Protest groups are making their presence felt in the boardrooms of some of the world’s leading corporations. Following a stream of public relations disasters over the past two decades, brand owners have taken to sitting round the table to engage with those who campaign against their activities. They sometimes even modify their policies as a result.
But what happens when the group in question has no leadership, will not return calls and is unwilling to get into a dialogue? Energy company e.on may be about to find out. Environmental activists Camp for Climate Action (CCA) have pledged to protest against the German-owned business’s plans to build a coal-fired power
station at Kingsnorth in Kent (MW last week). The group says burning coal will lead to a huge and unnecessary increase in carbon emissions.
The same group staged a week-long demonstration at Heathrow Airport last summer against plans to build a third runway, which they said would damage the environment. The campaigners threatened to disrupt flights and target the airport’s owner BAA. In the event, the camp passed off peacefully. But BAA claims it was unable to make contact with the group to enter a dialogue. “It was very difficult to engage with them,” says a BAA spokesman. “They wouldn’t return our calls and as they are an umbrella group, they don’t have a leadership.”
Over the past two decades, the reputations of multinationals have been repeatedly trashed by protesters. From the McLibel Trial of the early 1990s to Monsanto’s retreat over Genetically Modified Organisms in food; from Shell’s Brent Spa humiliation to Nike and Gap’s shame over low-paid workers, campaigners have scored some significant PR coups against corporations.
After being outwitted on the media battlefield, corporations have opted to enter into dialogue with their campaigning opponents. Eco-campaigners at Greenpeace, for example, have jumped at the chance of influencing the environmental policies of companies such as McDonald’s and Shell and have worked closely with the organisations to achieve this. Other campaigners warn against getting too close to the targeted corporations, saying protests will be weakened by too much familiarity.
Meanwhile, some of the attempts by corporations to cosy up to the anti-corporate world have led to bizarre results. For instance, Unilever was obliged to donate $5m (£2.5m) to anti-corporate campaign groups as a condition of its purchase of socially aware ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s in 2000. US anti-capitalist direct action group The Ruckus Society, which received $100,000 from the consumer goods giant via The Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, has helped stage a boycott of Wal-Mart, one of Unilever’s biggest customers.
Against this background, e.on is evaluating a possible response to threats of protest by CCA. Exactly how the group plans to confront e.on is unclear. Last week, an activist tracked down by Marketing Week said the Camp would seek to “subvert” e.on’s sponsorship of the FA Cup. Since then, CCA has failed to return calls.
A spokesman for the energy company says he is unaware of any planned campaigns by CCA. He adds: “Yes, we do talk with green NGOs and we have had dialogue with Greenpeace in the past, though there has been nothing recently.”
Other corporations have learned to live with pressure groups and believe engagement is the best way of dealing with protests. McDonald’s has been a prime target of campaigners for whom it symbolises the worst elements of globalisation. It received a mountain of bad publicity over the 1994-7 McLibel trial, when it sued a pair of London activists over claims they made in a leaflet.
But McDonald’s UK vice-president of communications Nick Hindle says: “We have changed our mindset in dealing with campaigning groups over the past few years and that has definitely benefited us. These are stakeholders and they have a right to know what we are doing.”
Hindle gives the example of a 2006 Greenpeace campaign which targeted McDonald’s over the use in animal feed of soya grown on newly deforested land in the Amazon rain forest. As part of the protest, Greenpeace activists chained themselves to tables in McDonald’s outlets. Hindle says: “We sat down very quickly with Greenpeace and put a moratorium on buying soya from the areas they were talking about.”
But he denies this is simply caving in to their demands to avoid bad publicity in a move which could damage vulnerable groups such as soya workers in deforestation areas. “That’s why dialogue is required – there are known and unknown implications to campaigns,” he says. “You can’t expect the campaigners to know everything.”
The fast food chain has recently announced improved sales and profits in Europe, and Hindle adds: “Perceptions are shifting in the right direction. The recovery of the brand has lagged the recovery of our business, but we are getting a better hearing because we are engaging.”
His upbeat view of dialogue with campaigners is echoed by Giles Gibbons, managing director of corporate responsibility consultants Good Business. He founded the company in 1997 with Steve Hilton, now communications strategist for Conservative Party leader David Cameron.
Gibbons says: “The most important thing for a brand is not to become a target in the first place. That means being aware of the impact you have socially and environmentally and engaging with stakeholder groups. You need to understand what issues people have around your business. There is no point sticking your head in the sand. It is important to know what people think so you can change or communicate proactively.”
However, some activists strongly oppose the idea of engaging with corporations. Long-standing campaigner Patti Rundall heads Baby Milk Action, which campaigns against the marketing of breast milk substitutes by companies such as Nestlé and Danone. She sees the campaign’s role as monitoring companies’ marketing practices and using that information to influence Government legislation.
She warns groups such as Greenpeace that they could give the impression that “partnership and engagement is all they do”. She adds: “Many organisations don’t have in place enough guidance to stop undue influence. We are scared that NGOs get drawn into thinking that engagement is the only way of dealing with the issues. There is nothing Nestlé would want more. We maintain that our independence is the most important thing we have.” Rundall was awarded an OBE in former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Millennium honours list. A Nestlé spokesman says: “It isn’t something that we could comment on.”
Greenpeace policy director Doug Parr says the pressure group has no permanent enemies or allies, but campaigns on certain issues to achieve particular results. For instance, reducing carbon emissions from refrigerators is something that can only be done by the companies concerned. A campaign targeting Coca-Cola over the issue was effective and the drinks company agreed to work to cut refrigerator energy consumption.
Parr adds: “Times have changed. Corporations have become more powerful over the past 15-20 years. We have increasingly been engaging with the corporate sector as providers of solutions.”
He says the problem with Kingsnorth is that e.on’s promise that it would have technology to capture and store carbon emissions is unproven. If the carbon capture process does not work and a number of coal-fired stations are built, it will destroy UK leadership in fighting climate change, he says. At present, e.on is awaiting Government approval to build the plant. “We will evaluate the right thing to do when we get that far,” Parr says.
E.on’s response to the promised protests if it gets permission to build Kingsnorth will be another test of strength between media-savvy pressure groups and corporations.