A battle among equals

The phrase “punch back twice as hard” has been kicking around in politics for the last several years. While perhaps useful against an opponent’s political campaign, this advice is generally dead wrong when a corporation finds itself under attack by an activist group. Activists are striving not only for a contentious, public dispute that raises awareness of their issue and brand, but also to drag corporations away from their operational strengths and into a mud-slinging contest for which executives are unprepared.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Canadian-based Resolute Forest Products has filed a lawsuit against Greenpeace for defamation, racketeering and conspiracy, claiming that Greenpeace photos and videos of forest damage were either staged or caused by fire or other natural causes. The lawsuit also challenges Greenpeace’s alleged targeting of Resolute customers.

Activists excel at causing corporate pain with tactics that entangle a corporation’s retail consumers and business customers. Corporations must figure out how to respond to the wave of customer complaints (against the activist group’s harassment and the claims of negative corporate conduct), and the potentially significant loss of business. Resolute says that Greenpeace impersonated Resolute employees to gain access to proprietary customer information and to threaten Resolute customers.

I recommend “punching back” against activists only as a last resort—when the CEO is also the founder of the company, or if the company’s survival is at stake. After seeing the success Chevron had in 2014 in its legal battle against activists, I added a third scenario for corporate pushback: “when your company is number three or higher on the Fortune 500 list, with over $230 billion in revenues and annual earnings north of $26 billion.”

I think that Resolute highlights a fourth opportunity, however. Battling an activist group is typically dangerous because the corporation unwittingly fuels the activist group’s rise. A corporation’s social media channels, high traffic website, journalist outreach or public statements generate awareness for the activist group orders of magnitude greater than what the group could have accomplished alone. In this case, however, Greenpeace already possesses a global brand, and is itself a controversial entity. A lawsuit between a multibillion dollar company and Greenpeace is a battle between equals. While Resolute’s lawsuit is no doubt a drain on corporate resources, the public relations risk to the company is low.

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