By Danna Pfahl and Erik Wohlgemuth
Activists provide the critical checks and balances on the corporate sector, serving as one of the core drivers of progress across the globe. Holding companies accountable for their social and environmental footprint is critical in addressing some of the greatest challenges affecting our society.
Companies quickly come to the table when this pressure is activated and we continuously try to push them to be proactive – not reactive – so that they can solve problems in a more genuine way.
Following on our earlier piece on offering tips for corporations when engaging activists, this piece is intended to share with activists the dynamics we often see at play behind the scenes when companies engage the activist community. We see common roadblocks that, if not addressed effectively, can lead to longer periods of conflict, breakdown in negotiations, and greater mistrust on both sides. With so many critical environmental and social problems facing our society, we hope to help activists overcome or prevent these hurdles and more quickly drive positive change.
We have often seen that activists achieve the highest outcomes with companies when they follow these key tips:
1. Humanize both sides
Break the stereotypes. Just as activists may carry around simplistic caricatures of corporate executives (e.g. rapacious profit mongers), so do corporate executives often stereotype activists (e.g. naïve anti-business treehuggers). They only see the actions that reinforce their prejudice – they try to ignore the rest. Surprise them. And let yourself be surprised by them.
Demonization is only a tactic. You may plan to demonize your adversary as part of your supporter mobilization, but remember, demonization is a tactic, not a truth. In war, perhaps it’s necessary to believe every enemy soldier is a demon. In reality, few are truly evil. Most are caught up in a system that needs to change.
Show your human face, and see theirs. For constructive dialogue, it’s essential to humanize yourself and your organization, especially if you have just launched a public campaign and the company feels attacked. Drive to understand the various executive decision makers who can help you advance your objective by getting to know their interests, backgrounds, and world view. We find that breakthroughs often happen over simple connections, particularly in an informal setting – such as a shared love of fly-fishing or passion for a particular alma mater or sports team.
2. Carrot and Stick
You know that companies are inherently very protective of their brand, reputation and employees. That is why the threat of a corporate campaign can be very effective.
In turn, you also need to reward positive steps a company takes. If you penalize your target company for each step it takes, you limit your success, undermine your internal allies, and give your next target no reason to engage at all.
You don’t have to lather on your praise – just offer enough positive feedback to reward the first steps and make way for subsequent ones.
3. Serve your highest goal – not just your campaign objective
Really know your end game – not just your next tactical step. Know what your win is supposed to achieve, and you’ll make better tactical decisions along the way. Companies sometimes ask us “what is their end-game?” or “what are they really willing to do/or not do?” Naturally, you won’t want to share this with companies at first, but in negotiations over time, you’ll need these answers. When thinking about the end-game, it’s important to think about how much power / leverage your organization really has – know the hand you hold. And from a timeline perspective, how long can you really keep up a campaign in reference to media, grassroots and financial resources?
Compromise up and over, before you compromise down. When you must compromise, ask for something different and better, before you ask for less.
Small goals for big wins. Often, to avoid being targeted on a small issue, your target can be motivated to support you on a bigger one. We have often heard this behind the scenes at companies, but find they rarely step forward without being asked.
4. Be tough on the problem, not the people
At first, you may need to embarrass your target to attract attention. Once you have the company’s attention, move on to the next step.
The main goal is likely to advance your mission – not to humiliate, belittle, or harm any person, even those who work for a company you may not agree with. This tactic should be used briefly and sparingly.
We have seen a complete shutdown of communication when an internal staff member or their family is personally attacked. Although we understand that this is an effective tactic to get attention at the C-suite level, it tends to create personal grievances that can stymie the ultimate goals of the campaign. It works best when you are vigilantly tough on the problem to maintain pressure for change, but soft and humane on the people so they have the space needed to work with you.
5. Make an informed business case
It’s critical that activists translate their social and environmental objectives into terms that reflect the target company’s unique position within its industry. Doing so establishes your credibility as an informed critic, not just the rabble rouser that executives stereotype you as.
