
better and they made up 80 per cent of the consultancy’s income. Today
that has dropped to 20 per cent and Media Natura’s advice is sought by
companies like Unilever, NPI and Sainsbury’s.
‘Pressure groups have become hugely sophisticated in their ability to
manage the media and in their understanding of how to package stories,’
comments Grey on the drop in business from pressure groups.
But for some pressure groups lobbying is still a necessary campaigning
tool in order to secure permanent change.
Compassion in World Farming is a charity which has been campaigning for
the welfare of farm animals for 30 years and was at the heart of last
year’s much publicised protests against live veal exports. CIWF
campaigns director Philip Lymbery uses a range of ‘peaceful and legal
tactics using modern equipment’.
They include standard campaigning tactics like celebrity endorsement and
its Agscene newsletter to the more modern tools of video investigations,
direct mail and the Internet.
But he says: ‘I feel that, having whipped up steam in public, you still
need a political follow through. Lobbying is still the way forward in
order to push the important buttons.’ Under the umbrella of the European
Coalition for Farm Animals, the group has successfully lobbied the
Council of Agricultural Ministers to bring forward proposals to ban veal
crates on a Europe-wide basis.
For other pressure groups lobbying is too slow and weighed against their
favour. Business, says Grey, is the way forward as an increasing number
of corporations are realising that environment and fair trade need to be
built into corporate strategy. ‘Pressure groups are realising they have
to become part of the solution instead of just pointing the finger at
the problem,’ says Grey.
This attitude is epitomised by Greenpeace’s ‘solution campaigning’
philosophy where group scientists have developed non-CFC refrigeration
and, more recently, a car which uses less petrol. This tactic is helping
to mend relations between campaigners and their targets says director
general of the British Nuclear Industry Forum, Roger Hayes.
‘Greenpeace is changing its approach,’ says Hayes. ‘We have been slowly
trying to build a dialogue over complex issues so long as we come up
with solutions. Pressure groups are now very effective at getting their
messages across,’ adds Hayes. ‘Industry has been much slower to respond
as was the case with Brent Spar. The nuclear industry has been forced
into becoming more transparent and to communicate better and faster. Now
we are saying we have rights as well as responsibilities. It’s a two-way
street. We are just feeling the way and starting to trust each other.’
Sainsbury’s, one of Greenpeace’s targets in its bid to phase out
supermarket refrigerators which emit CFCs, set up an Environmental
Management division three years ago. One of its main aims is to identify
new issues and assess their implications for Sainsbury’s.
Division manager Alison Austin makes it clear that both pressure groups
and businesses have their own agendas and the company is in the business
of creating change without incurring costs.
But Austin has seen more and more issues raised by pressure groups in
her two-and-a-half years in the role.
She believes business just cannot afford to ignore an issue like the
environment which now takes a permanent place on the average consumer’s
agenda. ‘Pressure groups do have a valued role in society in terms of
raising issues and helping to form social values,’ she says. Not only
that, but they are according to Austin, becoming more expert at thinking
along business lines.
‘They are becoming much better organised at presenting factual data
which is important for businesses which have to present clear arguments
internally in order make changes.
‘Pressure groups have also become a lot better at campaigning on a
community-based level,’ adds Austin. ‘They are keen not to lose their
campaigning hard edge but have a growing understanding of the different
ways of changing things other than their attack tactics. The more
enlightened are seeing how they can support without endorsing.
Austin concludes: ‘We are doing a lot but there is more to be done.’
Protest groups: Gathering force
‘Do It Yourself’ culture, the philosophy behind the explosion of protest
groups, free parties and festivals in the 1990s, is the subject of a new
book, to be published by the Big Issue at Christmas.
Authors Sophie Poklewski Koziell and Elaine Brass travelled the UK to
record 80 interviews with protesters, commentators including Observer
editor Will Hutton and MPs for the book, provisionally entitled DIY
Poklewski Koziell believes the origins of ‘alternative systems’ and
switch to direct action stems from a disillusionment with conventional
politics. ‘People are so frustrated with traditional channels they have
given up,’ she says. ‘This generation grew up when the environment was
beginning to be discussed but they don’t just want to give pounds 15,’
In contrast with the structured company environment of bypass
construction company Costain, Newbury protesters consisted of an
informal network of activists who belonged to a range of groups. These
range from Friends of the Earth to the more underground Road Alert and
Alarm UK. Despite a fluid, constantly evolving system, where members
come and go, Poklewski Koziell was impressed by the tactics used by
protesters to pass on information to both the media and other members.
‘They are not Ludite,’ she says. ‘They use the Internet because it can’t
be traced and mobile phones on protests.’
More simple methods were also used to rally supporters. An example of
this is the ‘phone tree’ where one organiser phones ten people who, in
turn, each make another call until the message is spread throughout the
Rather than pro-actively targeting the media, protesters’ relationship
with it grows both from both the natural news appeal of its flamboyant
campaign tactics and an open door policy for journalists.
The existence of a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week headquarters at Newbury
meant reporters knew exactly where to go to talk to someone who is in
the thick of it. ‘You don’t have to go through a third party the way you
do with Costain and Tarmac in order to speak to people, and then get a
guarded official statement,’ says Guardian environmental correspondent
Paul Brown. ‘You can talk to the people who are climbing the trees, it’s
‘Members of more anarchist pressure groups deal with the press direct,’
adds Brown. ‘In the old days Greenpeace relied on campaigners ringing
people up. Now it has a press office which is just as sophisticated as
those in big companies and produces embargoed reports,’ Brown complains.
‘Greenpeace and Shell have the same corporate PR.’