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CSR and Sustainability, NGOs, Stakeholders

Business, charities and campaigners. Sometimes, everyone behaves badly

Picture, if you will, a recent, anonymised example of this headline in action.

A company made an inappropriate response to legitimate questions. This was over-reacted to, by a charity, which behaved similarly. The company then responded, again in a way which they should have realised could inflame things.

All the while, a media and cash-hungry campaign group was hovering, sending out increasingly hysterical petition and fund-raising emails as the two other organisations clashed. In the end the company did what it would have done anyhow, if it had been thoughtful, or well advised, or both, on the particular issue.

Now the ‘problem’ is solved. But tremendous damage has been done. To corporate reputation, to relationships with influential and important implementation stakeholders, and to the idea, internally, of working further with charities. Once (again) bitten, likely three times shy, to twist a phrase.

All this of course, could have been avoided. If company executives had realised how the initial inquiry could become a full on campaign, it could have been defused early. It may not have even happened in the first place, if a thoughtful eye had been cast on the issue.

This is the standard warning or lesson of posts like these of course, grist to the blogger’s mill. “If the company had been better at stakeholder engagement and management they wouldn’t have got themselves into this silly bother”.

Well yes, and perhaps no.

The charity and particularly the campaign group have in distinct ways, behaved very poorly. In the latter case, the hysteria of the copy being sent out was highly inflammatory, and provided readers (myself included) with an absurdly emotive picture of the company, its actions, and extrapolations from the case, to discuss how all big business is bullying, bad and needs to be held in check by them, so donate today, etc etc.

What CAN we learn from all this then?

Yes the company needs to sharpen it’s social risk radar and train people internally how to respond, and to set up a process to manage issues like this. (which it seems, won’t involve expensive PR firms such as Bell Pottinger)

And yes, they need to have a wider group of employees outside communications functions understand how social issues are evolving, and their role in preventing future crises.

But we also need to acknowledge that NGOs and particularly campaign groups can and do, behave appallingly sometimes, and not let that behaviour cloud our views of the notion of engagement, dialogue and partnerships.

The risk is, in this new(ish) world of constant social media hysteria about pretty much anything attached to a big brand, that companies pull their heads in as a result. We’ve seen this polarised attitude in the United States for decades, and it’s deeply unhelpful.

My conclusion is this: Executives in companies and NGOs/campaigners need to recognise that sometimes everyone has behaved badly, be uncomfortable with that, and try to learn from it, and move on in a positive way.

That’s not easy, and the temptation is always to fall back to the traditional position that “Those NGOs just want to use our name to raise money” or “These companies are all big bad nasty capitalists out to screw the world for personal executive profit and WE must hold them accountable”.

The bigger problem to solve is one of perspective. From the above example, the company executives will post-rationalise it in one way, and the campaigners probably will continue to believe their end justifies their means.

Face to face dialogue, talking through what happened and how to work together better next time, is the best chance of avoiding future conflict. My concern is that just doesn’t happen enough, despite being a cliche almost as old as time itself.

One final challenge is that doing so isn’t in the interest of the campaign groups who inflamed things so much for clicks, cash and media coverage. Which leaves this post asking one final, much-asked question in the field of corporate responsibility, once again: “Who holds campaigners accountable when they go too far?”

Usually, only the (far) right wing media tries to do this, but ends up falling back on on simplicity to enrage their readers. Somewhat ironically I suppose, the anti-corporate campaigners will live and die by the market they dislike so much. If they fail to raise the cash they need, they will disband. But some of the tactics they use along the way continue to do some serious damage to notions of trust and collaboration, particularly whilst companies continue to mis-step their way into the social media hysteria they so ably create with the eager assistance of click-hungry media.

Does anyone else reading this, share my feeling of déjà vu? I would imagine so.