Pressure groups are your free futurologists. They research your markets gratis and often predict the future better than corporate voodoo professionals.
Here’s how it starts: Pressure groups have just disrupted your stockholder meeting, made you look a mug on network television and a couple of outsize orangutans are at this moment abseiling down your HQ tower with a rude banner accusing you of heinous environmental crimes.
You have every reason to hate these party spoilers. But before you draw your ivory-handled revolver, hear this plea for peace and understanding in the tumultuous politics of single-issue campaigns. And consider these suggestions on how to turn a bad today into a brilliant tomorrow.
Here are ten tips for dealing with campaigns, campaigners and demands for change in the way you operate.
1. Accept campaigns as free market research.
Treat any campaign, demand or feedback from campaign groups as highly valuable market intelligence. Contrary to common misconceptions, campaigners have constituencies that provide them with the support (moral and financial) to run their operations. Unless you deal only in Fabergé eggs, those constituencies can influence your markets. Respect them. Use the feedback to improve your business.
2. Respect your challengers.
They might have a different world view and funny haircuts but they are good at what they do. Underestimate them at your peril. Campaigners often have little to lose and much to gain. They also think long term and understand the power of persistence. No matter how grudging, show respect and you will benefit.
3. Roll with the punches.
You are doing business in a public place with a public license to operate. If the public does not like the way you conduct yourself, it has every right to give you a (symbolic) black eye. Don’t be surprised. Be alert and watch for the flying fist. Then roll. In other words, acknowledge the issues and take the heat out of the confrontation. You’ll learn a better bob and weave, and how to get out of the ring quickly. You could also improve.
4. Act human.
Treat your opponents like fellow human beings (even if they are doing everything to make you think the opposite). This is the time to display your integrity, sincerity and to take the moral high ground. Do not be tempted to punch below the belt. Your markets are watching.
5. Forget Machiavelli.
Don’t think you can easily outwit your opponents by following your instincts to emulate the mastery of the Italian political tactician whose ends always justified the means. Some PR companies might tell you to set up fake campaign groups or bribe scientists to provide sympathetic evidence. Ignore all such advice and fire your advisers.
6. Learn from effective tactics.
Successful campaigners are masterful strategists and tacticians. They were the first to make effective use of Web 1.0 and are running wild on 140 characters, but they can still resort to effective old-school messaging like the orang-utan banner or a pile of poop on your corporate doorstep.
7. Never ignore.
Always attempt to engage with your opponents. It’s tempting to think that if you just ignore them they will go away. Remember, by the time they hit your radar, they have already built up a head of steam and their determination and traction will keep them going. Meet with them. Try to understand their point of view. Explain yours. The joy of doing business is that you have pragmatism on your side. Be prepared to change. NGOs want to feel that they have influenced your decisions and often their demands have merit and are easily accommodated. But remember, only ever make commitments that you know you can achieve.
8. Always correct.
Never let lies, distortion and mistakes go unchallenged. While some campaigners might rely on misinformation to get their way, targets should at all times ensure that the facts are placed in the public domain. Take a lead from those companies that have sections on their Web sites dealing with hearsay and rumors about their business and products. It is always alarming to find a company website that appears to exist in a parallel universe, blissfully ignoring the damning information that cloaks it in cyberspace.
9. Treat campaigns as pump primers.
See well-organized campaigns as an opportunity to communicate with a sector of the market that might be difficult for you to access. The campaigners could be your pathfinders, leading you into formerly impenetrable thickets. Someone else is providing you with an open playing field to strut your stuff. And they are doing it for free! Who’s the mug for failing to take advantage of the opportunity?
10. Keep smiling.
Campaigners can be unutterably irritating and often wounding. But there have been no known corporate deaths as a direct result of a single-issue campaign, so keep your sense of humor. A smile is an essential ingredient of success.
Peter T. Knight is President of Context America Inc., which helps companies strategize and communicate on corporate sustainability, from its offices in New York and London.