NGOs, do they sometimes cross the line, and what can you do about it?

(This is a long post. Sorry, but sometimes longer stuff is worth reading. Remember books? They were there before Twitter, and much more informative)

After my recent post “Should companies sue NGOs over financially-damaging campaigns?” (*more on this at end) which has had thousands of reads, two things happened.

Firstly, I was attacked in the comments section by an anonymous reader, who refused to give his/her name, and accused me of all sorts of things, not least running a racket conference business and profiting from unethical campaigners screwing over big companies.

There was a lot more, but that was the crux of it. I didn’t publish the comments, having thought about it, because the author wouldn’t reveal who they were. I was happy to take them on, on the blog, but arguing with an anonymous figure just felt weird.

I’m very happy to respond to these kinds of criticisms from anyone prepared to tell me who they are. Innovation Forum, the company I founded two or so years ago, after running another, similar one since 2001, is not run purely to make money.

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Campaign poster by the NGO Robin Wood

We seek positive change, and we believe our role is to put business together with NGOs, Governments and others, and then asking everyone tough questions. We do this at our debate-focused events, and through our publishing and podcasts.

By doing this, we hope to stimulate practical debate that helps improve things, and break down some of the barriers.

Secondly, (mainly due to the comments section on the original post than because of the anonymous critic) I began to wonder if my original piece had made me seem like an uncritical friend of the campaign groups, whom I often interview and have at all our Innovation Forum conferences. It may have done, a bit. (I did try to be clear in that post that companies often understandably feel aggrieved by campaigns)

I think it’s fair to say that I don’t offer intense scrutiny of the practices of NGOs as they “engage” large companies as much as focusing on what they say in public, and how companies perform on sustainable business. There are lots of reasons for this. Firstly, the big companies are the powerful actors whose behaviour makes a huge difference.

Trying to make the case for more sustainable, stakeholder-connected big business has been my focus for 15 or so years. It’s also fair to say I couldn’t have made a living offering similar coverage of campaign groups. Thirdly, I often agree with many of the objectives of the campaign groups, with some exceptions.

For example I find green campaigners generally easier to consistently agree with, as most of their objectives can be achieved with innovation, new technology, longer-term thinking, smarter investment, and better management practices, and efficiency-based thinking, over time. The anti-GM groups I think have often gone too far in their rhetoric. But I struggle to know enough about that subject to think any more than that.

Some of the social campaigners too, go too far, and their demands for higher wages can distort economies. In other cases, such as in the extractive sector, anyone delving far enough into that area has heard tales of local problems whipped up by NGOs or money minded local figures which paint companies in an unfair light, sometimes with a money motive in mind.

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Campaign poster by the NGO Robin Wood

So, I know NGOs are not perfect, far from it. In the comments section of the original post Mallen Baker, my long time friend and collaborator, made an excellent point, as old as time itself (well, it feels like it) thus:

“I suppose the question it raises is this: who holds the NGOs accountable? If it’s never a good idea for the companies to sue, then does that mean they get to operate with impunity careless of whether they get their facts wrong as they damage companies who provide jobs to people that need them?

Some years ago, this question seemed to be looming which led to the creation of the international NGO accountability charter. But that seems to be invisible these days.

I don’t think it’s ever healthy to have a force in society that escapes all mechanisms of accountability, so what’s the appropriate (and proportionate – accountability not muzzling) mechanism for campaigning NGOs?”.

I don’t know the answer to that. The classical response is to say “they are accountable to who funds them” but we know that’s not really true. The consumers who donate to Greenpeace tend not to engage with the company perspective. We know that in autocratic countries like Russia, Turkey and others, accountability can come with the heavy hand of the state, but that’s not really any kind of solution in the world I want to live in.

Leaving that debate aside, as I don’t know what else to say about it, let’s address the question of how should companies handle campaigner overtures and demands when faced with demands and allegations they are convinced are unfair?

Here’s a few ideas from experts. First up, Scott Poynton, founder of TFT (previously known as the Forest Trust). I asked him about the following: “How should a company handle a situation where they know an NGO is a) taking things out of context, b) leaving out crucial bits of information and c) directly telling untruths to suit their objectives”. This is what he wrote back:

“My experience with NGO campaigns is that they will, usually more than once, engage in each and every one of those three things to make their point, to paint a picture of the target company and win people over to their argument.

Target company leaders generally get very annoyed, angry, furious and sometimes they feel a deep, supercharged rage at such tactics.

Many times I’ve had companies tell me how unfair it is that they’re being targeted and bemoan the use of lies, misinformation etc.

March_Against_Monsanto_VancouverI can empathise with their feelings but then I remind the leaders to look at their own marketing material.

Usually it doesn’t take so long to spot examples of all three of the above tactics deployed to tell the company story.

So my experience is that everyone, to some degree, uses such unpleasant approaches to win arguments, campaigns and points.

I encourage company leaders to a) get over it and realise they’re not saints either; b) look at what NGOs are asking and then ask themselves whether there is any common ground e.g. do they want to kill Orangutans? Have slave labour? etc.

More often than not, if they fly to 30,000 feet and forget about the tactical stuff which is where the lies and misinformation stuff happens, they will find common ground; and c) work with that and use the tension created by the NGO campaign to set a clear course for the company’s desired future. Don’t want to be linked to deforestation? Set that out in a policy and publish a clear plan of how you’re going to implement it.

