How Would Your Company Handle Social Activists?

Each business decision you make won’t please everyone, but being able to handle the flak when it comes can make the difference between a blimp and a PR disaster. But when social activists focus on your company, will you know what to do?

Know Your Audience

How well do you know this particular audience? Have these individuals been outspoken about a problem or industry issue? If so, what are their concerns? Have they publicly recommended solutions? Next, recognize that activists are passionate about their cause. If you think of them as brand ambassadors fully engaged in vigorously promoting their specific environmental, social, political, or economic viewpoints, it’s easier to understand the tremendous commitment they exhibit. And while you may view their work as the antithesis of progress, they see their resolutions as creating a better world for all. With polar viewpoints, it’s not uncommon for confrontations to arise.

Capturing Attention

Keep in mind that special interest groups are more likely to target large organizations because protesters want as much attention as possible for their cause. By engaging major corporations they are more likely to draw the media. Plus, activists’ pressure on industry leaders generates attention from others within the sector. Social activists find it beneficial to focus on a large firm to capture the attention of others, according to Dr. Theodore L. Waldron, assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at Baylor University,

This exposure attracts federal regulators, too, which could lead to legislation changes. In fact, social activists may reach out to businesses to affect change rather than trying to work with governments. But don’t think you can escape protesters just because your company is small.  If a town or neighborhood doesn’t want a new establishment because they are afraid of new competition, local residents may fight this “invasion.” Such a scenario can escalate if social activists join forces with them. The result may mean big headlines for your small- to medium-sized business – but not the type you desire. It’s also important to remember consumers play a vital role in this equation. If media attention prompts customers to believe a business is environmentally or socially irresponsible, they could boycott your company. The negative financial effects are compounded when consumers join social activists.

Collaboration Can Work

When Greenpeace wanted to replace hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) with environmentally-friendly, cooling techniques, it focused on Coca-Cola. The company invested in the research and development of climate-friendly technologies and, along with its bottling partners, purchased new coolers and vending machines, eliminating the reliance on HFC technology. These actions accelerated a market shift in commercial refrigeration.

Because Coca-Cola’s management took the issue seriously, they went one step further and co-founded Refrigerants, Naturally!, a  public-private collaboration which included McDonald’s, Unilever, and Greenpeace, and which received United Nations support. The initiative helped drive eco-friendly change on a global level much faster than governments could have.  The result? Coke enhanced its reputation as an environmentally-friendly company because its actions supported the firm’s corporate social responsibility mantra.

Tips for Responding

Be vigilant – recognize how quickly you can lose your reputation as a compassionate or ethical business. How does your company or sector fit into the overarching concerns of social activists? If you are monitoring these trends, customer concerns or pending legislation, you can discern which areas in your operation are socially or environmentally vulnerable. By being cognizant of issues and managing proactively, you are more likely to protect or even enhance your public image.

Dr. Brayden King of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management advises companies to acknowledge activists and establish a dialogue rather than simply throwing money at them. This advice reinforces the importance of understanding the passion of social activists; they want behavioral change.

Further, King recommends tapping the knowledge of these critics. Because social activists are immersed in their cause, they are likely to be extremely knowledgeable about the subject. If your business provides a constructive communication channel for the flow of information and exchange of ideas, you could possibly  benefit through the creation of better policy development and an enhanced reputation as social and environmental leader.

[Editor's Note: Re-published with permission from The Triad Business Journal]