Home Archive January 2009 When NGOs go ape
Wednesday, 21 January 2009 14:02
When NGOs go ape

Media-savvy and persistent, nongovernmental organisations can harm a company’s reputation. Maybe it’s time to listen and engage with them, says Neil Gibbons. Additional reporting by Sarah Finch:

The orang-utans arrived at work just after seven in the morning. The press were there soon after. And by the time the police arrived at eight, beleaguered executives at Unilever had rubbed the sleep from their eyes and realised this was no dream: it was April 2008 and men dressed as apes were running amok at their London HQ and the Merseyside factory. An isolated prank, you might think. A set of circumstances so surreal other companies can sit and smirk, safe in the knowledge that it will never happen to them. Think again.

Spool forward to December last year and, at an office building in Coventry, 20 Father Christmases are storming the entrance, some carrying sacks of coal, some scaling the building and four of them – typical Santa! – sticking their hands to the glass doors with super-strength glue. The media gleefully report the siege, but inside the building, the UK headquarters of energy provider E.ON, there’s precious little Christmas cheer.

You’d be forgiven for assuming these invaders were just over-zealous Comic Relief collectors or tanked-up students. But no. Highly organised, media savvy and ruthlessly determined, the orangutans and Santas were from Greenpeace and Climate Camp respectively – non-governmental organisations that are prepared to turn the spotlight on companies to get their issues heard. Such stunts might raise a titter and make the ‘And finally…’ section of news bulletins but they’re effective ways to publicise what NGOs deem to be dubious business practices. They have the potential to damage reputation, profit and share price.

Ask Shell. In 1995, Greenpeace protestors boarded its Brent Spa oil rig just as it was to due to be dumped in the middle of the North Sea. With the subject pushed high up the news agenda, Shell saw petrol customers boycotting its forecourts. Or talk to Gap. When a small group of Global Exchange demonstrators stripped to their underwear outside a San Francisco Gap store in October 1999, proclaiming “I’d rather wear nothing than wear The Gap”, it propelled the issue of Asian sweatshop labour into the public consciousness, contributing to a 40% slump in Gap’s share price during 2000.

Anyone listening?

However, some consider the reputational risk to be a little overblown. “Obviously, it depends on the magnitude,” says Bill Royce, head of the Burson-Marsteller’s Energy, Environment and Climate Change Practice for the EMEAR region. “But protests at company headquarters are just momentary flashes of noise, and are seen as just a student prank. As individual incidents, they’re quite passing.”

It’s more concerning, he says, when they take place at retail points of sale. “We saw it with the protests over genetically modifi ed food: then the protesters stationed themselves outside Tesco and Sainsbury’s and that caused alarm." There’s been plenty of alarm at E.ON, which in the last year and half has been ravaged by direct action from NGOs. It’s all because in December 2006, the company submitted a planning application to build a new power station at Kingsnorth in Kent. Things remained quiet until October 2007 when Greenpeace broke into Kingsnorth and painted slogans on the chimney. Further protests followed, most recently the visit from the many Santas.

But Jonathan Smith, E.ON’s UK Head of PR, Public Affairs and Community Relations suggests it’s had no great impact on the public’s opinion of E.ON because most people don’t connect it to Kingsnorth. “A Mori survey found that only a tiny minority know E.ON is building the power station,” he says. “A number of letters and emails come in from our customers. The majority probably aren’t aware that Kingsnorth is E.ON’s – or they don’t care. The credit crunch is what people care about.” And even with intense media interest, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the wider public support the NGO.

According to Erik Brandsma, vice president, corporate responsibility, at E.ON Corporate Centre, “Local communities do not generally support the protestors at their nearby facility or power station. They see the power plant as helping to boost and support the local economy and secure jobs. In fact, the Mori survey of local attitudes showed that 57% were in favour of the proposed development.” But that doesn’t mean NGOs will give in or can be ignored. The distraction, inconvenience and danger posed by such protests are real, and that impinges on another key stakeholder: employees. “We absolutely support people’s right to protest but it has to be peaceful and it has to be lawful,” says Smith. “If you look at the scenes on the last day of the climate camp, that was neither peaceful nor lawful. There were about 100 arrests. There were ugly scenes as they tried to take fences down. Th at’s not pleasant for people just trying to do their jobs.” He describes the Santa protest as a step “too far”, saying staff were upset and one suff ered a panic attack.

