How never to respond to environmental campaigners: Five lessons from APP/Solaris

I could paraphrase this article into a blog post, but it’s best if you just click here and read it for yourself.

It’s about our old friends Asia Pulp and Paper (their Australian arm, Solaris to be exact), and responses to a Greenpeace campaign.

The article above is short, punchy and well, contains some very salient lessons for corporate communicators, public relations and, well, just about everyone else.

Watch the video, look at the ad. Google News the company.

This is a live case study of how not to screw up.

Use this example in your internal presentations to make the business case for engaged communications and real stakeholder engagement. Show it to your PR firm.

Here are five of the key lessons:

1) Real science matters most: If want to repudiate claims by green campaigners, you can’t use front groups. You must use independent scientists. If you don’t, you’ll get caught, and it looks even worse for you. Journalists hate being fooled first time around more than just about anything else!

2) Control your spin: When your brand is seriously under attack it’s a really really good idea to understand whether your PR firm is actually qualified to work on in such complex areas as the environment or human rights. Usually they are not. Look at who in the firm will be doing the comms work. It won’t be the bosses that sell you the contract.

3) Keep your staff in line: Employees, from the CEO downwards, take attacks on their company very seriously indeed. This is a good thing, and a bad thing. When emotion comes into play in an uncontrolled environment, you could get results as in the above article. That is a complete PR disaster. Not only is your firm humiliated, it makes you look venal.

4) Don’t pretend you are engaging when really you are not: APP does this constantly (see above link) and it is being seen through time and again by just about everyone. If a group such as Greenpeace, that does understand you can’t do it all at once, asks you to do something, they probably have a point. Obfuscation will only result in drawing out a conflict your brand, your people and your customers do not need. The only winners are the PR flack and the lawyers.

5) Watch your tone, and content: Big companies are easy targets. Not just for green groups, but for anyone on the internet who’s angry, irritated or just doesn’t like you, or companies like you. If you enrage the blogosphere, the influential tweeters, even someone with 1500 LinkedIn contacts who posts a comment, you can lay yourself open to a multi-fronted attack. Death by a thousand cuts is still death, and it hurts a lot more I would imagine.

If companies such as APP or their subsidiary, Solaris, are allowing employees to post virulent, personal attacks on campaigners with a deeply threatening tone, they are soon set to become an academic case study, a consultant’s pitch and a general bĂȘte noire for new hires and campaigners alike. They, and myriad others, will all find the story on the internet now and forever, no matter how many pages someone takes down, or Facebook comments are deleted.

Ignore the above five lessons, and you may see headlines like this:

Tiger dies fleeing forest logged for Aussie toilet roll

More on all this nonsense, here.

And these earlier blog posts may be of interest:

Gap Inc, and stakeholder engagement, lessons from a crisis

Burson Marstellar and Facebook/Google case shows the need for PR firm audits

Private Eye increases pressure on Asia Pulp & Paper

17/08/11: UPDATE: Australian marketing magazine Mumbrella has an update on the Solaris and Greenpeace story mentioned above.

According to Mumbrella: “Mumbrella understands that the comments were made by a senior member of Solaris management who yesterday owned up internally. Solaris corporate affairs director Steve Nicholson told Mumbrella that he was cutting short an overseas holiday to return to address the issue. The company had been receiving advice from public relations agency PPR.”

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