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Stakeholder Trends and Insights
10 Tips for Stakeholder Engagement with Activists

From toxics to human rights, advocates are increasingly focusing on consumer-facing brands to drive change on environmental and social issues. Corporate campaigns have been going strong for decades, but with the rise of social media, higher demand for supply chain transparency and increasingly savvy coordination between activist networks, companies are scrambling to address stakeholder concerns before they bubble into conflict.

From toxics to human rights, advocates are increasingly focusing on consumer-facing brands to drive change on environmental and social issues. Corporate campaigns have been going strong for decades, but with the rise of social media, higher demand for supply chain transparency and increasingly savvy coordination between activist networks, companies are scrambling to address stakeholder concerns before they bubble into conflict.

Future 500 has found that companies can address these challenges with a strategic, reactive engagement approach that will increase the likelihood for positive outcomes and diminish conflict with their most emboldened stakeholders. We act as the bridge between adversarial stakeholders, especially corporations and activists, to advance systemic change on a host of sustainability issues. We do this by methodically overcoming conflict and misunderstanding by humanizing relationships between often odd bedfellows.

We advocate for proactive engagement, but understand that many companies enter into the engagement process in times of conflict. We have engaged both activists and companies during these periods and have witnessed the strengths and weaknesses of a wide range of approaches.

Being targeted by a host of activist stakeholders can prove challenging for companies, but we believe that observing these simple guidelines can help lead you toward constructive engagement.

1. Respond quickly and genuinely

If your company has received a letter or call regarding an issue or even worse, a direct corporate campaign, the tendency is for companies to proceed cautiously, to not respond, or to reply with a pro forma PR response describing all the great things the company is doing. Many companies falsely conclude that any chance for productive engagement is behind them, leading them down a path of posturing, misconceptions and over precaution that are often unnecessary and prolonging. You can diffuse conflict by quickly, directly, and genuinely engaging those campaigning against you. Targeted corporate campaigns can be resourced for three years or more, so companies have more to lose over time.

As Ken Strassner, former VP of Global Environment at Kimberly-Clark and Future 500 Senior Fellow recommends, “Early contact with activist groups can help insure that each side understands the other side’s position, can help simplify the issues involved in the campaign, and can lay a basis for additional discussions designed to resolve the campaign.”

2. Immediate ‘human face’

Humanize your company as quickly as possible. Find the person(s) that can speak authentically and transparently with media and stakeholders. This starts to break down the negativity towards the company and provides a direct point of contact to vet concerns/questions.

3. Don’t remove negative comments

Companies should anticipate that online platforms will be used substantially to target them during a campaign. Removing negative comments about the company, even those that are considered inaccurate or infringing on copyright, should be avoided. It’s logical for corporate executives to want to defend their brand, but attempts to suppress these communication channels just fuels the flames, playing into the David (e.g. Scrappy activist) against Goliath (Big, all-powerful company) perception. Such actions elevate the cause, rallying more grassroots support, which can garner the notice of mainstream media.

For example, after removing a video posted on YouTube by an environmental NGO due to copyright infringement, a targeted global food company drove hundreds of thousands of views to an alternative site where it was reposted, creating a swarm of activity on its Facebook page.

Instead, allow activists to express their concerns. This provides an invaluable feedback loop that can illuminate what is needed to solve the problem. It shows your company values freedom of expression, even if negative, making it more likely that this is a dialogue and not a conflict. In short, it shows the company cares and is not mechanistic.

It is in the corporate DNA to call upon a legal team when being attacked. However, going on “lock down” and only providing external communications that are combed over by lawyers tends to dehumanize the company. Such technical, antiseptic communication with stakeholders fosters mistrust and creates distance. Moreover, you will constrain the company in a time when being nimble and adaptive is vital.

For example, a top global energy company is well-known by activists to employ and lead with a large legal team when addressing stakeholder concerns. This has led to long, drawn-out campaigns that have been rife with mistrust and miscommunication, creating a negative brand reputation among the broader stakeholder community.

5. Don’t call the police, but do invite them in

The last thing that you want at your HQ is a pack of angry protestors, but this is a common corporate campaign tactic for which you should be prepared. Staging a visible protest helps activists elevate the issue with the company and the media. The bigger the NGO’s budget, issue importance and staff base, the bigger the demonstration. Whatever the level, your best tactic is to diffuse the problem quickly and quietly.

