10 Tips for Stakeholder Engagement with Activists

Future500 LogoToday I am very happy to announce a partnership with Future 500 – a non-profit organization that envisions a world that realizes sustainable economic growth by addressing social and environmental externalities with market-based solutions. Future 500 unites the corporate and NGO sector to break through gridlock, encourage thoughtful solutions, and achieve broad systemic change.

There are lots of interesting collaborations planned for the future – in the meantime I am delighted to feature an article on engaging with activists which Future 500 recently shared on their blog:

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.

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. You can diffuse conflict by quickly, directly, and genuinely engaging those campaigning against you.

2. Immediate human face

Humanize the company as quickly as possible. Find the person(s) that can speak authentically and transparently with the 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

Removing negative comments about the company, even those that are considered inaccurate or infringing on copyright, should be avoided. Such actions elevate the cause, rallying more grassroots support which can garner the notice of mainstream media. Instead, allow activists to express their concerns.

4. Don’t lead with your lawyers

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 communications with stakeholders fosters mistrust and creates distance. Moreover, you will constrain the company in a time when being nimble and adaptive is vital.

5. Don’t call the police/Do invite them in

Calling the police/corporate security should be avoided for all peaceful demonstrations. 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.

6. Don’t be dismissive/ See the potential

Companies often dismiss activist groups, labeling them a nuisance rather than a valuable stakeholder. 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.

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. The less distance between you and these groups makes you more human. If you do use third party groups, they should be truly independent 3rd-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. Clearly communicating the who, what, how and why of the conflict to employees fosters transparency and demystifies the problem.

9. Do look to industry counterparts for support and opportunities

It is rare that corporate campaigns target one company alone. 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.

Read the full article here.