Cause enough to bend the rules?

These days businesses ignore the antics and ideals of pressure groups at their peril. If the demonstrations at Seattle and Prague were not warning enough, the success of a few disparate malcontents in bringing the UK economy to its knees the other week will have provided uncomfortable evidence of the need for a new approach.

So clients of advertising agency HHCL & Partners, among them Texaco, Go Fly, Egg and Bacardi-Martini, will be elated to learn of the novel deal crafted by its chief executive Rupert Howell and Greenpeace. In return for à la carte communications services supplied by the agency, Greenpeace will furnish HHCL clients with advice on environmental matters.

It sounds an inspired contradeal, and indeed it is from the perspective of the agency and any client that feels in need of a bit of friendly counsel. But what of Greenpeace – has it not forgotten its long spoon when supping with the devil?

Apparently not. It is quick to forestall charges of ‘greenwashing’ unsavoury corporate reputations by reserving the right to criticise the very companies it may be called upon to advise. A plausible case in point is BP, which received encouragement from Greenpeace for promoting renewable sources of energy, but was simultaneously lambasted over its ‘unacceptable’ behaviour in the Arctic.

Whether Greenpeace’s ‘Trojan horse’ tactics provide a model for other pressure groups trying to enter a boardroom dialogue remains to be seen. Friends of the Earth, another high profile environmental pressure group, seems to believe there are limits to collaboration – and that Greenpeace has just transgressed them. The big problem with corporate involvement, suggests FoE, is that the credentials and independence of the pressure group or charity end up being eroded.

There are worse consequences, however: the relationship can sometimes result in disaster for both parties. Earlier this year, Nestlé and the British Heart Foundation received a public drubbing after a court fined the confectionery giant for carrying a BHF-endorsed health claim on Shredded Wheat packaging. Then again, SmithKline Beecham must have been pretty livid when the High Court found against health claims made for Ribena ToothKind, after it had pulled off what it thought was a clever wheeze in persuading the British Dental Association to underwrite the aforementioned claims.

But neither of these examples is necessarily an argument against engagement. What they illustrate is the extreme care that must be taken by both parties before embarking on any such partnership, because the downside frequently outweighs any perceived advantages. Companies need to be a little more circumspect about the profit motive, while the ’causes’ with which they are collaborating should demonstrate more realism about shareholder pressures on board directors.

From this perspective, it will be interesting to see how Kellogg makes out with its European-wide ChildLine initiative – a first for Kellogg in the cause-related field.

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