“An NGO can be a valuable ally. Start a dialogue with them. Don’t see them as enemies, see them as potential partners”

Coping mechanism

Yet scanning the horizon for strategies to deal with NGOs reveals a lack of consensus. But then, understandably, the targeted companies aren’t rushing to explain their strategy. Unilever, for example, has suffered sustained demonstrations from Greenpeace, which argues that unsustainable expansion by the company’s palm oil suppliers is driving species to extinction in Central Kalimantan – hence the orangutan costumes. The company declined to comment for this article, stating that relations with Greenpeace “are delicate” and emphasising the need to be “circumspect”. Besides, the very notion of crafting a strategy to handle NGOs smacks (perhaps rather unfairly) of a certain cunning, a thought process geared less towards addressing the NGOs concerns and more towards getting the monkey – no pun intended – off the company’s back. E.ON, however, is happy to outline its strategy and considers it essential to have one. Although surveyed members of the public still haven’t fallen in behind the protestors, eff ective risk management means the fi rm must try to mitigate the NGOs action.

“The obvious and main aim of the protest group is to grab the media attention,” says Brandsma. “Our employees, investors and other important stakeholders, including politicians, see these headlines too. We want to be transparent with our stakeholders and give them all the facts behind the reason for NGO action rather than just leaving them to read the media headlines.” For some, the focus should be on thinking hard about what you want to say and why there’s a need to say it. “You need to understand why you are being targeted,” says Warwick Partington, managing director of Media Training Masterclasses which trains management to communicate with stakeholders. “It’s amazing that sometimes people don’t understand why it’s happening. If you wake up one morning and find you have protesters on your assembly lines, you have to think, ‘What is the specific angle these guys are taking? Why are they here?’ Understand the opposition, understand their point of view.”

For E.ON, understanding the “opposition” is complicated by the fact it is communicating with such a broad alliance of organisations – not just environmental protestors. The Climate Camp is a loose alliance of anti-capitalists and climate change campaigners and Smith cites a petition signed by, among others, the RSPB, Women’s Institutes, Oxfam, Tearfund, the World Development Movement and the World Wildlife Fund. But having such a nebulous audience only heightens the need for clarity in your own messages.

The party line

“The first thing to be clear on is your reasoning – why are you doing this,” says Brandsma. He says it would have been much simpler in the UK to have built a flue gas desulphurisation plant on the existing Kingsnorth plant but the company opted for a more efficient and – potentially, in time – cleaner version. To ensure stakeholders in the UK know why that choice was made, E.ON has put its position and the challenges it faces into a briefi ng document called the “Manifesto”. “We believe many people are now much more aware of how complex our issues are and are perhaps better able to understand some of the choices we’ve made,” says Brandsma. The Manifesto, agrees Smith, is “about making sure that our people are aware what’s going on, to have their responses and key messages ready.” Armed with a robust message, a company is then equipped to communicate with the NGO it faces. Establishing a dialogue, says Royce, is vital. “I think that you’re honour-bound to listen to their grievances. You don’t have to bend over backwards for them and change your company’s values for them, but you do need to listen.” Besides, regular and debilitating protests haven’t dissuaded E.ON from engaging. “Direct dialogues with NGOs and protestors at your door may not immediately stop the action or the media showing up, but always keep the theoretical door open,” advises Brandsma. “And ensure that your mid- to long-term NGO dialogue strategy refl ects the needs of the NGOs. As issues and agenda change, we need to keep ahead of the trends.” He urges companies to establish relationships with groups that may not be on their radar today. “Look forward into issues and see where they may go – as well as reacting to the here and now.” Royce agrees, insisting that companies should be proactive rather than reactive. “An early risk assessment will identify the NGOs that are likely to have concerns,” he says. “Don’t wait for them to come knocking on your door. Approach them – give yourself time to listen to what they say and build useful suggestions into your practices at an early stage. You won’t always satisfy them 100% but you’ll get points for engaging with them early, you’ll fi nd their protests are more muted and you may not be their number one or two target.”

