The business of applying pressure

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

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,’

she adds.

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

very refreshing.’

‘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.’

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