Environmental pressure groups do not usually jump into bed with companies connected with the apologists of Monsanto, BNFL, General Pinochet and the Pergau dam. But Greenpeace has.
Greenpeace has signed an agreement with HHCL & Partners to advise the advertising agency’s clients on environmental matters if requested to do so. In return, the agency will carry out communications projects for the group.
HHCL & Partners is owned by Chime Communications, of which HHCL and founder and chairman Rupert Howell is chief executive and Tory Peer Lord Tim Bell is chairman.
Chime Communications, which also owns PR company Bell Pottinger, counts among its list of clients past and present Margaret Thatcher, General Pinochet, Monsanto, BNFL, South Africa’s National Party, the National Coal Board during the 1984 miner’s strike and Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Matathir Mohammed during the Pergau dam affair.
Furthermore, a 27 per cent stakeholder of Chime is WPP, owner of J Walter Thompson and Ogilvy, which counts among its clients BP, Ford, Unilever, De Beers, IBM and Nestlé. Greenpeace could be called upon to to advise any of HHCL’s clients which include Texaco, Britvic’s Robinsons and Tango brands, Pearl Assurance, Egg, Go Fly and Bacardi-Martini.
Some believe Greenpeace has compromised its independence and integrity through the deal. But others say pressure groups must engage in dialogue with business to bring about change.
“Companies are more important then governments – they have the flexibility to change more quickly,” says Greenpeace campaigns director John Sauven. But finding ways to increase the dialogue breaks new ground and creates new dilemmas. Sauven points out that Chime’s ownership of HHCL is indicative of the less than perfect situation the group has to deal with in any relationship with company or government.
“We hope we’ll be able to change these companies’ positions. The key thing is we would never sacrifice our independence and we would only being doing that if we decided not to expose any of these companies because of our links. But that is not and will never be an issue for us,” he says.
Often, companies’ consultations with pressure groups and charities can be fuelled by a genuine desire to improve environmental, ethical and social responsibility. But pressure groups and charities also risk helping companies to “greenwash” – spread a thin veneer of sound principles over their products and services to improve their image – without instituting any real changes.
Friends of the Earth policy director Tony Juniper says: “We wouldn’t enter into a dialogue with Exxon or Rio Tinto – they are engaged in quite immoral activities and we don’t believe they are serious about changing.
“The big danger in getting involved with large corporations is that they will use your credibility to greenwash their image and not really change. We have to be cautious, maintain our independence and not get sucked into a relationship which would diminish our influence,” says Juniper.
Greenpeace’s Sauven insists his group must talk to businesses in order to realise its environmental aims: “There isn’t a company we don’t want to sit down and discuss options with. We are not worried about being used and haven’t signed this deal [with HHCL] to seal our lips.”
At Greenpeace’s annual business conference on October 5, secretary of state for trade and industry Stephen Byers will share the platform with Ford chairman Bill Ford and Iceland’s chief executive Malcolm Walker.
Greenpeace does not accept donations from businesses. It will not receive cash payment for work on HHCL’s clients, but the agency will charge clients for time spent on work Greenpeace undertakes.
In return, Sauven says: “HHCL may be able to assist us with communications skills that we don’t have large sums of money for.”
HHCL head of alliancing Emma Jenks says the agency was introduced to Greenpeace through Iceland’s Walker who is both a client and a long-term Greenpeace supporter. She says: “We’re not going to green audit our clients. We’ll say: here’s an opportunity to get Greenpeace involved.”
Sauven says Greenpeace would relish working with Texaco, one of HHCL’s clients: “We never see a company in black and white. We oppose BP in the Arctic, yet have been behind it in renewable energy and solar power.”
Greenpeace vociferously condemned BP’s &£46m rebranding for costing more than the company has invested in renewable energy in the past year, and dubbed the accompanying advertising strapline, Beyond Petroleum, as Burning the Planet. “We exposed the greenwash,” says Sauven.
BP press officer David Nicholas defends the rebranding: “It is not a radical overnight change in values. We are not claiming any green mantle, but we are aware of issues around climate change and are trying to develop solutions.” He adds that BP has doubled the size of its solar power business, which makes up one-fifth of one per cent of the company’s turnover. A much larger shift has been from oil to gas, now accounting for 40 per cent of BP’s business.
Targeting investors, directly or through the City, is an increasingly attractive option for pressure groups. Greenpeace tabled a motion at BP’s last AGM for greater investment in renewable energy which won a 13 per cent vote from investors.