This does not mean compromising your beliefs or position. It means crafting your message to resonate with those that don’t live and breathe these issues. By aligning business objectives with your cause, you are more likely to influence the company long-term and move beyond just the (often siloed or hamstrung) sustainability team.
If you make an impossible demand, know what purpose you are serving. In many meetings, activists arrive with a set of demands that, in essence, make the company go out of business, because the group believes their core product is inherently evil.
Acknowledge the barriers to change that the company faces. That way, the company feels understood, and begins to open to the further dialog.
When groups do this, they begin a conversation that can progress, over time, to genuine improvement.
6. Don’t let the “perfect” be the enemy of the possible
Popularity shouldn’t be the enemy of effective. Your funders and followers may impulsively like a flashy win. But don’t trade away your integrity for attention and popularity. You will ultimately be more successful if you make the case for the most effective, systemic solution, not the sexiest one.
Approach greenwashing differently. Is your adversary greenwashing? Congratulations. Exaggerated claims and aspirations are gifts to your campaign. Don’t condemn them in exchange for a one-time press hit. Don’t reject them as deceptions, even if they are. Celebrate them as promises, and hold the company accountable to deliver on them - publically.
7. Take a systemic approach
If you don’t change the underlying system, then every one of your victories will be short-lived. But don’t be intimidated: it may be easier than you think to change the system, by using the system. For example:
Don’t get siloed. Take the Keystone XL pipeline. You want to stop the pipeline, yes. But you really want to save the climate. Your allies and funders may resist this, but always be ready to trade away a one-time win, once you have the leverage to win a more lasting, systemic victory (like a price on carbon).
8. Coordinate the Ask
We hear from many executives that they get so many competing asks on any given issue that it makes it challenging to sort out where to focus their engagement efforts. And if and when they do respond, they often respond to the loudest group or the one they perceive as most influential. This might lead to a one-off agreement but does not necessarily lead to what could have been a more optimal, systemic solution for society. So, activists putting aside their myriad positions to coordinate targeted, consistent asks can be very impactful, both to provide clarity to a company on an issue as well as empower corporate decision makers to make the business case to their leadership.
9. Continuous improvement is sometimes better than a one-time win
Do you want a 25 percent gain in three years? Or a 3 percent gain every year, permanently? The first demand will result in a big, costly, temporary push, but might leave the system unchanged. The second will change the embedded economic incentives, and drive systemic change that will last.
We repeatedly hear from companies that they are reluctant to engage activists because they fear the demands will never stop. “Give an inch and they’ll take a mile,” several executives have told us. But we tell companies that they demand continuous improvement of their employees and suppliers so why should activists not expect the same of them? This should be expected from companies and communicated transparently over time from NGOs. You are raising the bar and, ultimately, doing your job to protect the environment/society.
Companies should invite and welcome criticism especially if delivered constructively. As former top 10 brand executive and Future 500 Senior Fellow, Perry Cutshall, said: “Any issue raised by an activist critic, no matter how exaggerated, always pointed to an internal problem that we could address once we investigated it.”
10. Find and support internal champions
Research your target from the inside of the company, not just the outside. Find internal allies that can help you overcome skepticism and resistance. We have found them in the most unexpected places in companies, so look beyond the sustainability team. Once you do find these stakeholders, provide them cover and support whenever possible.
There are many instances where activists unintentionally undermine the executive who had been their internal champion, such as by not alerting him/her to a planned action or leaking information to the press before an agreed upon public announcement. Just as an activist might demand that companies maintain confidence by not leveraging their confidential meeting with you to inform the media or their industry colleagues, you should do the same.
Especially at risk-averse companies, internal champions are putting their careers on the line. We have seen how one small breakdown of trust can pull the rug out from any support they may have from the top, leading to a breakdown in negotiations and loss of a pivotal internal counterpart.
Danna Pfahl is VP of Stakeholder Engagement at Future 500 and Erik Wohlgemuth is Chief Operating Officer at Future 500.
At Future 500, our team is privileged to work with inspiring activist and corporate executives on compelling issues of the day, harnessing shared passions to overcome roadblocks and find the common ground needed to advance changes that can help ensure a better world for future generations.