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The Inside View

What to do when the CEO says, 'Make it go away'

With regards to a vexing sustainability issue and a punishing campaign from an activist group, I recently heard the chief sustainability officer of a major brand say that the CEO had asked the CSO “to make it go away.” The same happened to me in my career, and I am sure to others. So what should you do, especially if you don’t want to cave in to activists’ demands?

Much is written about how and when to collaborate with NGOs — to listen, learn and perhaps work together at levels both small and large. Little is written about how to keep NGOs out of your business. It’s not a politically correct thing to do. It’s verboten territory: Why stir the hornet’s nest?

The research is convincing. The average consumer, when faced with even the craziest NGO vs. Big Business, will believe the NGO. Big Business lacks credibility.

Behind the scenes, with much stealth and resolve, avoiding NGOs is a common debate. How do we keep the undesirable NGOs from influencing our business?

I’ve come up with a list of 10 ways to “make them go away” without placation.

Okay, “going away” is probably Pollyannaish thinking. It’s not realistic to think that an obstinate adversary group simply will disappear. However, you can redefine the outcome with you CEO. When the CEO suggests negotiating an unwanted settlement with an adversarial activist group, don’t assume it means giving in to what you believe is wrong. Come back to the CEO with a plan to manage the issue the way you want it to go. These tips might help you.

  1. Not germane to our business. Don’t be bashful to say to NGO: “Go somewhere else where it’s more relevant to their business.” For example, we are a computing/technology company, and don’t believe our products are on the forefront of the obesity issue.
  2. It’s the government’s job. Deflection is OK. “You are asking us to do what governments are meant to do.” During the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, many NGOs pressured sponsors to demand human rights changes. You can say, “That’s not our role, but we sure take our responsibility to manage human rights in our supply chain in China very seriously.”
  3. Treat them like a bully. When NGOs get ugly, let it slide. It’s similar to what you might tell your kids about the bullies at school: Ignore them. By acknowledging them, you give them energy and power. If you decide to ignore the NGO, convince your senior management to have patience. Chances are, the NGO interest, or the news cycle, eventually will shift to something else.
  4. Let it get lost in the noise. I am reluctant to say this, but use the lack of consumer awareness and sustainability sensitivity to your advantage. Remind them that a negative campaign does not translate into consumer awareness. There’s simply too much noise out there. I say “reluctant” because I dream of the day that consumers will vote with their wallets.
  5. Pull out your sustainability plan. Your company has devised a smart plan, with goals on what matters the most. When NGOs pick at you, pull out that plan. Play offense. Ask the NGO, “Is there a way that you can help us achieve our existing waste, energy and water goals?”
  6. Beat them to disclosure. Usually the NGO has a threat of going public, so rather than let them gain control of the message, put your message out first. Convince your PR team to be proactive by giving them the draft communication points and storyline.
  7. Don’t get sucked into written responses. The NGO typically sends your company a hard-hitting letter. The instinct is to respond in writing. You don’t need to do this. Before you know it, you are going back and forth with them ad nauseam. You can never explain all the nuances well enough in a letter anyway.
  8. Give them a call. It’s very useful to pick up the phone and call the activists. It shows you are responsive. You can listen to them and learn. You can express your disagreement verbally. And you don’t have a paper trail. When the media inquires, you have a good message: “While we don’t agree, we’ve had a good dialogue.”
  9. Go to them in times of quiet. You usually know who is not on your side. Why wait for the crisis? Go to them first to brief them on what you are doing, and how your company cares about the same issues they care about. They may be impressed and move their target to someone else.
  10. Contact your NGO partner. When things hit the fan, tell the activists to contact the preeminent NGO that has co-developed the program or policy. Rather than having to explain things yourself, let your partner do the heavy lifting.

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