Calling the police/corporate security should be avoided for all peaceful demonstrations. Doing so can antagonize the protestors and provides invaluable photo ops that can be immediately spread virally online, mobilizing instant sympathy for the cause. Smartly, many campaigns that use this type of direct action have bail money already budgeted for large-scale demonstrations — they plan to be arrested as a campaign tactic. Instead, invite a small group of representatives inside for coffee to chat. This might surprise them, enabling you to shift from reactive to proactive mode, and set the tone for what both sides ultimately want: a constructive dialogue. And fundamentally, the relative risk of meeting with protestors is quite low.

Here is a great example of how the Chairman of Royal Dutch Shell did just that.

6. Don’t be dismissive; see the potential

Companies often dismiss activist groups, labeling them a nuisance rather than a valuable stakeholder. Often companies will demonize activists much as the activists are demonizing the companies, especially when in conflict. But it is generally not productive for the brand when a company engages in mudslinging. By contrast, many corporate executives now recognize that activists, especially those that pressure companies, can provide vital checks and balances that shine a light on issues that they themselves often miss. This not only benefits society, but also drives internalization of environmental and social externalities, creating an economy that more accurately represents the real cost of doing business and builds a company’s brand over time.

Take Nike, which “became synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse” in the 1990s according to Nike co-founder Phil Knight. After real leadership and desire to change, the company managed to turn conflict into collaboration and is now being praised by many NGOs as a halo brand. Nike is now on the cutting edge of systematic, proactive stakeholder engagement through its open innovation platform.

7. Don’t hide behind other entities

It is natural for companies to respond to accusations by leveraging their pre-existing support networks. PR firms and trade associations are two that are often deployed. While great avenues for some issues, PR firms and associations will not dissuade activists and might make companies appear disingenuous. For example, it is standard practice for campaigns to publicly mock snazzy websites that counteract the oppositions’ points through third-party paid agencies. Stay away from astroturfing or letting trade associations speak on your behalf. The less distance between you and these groups makes you more human. If you do use third-party groups, they should be truly independent third parties that are respected within the activist network and media.

8. Do engage your internal stakeholders

Negativity towards the company will affect a wide range of stakeholders. The first two of immediate concern tend to be shareholders and consumers, but employees are just as important. Internal stakeholders are often the ones fielding concerned questions outside the office and, no matter how committed the staffer, no one wants to work for a company linked to deforestation, toxics, forced labor, etc. Clearly communicating the who, what, how and why of the conflict to employees fosters transparency and demystifies the problem. Once the company’s position is solidified, it helps to provide this to staff so they are adequately prepared for inquiries.

Internal engagement is also crucial to garner support around key decisions that could lead to changes throughout the company. Years ago, a major auto company came to a deal with activists during a prominent corporate campaign, but the senior executives failed to include enough internal stakeholders and then promptly retired. This left their successors (that didn’t make the commitment) to carry out the changes without broad internal support. This ultimately led to resentment and undermined the implementation process.

9. Do look to industry counterparts for support and opportunities

It is rare that corporate campaigns target one company alone. Savvy activists wish to change the entire industry and will leverage a handful of companies to foster a competitive race to the top and force their competitors to play catch-up or risk attack. Check in with your peers and determine how to positively differentiate yourself from them and/or to potentially work together. There might be an opportunity to raise all boats; this is especially true when trying to solve supply chain issues, since companies often share similar suppliers across the sector.

10. Turn the focus away from the company to the problem

Companies that are the most successful with stakeholder conflict are always looking at the bigger picture, getting down to the heart of the problem. Sitting down with stakeholders that are attacking the company and trying to understand their campaign goals will:

  1. Move the conversation away from the company to the actual issue
  2. Move both parties towards a systemic solution, and
  3. Help speed up a resolution.

This is when real progress happens that leverages a company’s core competency to address activists concerns. This will enable you to quickly move from being attacked to being thanked, generating positive media for your company’s efforts and showing a commitment to transparency and sustainability.

This post first appeared on the Future 500 blog on July 5, 2013.


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