Companies are increasingly finding pressure groups can successfully skirmish with them and garner the sort of brand respect for which businesses would give their eye-teeth. Not only that, consumers are increasingly demanding that brands be ethically, socially and environmentally responsible. If brands sell a “lifestyle”, consumers demand they live up to their own standards and adopt an ethical and responsible approach.
Added to this, because the Internet has speeded up communication, companies are being forced to react faster. But a fast reaction in the form of an ad campaign – as Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s for Monsanto showed – can prove disastrous.
A brand overhaul – such as BP’s – may leave the company struggling to explain why its business hasn’t changed as quickly as its image.
Mistrust of how truthfully a brand image reflects business practice is becoming more pronounced: from the anti-corporate protests at the World Bank summit in Prague this week, blockades of Nike Town stores in protest at conditions for sweat-shop workers who make the products.
Corporations under internal and external pressure realise they must change. The Global Climate Coalition, which blocked the Kyoto Treaty’s stance against global warming, lost many members because they feared the damage that might be done to their reputations if they stayed. The companies that left included BP, Dupont, Royal Dutch Shell, Ford, Daimler Chrysler, Texaco, General Motors. ExxonMobil never left the GCC. It remains a member through the American Petroleum Institute.
But if Greenpeace, which according to Sauven would like to see BNFL “put out of business”, advises the self-same company through its advertising agency, the methods used for bringing about change may be questionable.
Earlier this year, the British Heart Foundation endorsed a Nestlé Shredded Wheat claim, on ten million boxes, that the product helped reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. Nestlé was subsequently fined &£7,500 by local magistrates in Shropshire for making an illegal medicinal claim (MW June 1).
A BHF insider says the charity was “seduced” by the huge exposure and fundraising opportunities the Nestlé deal offered it, despite some internal opposition: “The problem was trying to juxtapose the ethics of the charity with the sale of Nestlé packaged goods, but no-one even thought of Nestlé’s tarnished ethical reputation and in any case refused to believe the worse-case scenario could happen.”
Likewise, SmithKline Beecham was left licking its wounds after the High Court upheld complaints about dental health claims made in advertising for Ribena ToothKind – the first food or drink product to be accredited by the British Dental Association, which receives a &£55,000 annual administration fee from SB.
The BHF insider adds: “Few charities can afford to turn around and say they don’t need the money.” But the pay-off between reputation and money is a dangerous one.
Friends of the Earth’s Juniper says endorsement is a tricky issue, because it is so difficult to work out whether the wider aims and record of the company involved is acceptable.
At the Confederation of British Industry conference on November 6, Business in the Community will launch a set of indicators which companies can use to help bring about environmental change. The indicators are the result of 18 months’ work by an Impact on Society Task Force and a group of member companies (75 per cent of the footsie 100 are members) will test the set of guidelines.
Business in the Community corporate communications manager Matthew Larkin says: “Companies don’t want to be seen as cashing in on any good work they do in case they get picked up on other areas where they don’t excel.
“It is easy to work with the Co-ops or the Icelands of this world because they have made social and environmental responsibility their unique selling point. But lots of other companies don’t want it to be their USP,” says Larkin.
The Co-op Bank decided to reinvent itself as an ethical bank in the early Nineties for two reasons, according to Nigel Long, chief executive of the bank’s advertising agency Partners BDDH: it had ethical views and it was trading at a loss.
To reposition the bank, it had to make its policies clear – it will not invest in companies which pollute the environment or in oppressive regimes.
Long says: “The bank could not have taken an ethical stance if it was not absolutely clean – it has to live by that stance. Terry Thomas, the chief executive at the time, was very brave, but he had nothing to lose.”
The Co-op story – trading at a &£16m loss before the repositioning now makes an &£88.6m profit – is an example of customers buying into the stance if they believe the company is sincere.
“A lot of clients come to us and say they want as differentiated and defined a personality as the Co-op, but not many want, or could, sustain the ethical position,” he says.
Long comments that there is less interest now than a couple of years ago in cause-related marketing or “new values” because cynicism has set in – “if Anita Roddick can get caught out, then anyone can.”
Consumers want businesses to take their environmental, ethical and social responsibility more seriously than it being a passing fad waiting to be replaced by the next big thing.
Making that the main plank of a communications strategy is not always appropriate or credible. Pressure groups involved in the process may well struggle to maintain the integrity of their own brands..