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The Quick & Dirty: Is Engagement Nothing but Activist ‘Sound Washing’?

Henk Campher
| Monday June 16th, 2014 | 5 Comments
Protest signs outside the Sustainable Brands conference.

Protest signs outside the Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego.

By Henk Campher

I’m a recovering activist. From being a trade unionist and anti-Apartheid activist to being an African development worker and running campaigns for Oxfam. Note I didn’t say an ex-activist because you can never be an ex-activist. Activism stays in your blood, and you stay hooked once you get hooked the first time. But I am a recovering activist because I am trying to get over it and working on activism 3.0. We’re in 2.0 right now, but that is a story for another day.

First let me say that not all nonprofits are born the same and neither are all activists born the same. I see activists as the Greenpeace, Oxfam, Friends of the Earth, PETA and Rainforest Action Network type and not the Conservation International, WWF or The Nature Conservancy type. This last set is better at running programs on the ground but not so great at running activist campaigns, partly because they work too closely with the business community. And they hardly ever run a campaign that really annoys the living hell out of business. Maybe that should be the main criteria: Have you annoyed business to a high enough level with your campaigning?

Secondly, what I am about to write is not meant to slam these activists at all. They play an absolutely crucial role in society. Without them we will hardly ever see the change needed to build a more just and a “greener” world. Thanks to them we ended slavery; the coffee industry is more equitable; more people have access to much needed medicine; whales are more protected; child labor is outlawed in most countries; and every issue from climate change, to poverty, to animal protection is brought to light each and every day. But just because they are our conscience doesn’t mean they play fair. Or that they should play fair…

However, we do need to call them out when we smell something wrong. And there is one major lie that always gets to me when I hear it. The “let’s engage” lie. No, you don’t really want to engage.

A few weeks back I attended the Sustainable Brands conference down in San Diego and an activist group targeted a major company speaking at the conference. Day two had another group disrupting a beach party but that one was pretty lame as it really took an effort to figure out the message, and I still don’t know who was behind the campaign. Anyway, this isn’t about their lack of eye-catching tactics or the effectiveness of their campaigning. However, one of the things the activist group claimed was that the company didn’t want to engage with them. That sounds just wrong on the side of the company, right? Just hang on, not so fast.

What did the activist want to “engage” about? They wanted the company to drop their existing ethical sourcing initiative and sign up to the one supported by the activists. Now tell me, where is the engagement in this? The activists sure weren’t going to in any way support what the company is doing, and the only outcome that they will be happy with is the change the company needs to make. No engagement at all. Just a case of: “You listen to me and do what I want you to do, and I will fake listening to you and not give in anything from my side.”

In the world of sustainability, engagement is when two parties talk and listen to each other: Where both parties consider the other party’s priorities, existing commitments and find a way to create a new solution that is of benefit of both parties; where the two parties respect the existing commitments and partnerships that might exist and finds a way to bring them into the engagement. And, ideally, where the two parties work together way beyond the narrow initial conversation.

There is none of that from the activist side. It is all about “my way or the highway.” And that approach is not always right.

For example, it works when you need to stop bad behavior or prevent a specific bad outcome like slavery. You can’t allow just a little bit of slavery to take place. Not possible to compromise so there isn’t any real engagement needed here.

However, it is a very different story when it comes to the sourcing of commodities. In coffee you have Fair Trade, Utz, Rainforest Alliance and many other initiatives. And many of the leading companies also have their own set of standards. You can’t engage and force only one set of solutions because none of them are perfect. Fair Trade is great but not at all perfect. It is much tougher to implement Fair Trade on large commercial farms than on single farmer smallholdings. Fair Trade was written for cooperatives and many small farmers and large commercial farms do not operate that way. Should we therefore just not use these farmers? No, we should use the systems that helps improve farming in these cases. We can “engage” around the many options, but don’t call it engagement if you only want me to sign up to Fair Trade. That’s not engagement; that is just a talking head I am meant to listen to and obey mixed with a touch of campaigning blackmail.

So, the next time an activist tells you that “they want to engage” or cries foul because a company “doesn’t want to engage,” ask them how it is any different from trying to “engage” with your bank manager about the terms of an agreement on a loan or “engage” with Facebook on the terms of agreement on how your data will be used. Good luck with that.

“Engagement” is just activist PR talk. Sounds nice but meaningless when you scratch beyond the surface. The “sound washing” version of greenwashing.

Anyone want to engage me on this view?

Image courtesy of ForestEthics

A series of quick & dirty opinion pieces by Henk Campher. Senior Vice President, Business + Social Purpose and Managing Director of Sustainability at Edelman (www.edelman.com) out in the Wild West of San Francisco.  Disrupter of purpose. Engineer of big ideas. Slayer of myths. Social media junkie – @angryafrican. He never wears ties. Ever. But always wears an accent with a strategy and opinion in his back pocket. Please note this series will not focus on individual companies and any reference is purely to provide color commentary. His new book, Creating a Sustainable Brand is available here.

Follow Henk Campher on Twitter.


▼▼▼      5 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Sonia Best-Koetting

    Is engaging with public through a Tweet Chat or news conference any different? Or, would activists storm one side of the conversation? What about groups like Future 500, that base their work on finding the right balance of priorities? Does mediation break the stalemate more or less often than not?

    • Henk Campher

      Hi Sonia, Thank you for the comment! Don’t get me started on news conferences and Tweet Chats. Those are very valuable communication tactics but tactics and not strategy. And news conferences do not stimulate engagement. Tweet chats stimulate engagement as you can’t hide from questions that is out in the public. However, the point of this piece wasn’t to talk about engagement by companies but specifically talk about it from an activist perspective. You’ll see that I almost always call companies out for their lack of engagement in my other pieces on Tile Pundit. This one was specific to activist though. And I love the work that Bill and them are doing at Future 500. I think they do “force” activists to go beyond the rhetoric and do actual engagement. And, of course, they “force” companies to do the same. The piece wasn’t meant at all to question them but rather that “engagement” is a meaningless concept without players like Future 500. And yes, mediation does break the stalemate more often than not but the campaigns that requires an end to a company and not a change in behavior usually fails even in mediation when there isn’t some form of middle ground.

      • Sonia Best-Koetting

        Thanks for that, Henk. I’m interested to see a list of campaigns against corporations broken down by the nature of the activists’ “ask” — or rant, as the case may be. Does any similar list exist? Maybe I should be asking that question of Future 500?

        Glad to know there’s folks fighting for a fair conversation! Maybe you should run for public office??

        • Henk Campher

          Ha! Public office… I’m too much of an activist for that! I don’t actually have a problem with activists not “engaging”. One of their greatest strengths are pointing out the weaknesses or negative impacts companies have. I am just as frustrated when companies say “that’s not fair, why don’t they talk to us?” Well, those issues existed before the activists pointed it out so it is your own fault for not fixing it. The activists didn’t create the problem – the company just chose to ignore it. We need activists to point out those issues and to force companies to “fix” it where they can. Of course it doesn’t always work like that but activists hardly ever come up with a campaign just because they felt like it. Where there is fire…
          My pieces are usually poking around and looking for the “shades of grey” in the world where people (activists, companies, politicians, lobbyist etc) too easily want to paint it black and white.
          On the nature of activists’ “asks” – yes and no. There isn’t much in public to break it down but it is something I’ve been using when working with clients to get them to understand the type of campaign and the type of ask. Stay tuned… More on that soon.

        • Sonia Best-Koetting

          Understood. The nuance/grey is important. There will always have to be beta-tester activists to criticize a negative consequence, as well as groups to foster positive change with a smile. Carry on!