Activist groups are increasingly finding ways to amplify their voice more effectively in the corporate world, leveraging the current culture of consumer activism to drive changes in how businesses operate. In an environment where consumers rally behind social and political issues of concern and demand greater transparency around supply-chain networks, activist groups are more mobilized and engaged with the public than ever before.
Advocates understand that consumer-facing brands are particularly vulnerable to social pressure campaigns and increasingly, these campaigns are coordinated through multi-partner coalitions operating at a global level. During the pandemic, in particular, groups have moved from social media spamming and in-person protests to more targeted, effective campaigns aimed at undermining an organization’s ability to operate. Tactics include massive email and digital campaigns targeting employees at all levels, personally calling out senior leadership—including board of directors—on websites and social media platforms. This creates a wave of immense pressure that is very difficult to ignore.
Many corporations are adapting to this environment by embracing the role business can play in addressing social challenges. In pursuing such initiatives, company policies should be determined by what consumers, customers and other stakeholders expect and what the organization authentically believes in and supports. At the same time, leaders must keep in mind what is feasible for the business.
A key part of balancing these needs is understanding the difference between stakeholders who are critics to learn from versus those opposed to the fundamentals of your business. A brand’s point of view can and should be informed by meaningful engagement with a wide range of diverse stakeholders, but not all critics can be engaged. Developing a strategy to approach and engage across a broad spectrum is a critical step towards mitigating against potential risk to your reputation and license to operate. Being the target of a coordinated and sophisticated activist campaign can prove especially challenging for companies during such a delicate cultural time, so being intentional about your organization’s position on key issues and approach to stakeholder engagement is a non-negotiable part of protecting your business.
The preparation phase can oftentimes head off the worst activist activity and ensure a company is prepared to respond effectively when that is not possible. It entails understanding the social risk landscape, knowing the key voices, developing a cohesive and authentic POV on issues, cultivating allies and implementing select proactive strategies. Below are fundamental tactics to help your organization be prepared to engage with activist groups so you aren’t scrambling to respond in real-time.
- Look outwards
- Use data-driven analytics to identify the conversations and issues that impact your business. Where do you fit in?
- Track consumer trends and public sentiment through opinion research and media/social media monitoring to forecast engagement. What do your customers care about? How do activists and consumers feel about your business and the role it plays on key issues?
- Look inwards
- Develop a social good POV and acknowledge where you are on your journey. Where does your company stand on issues related to the business? What is your plan to advance progress?
- Identify areas of vulnerability to your business and potential high-risk scenarios. What is likely to occur based on tracking the environment and the experiences of your industry counterparts?
- Conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine what’s feasible for the business in terms of changing policy and acknowledge your red lines. What is your business actually capable of doing to build social programs and meet stakeholder demands?
- Know your critics and allies
- Develop a map of your organization’s stakeholder universe and identify the activist groups most vocal on your business and related issue areas. What is their perspective on shared issues of interest?
- Vet the group’s background and its history of engaging other businesses. Are they credible? Do they have a coalition of partners and widespread consumer trust?
- Track their activities and understand how they operate and negotiate with companies. Are they compromising in their demands, or do they have a zero-sum approach?
- Build reputational assets
- Create a wall of content with reputational assets and steer stakeholder groups to your platforms to center company policy and combat misinformation.
- Be proactive in sharing commitments and partnerships and amplifying progress.
- Anticipate escalations
- Plan for worst case scenarios and develop response strategies. How will you respond if a credible group targets you specifically and generates significant media attention?
- Consider escalations not only externally but internally as well. Know your shareholder interests and social agenda. Is your company prone to shareholder activism and what are their key issues of concern?
- Listen to your employees—one of your most important audiences. They can be targets of harassment and sustained campaigns can have tremendous impact on morale and retention.
When it becomes clear external engagement is necessary, ensuring a swift response and internal alignment is critical. The foundational aspect of the response strategy is having a clear and intentional point-of-view and then communicating that position effectively—both internally and externally. Internal audiences are key and must be aligned—whether horizontally across markets or vertically with leadership.
- Align on a message strategy
- Coordinate among market and global leads to confirm and align on company positioning and ensure message consistency. Proactively engage with third parties when you have something to share or opportunities of shared interest.
- Weigh the pros and cons of a response and determine engagement based on the issue, the credibility of the group reaching out and the nature of their inquiries. Are they looking for an opportunity to partner or making unfeasible business demands?
- If responding, respond quickly and authentically. Don’t overpromise, but be true to mission, values and work while focusing on the big picture.
- Communicate with leadership
- Leadership may be a direct target by vocal advocates looking to leverage influence and pressure companies more effectively. Make sure your leadership is not surprised and are aware of these tactics and ensure IT systems are actively filtering spam campaigns.
- Brief leadership on the potential consequences of different actions and make clear recommendations based on research, market data and case studies.
- Consider other opportunities
- If you are unable to engage or partner with a third party, look for other opportunities to show growth on your journey. Find advocates willing to work with you and meet you in the middle on realistic opportunities feasible to the business.
- What are your industry counterparts doing? What are goals you can achieve and what groups are willing to partner with you? Are there global or regional commitments that your supply chain can support?
Pressure for stakeholder engagement ebbs and flows. Even when the heat is off, always be moving your growth strategy forward and looking ahead to anticipate new challenges. Ultimately, the formula to enhance your position with engaging activists and mitigating risk with antagonist groups is being proactive in showing company progress around social good, engaging with good-faith critics who can support your journey, staying prepared and knowing when to be flexible and change course in your engagement strategy.