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.

Our organization 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.

Future 500 is an international non-profit organization, launched in 1995, that specializes in stakeholder engagement. 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 overprecaution 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 Vice President of Global Environment at Kimberly-Clark and Future 500 Senior Fellow, recommends, "Early contact with activist groups can help ensure 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. Show a human face quickly.

Humanize the company as quickly as possible. Find the person or people who 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 or 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 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 You Tube by an environmental NGO due to copyright infringement, a top global food company drove hundreds of thousands of views to an alternative site where it was reposted, creating a swarm of activity on their 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 the 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.

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.

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.

Protestor image by jugulator via Shutterstock.

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