“We are not campaigning because it’s fun to piss companies off. We are doing it because people’s lives are at stake”

Friend with benefits

Moreover, Royce believes that seeking out a nonconfrontational relationship with NGOs can provide substantial mutual benefits. “If you take an enlightened view, an NGO can be a valuable ally,” he says. “We recommend starting a dialogue with the NGOs and then you can work with them to address their concerns. With practical, sensible measures, there is a way to make them allies. It won’t work with all NGOs but ones like WWF can help in the science and the implementation of change. Don’t see them as enemies – see them as
potential partners.” This is a view endorsed by Helen Wadham, associate lecturer and doctoral researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University and an independent consultant. In a paper for CASS Business School, CSR is for you too: How NGO/ business partnerships make CSR relevant for more than just multinationals, she describes partnership as an “eff ective way for companies to manage their impacts and satisfy the expectations placed on them by governments and communities, while off ering a means for NGOs to add value to their own activities and increase their impact on their benefi ciaries’ lives.” Although she writes that some relationships remain hostile, many NGOs prefer a collaborative approach, seeing partnerships as a possible source of both funding and infl uence over the company and even the wider business community. She cites the partnership between Concern Universal and the Tetley Group in Malawi – a threeyear agreement established in 2004 to support the well-being of people in the tea growing areas of the country. It included developing a safe water supply in the Bvumbwe district, sanitation promotion, hygiene education, management training and HIV/Aids awareness-raising. As such, the partnership supported both organisations’ core business.

Warwick Partington agrees that engaging with NGOs can throw up positive benefits. He recalls that npower engaged with Greenpeace and began to develop its green agenda and CO2 emissions reduction agenda to the extent that Greenpeace – for a time at least – promoted its Juice offering. “Greenpeace had been quite confrontational, but npower went out to actively discuss with Greenpeace how it could reduce its CO2 emissions.” But be warned: any engagement with an NGO requires clout and sincerity. “Don’t ‘greenwash’ or use us,” says Belinda Fletcher, senior forest campaigner at Greenpeace. “It’s annoying and we can see through it.” Clout, it seems, is measured by the seniority and responsibility of those sent to engage with protestors. “It needs to be a decision maker who represents the company,” says Royce. “Not someone relatively junior who’s just there to listen and relay the concerns back to the company. It’s no good if they can’t bring negotiating skills to the table.

At the very best companies, the CEO or someone at tier 1 level will regularly sit down and break bread with NGOs.” These organisations understand corporate hierarchy and won’t be fobbed off by a PR department. Associated British Foods, for example, has been hit with protests over alleged exploitation of workers making clothes for its discount fashion chain, Primark. But, by sending in PR professionals, it has angered NGOs and faces accusations of spin from the people it had hoped to placate. “It’s not the PR community that should be dealing with allegations,” says Claire Milne, campaigns co-ordinator for Labour Behind the Label. “We are not really interested in PR people because all they are interested in is defending the brand. We are interested in talking to the CSR people. Unless the PR community’s terms of reference change – until they are there to change their companies – we’re not interested in dealing with them. Primark has put all its resources into spin. The only name that you ever hear is Geoff Lancaster, the company’s PR guy.” Milne makes no apology for the ferocity and persistence of her group’s demonstrations: “We are not campaigning because it’s fun to piss companies off . We’re doing it because people’s lives are at stake.” Pressure from NGOs won’t go away if it’s ignored, so assess the risk, hone your message and get ready to head off protests. As Bill Royce points out “You don’t have a choice as to whether you engage with them. They’ll come to you.”

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