Bottom line, don’t get filled by hatred. NGOs are people too. They share similar concerns to company leaders if both parties are able to recognise that fact.

Forget about the differences and focus on the common ground. If you don’t find it at 10,000 feet, go higher until you do, then work from that starting point. It’s amazing how rapidly campaigns can turn to partnerships once you reach that common understanding.”

Secondly, here’s a few thoughts from Brendan May, founder of the Robertsbridge group, a consultancy made up largely of former heads of environmental NGOs, on the same questions as above.

“NGOs vary enormously in the way in which they engage with companies. Some start from a highly sophisticated negotiating position, clear about the need for compromise and about where they will ultimately draw the line in a campaign action. For others, it is more like a dog shaking a toy, its instinct making it simply unable or unwilling to let go. The latter can be immensely frustrating for companies.

FSCatRisk-CanadasResoluteForestProductsSometimes, NGOs get it badly wrong. No harm in that – it is after all corporations getting it wrong that leads to NGO campaigning in the first place. But when some NGOs refuse to alter reports or suspend campaigns once a company has shown beyond reasonable doubt that they are serious about progress, tempers start to fray in the boardroom.

Simplistic scorecards or league tables (all measuring slightly different things, sometimes using less than rigorous methodology) that rank companies are sometimes deeply unhelpful.

So are reports filled with allegations and insinuation where a company has not been given the right of reply. Or worse, when a considered reply is simply ignored because, were it to be included the report would have far more nuance, and thus less media impact.

This does little for corporate trust in NGO tactics. It is not always clear what a particularly inflexible NGO thinks it will achieve if it continues to attack companies or sectors that hold success or failure of the campaigners’ objectives in their hands.

So what should a company do and not do when faced with a campaign group that seems unwilling to engage constructively? The first point is that whilst retreating to the bunker and writing the NGO off may seem tempting, even morally sound, it won’t ultimately solve the problem. Engagement is a long game.

Often, companies have eroded campaigners’ trust over years or even decades. They are unlikely to be in a mood to give the benefit of the doubt after two or three fairly constructive meetings.

It’s vital to keep providing open and transparent and factual information, even if it is ignored whilst trust is being rebuilt. Often, there are different sets of expectations, so it’s critical to be crystal clear about what the NGO is really asking for. And push them to clarify what it is should there be any doubt.

The second is to remember that NGOs aren’t some unified homogenous blob. They have different perspectives, a variety of ‘red line’ issues, and they don’t always agree with each other, to put it mildly. Just because one group is clearly unwilling to be reasonable, doesn’t mean you should write off all campaign groups.

logo3If you are in the right, then you will find people who will see that and will work with you to further improve your performance. You will never please everybody.

It may be, as you prove your case over time, that some of your allies in the NGO movement will become ambassadors or mediators, and they will succeed in transmitting the message to your most hostile critic where you have failed to persuade them. This happens frequently.

Third, don’t fire back aggressively. It simply raises the stakes, and makes everything more heated and less constructive – which means simply fanning the flames. If your objective is a fair hearing, a balanced view and an improved reputation with stakeholders, you don’t want to be known as the bullyboy who just shouts back and thinks that some loud PR will ultimately prevail. It never works, and corporate history is littered with the dregs of such efforts.

Often, when one looks under the bonnet of a company that claims all allegations against it are unfair or wrong, one quickly finds some grain of truth in what is being alleged. Resource is better spent fixing those faults than trying to find fault with everyone else, passing the buck, or flat denial.

ioicorp-plantation_8If an NGO really has crossed the line, only calm, factual explanation and engagement is likely to prevail. Let off the steam in private, not in public. And not in front of groups who ultimately are better as your allies than your enemies.

There are many valid arguments about NGO accountability, questions about their funding sources and transparency. And frustration aplenty that NGOs and media are in some perceived fact-light love fest which means companies never get a fair hearing. But the reality is this is how the system works. And NGOs have run hugely effective campaigns that have really transformed entire sectors for the better.

For companies, the choice is whether to work proactively and transparently within the ecosystem of campaigners and media, or stand on the outside shouting and screaming. It’s something of a no brainer, if sustainability reputation is what you want to achieve.”

I’m not sure all this answers the question framing this post, but I think there’s some good advice from Scott and Brendan, who have been on the front lines of all this for 30+ years between them.

The summary of all this, to me is about engagement, and one might put it this way in conclusion; Even if you know the NGO or group of NGOs, has deliberately taken things out of context, even made things up, and has behaved unethically, turning to the courts will do you no good.

Engage, engage, engage, and make needed changes, and eventually the truth will out. If you are genuinely committed to making progress, transparency about that and the right level of commitment will mean plenty of others will stand up for you in the end.

There are enough well paid lawyers in the world already.

*Readers may want to check out the corporate comments on my original post, which also ran on Linkedin, here. I was surprised to see a few company execs putting their names to supportive comments. That’s got to be a positive sign.

Some further listening and reading:

Podcast discussion: NGO campaigns and brands: Why are companies going to court? Toby Webb and Scott Poynton

Palm oil: The IOI vs RSPO case – When do you sue an NGO?

Upcoming events from Innovation Forum you should come along to, or send a colleague to: