Don’t take my word for it

April 12, 2014

In my book, I write that it’s “an axiom among activists that corporations don’t bleed, but people do.” A campaign against a corporate brand might eventually gain some traction, but call out an individual by name and you’ll get that person’s attention very quickly. For activists seeking a change in company policy, the faster you can get into the heads of c-suite decision-makers, the better.

But you don’t need to take my word for it, take theirs:

Protesters told Reuters they will increasingly target individuals as part of a strategy to draw attention to the growing divide between rich and poor in San Francisco …”When you put a face on it, it suddenly becomes more real,” Erin McElroy, an organizer at Eviction-Free San Francisco, said of what she views as a technology-driven housing crunch.

These anti-tech protesters in San Francisco have captured the interest of national media, making it easy for them to generate significant publicity even though the actual size of their protests are quite small. Only two dozen took part in the above April 11th rally, and, judging from the picture, even fewer protested against Google Ventures partner Kevin Rose.

A game plan for dealing with criticism online

April 11, 2014

The rules for managing activism on your social media accounts are the same as in the physical world. If you choose to engage with an activist group, you must strive to de-escalate the conflict. Both journalists and consumers have little interest in the story of two organizations who share values and appear to be working together.

On the other hand, if you delete negative comments, shut down the conversation, or respond with hostility, you reinforce the appearance of conflict – precisely what the activists are seeking.

In an article titled “4 Ways Brand Publishers Can Deal with Haters,” the author quotes some guy named Keva Silversmith:

“When a brand does decide to respond, the message needs to be friendly and non-confrontational,” Silversmith says. “Express a commitment to work with the poster towards the best solution.”

As Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon put it so eloquently, the advice “fight fire with fire” is good advice if you’re trying to get back at your enemy; it’s bad advice if you’re trying to put out a fire.

Activism comes home

April 7, 2014

Google Ventures Partner Kevin Rose tweeted yesterday that his house was the target of anti-tech activists who waved banners outside his home and handed out provocative flyers to his neighbors. A couple thoughts:

1) This incident is another troubling episode of activists crossing the line between executives’ public and private lives. While the activists’ demand for $3 billion makes a settlement impossible in this case, the trend towards extreme activist tactics should factor into every executive’s calculation over whether to fight back against activist groups.

2) Kevin Rose’s tweet set off a chain of events that turned this small neighborhood protest into national news. While Roses’s tweet was a natural reaction, he unwittingly helped fuel spectacular publicity for this activist group. As I write in my book, corporations, and in this case, high profile individuals, need to use extreme care to avoid letting activists hijack their own communications machine.

A third scenario

April 4, 2014

Because of the destructive nature of activism, I recommend taking on activists in only two scenarios: when the CEO is the founder of the company, or if the company’s very survival is at stake.

Oil-giant Chevron has been battling with activists and lawyers for several years over environmental damage in the Ecuadorean Amazon. Recently, the corporation has been fighting back against a $9.5 billion judgment related to the pollution claims.

Chevron decided to pursue a scorched-earth campaign against the plaintiffs’ attorneys and their allies, and has succeeded not only in blocking the collection of the verdict, but also in gaining permission to sue a prominent law firm for its role in the litigation. Chevron appears vindicated in its claims of corruption and fraud surrounding the activist campaign and associated litigation.

So I would like to add a third scenario where a corporate counter-campaign of litigation and retaliation is recommended: 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.

Otherwise, don’t try this at home.

Coordination between government and activists

April 4, 2014

I mention in my book how well-connected activist groups can encourage legislators to call hearings and subpoena company leaders as a way of ratcheting up pressure and executive pain. I came across a couple more examples recently of activists and government joining forces.

According to this article, a change in OSHA rules in 2013 is enabling union agents to tag along on OSHA inspections at non-union businesses. When union agents arrive alongside government inspectors, the agents appear to workers to hold positions of authority, gain insider access to company operations, and rattle the nerves of company executives. Moreover, the rule change enables unions to “use the threat of federal inspections against any business that refuses to bend to their wishes.”

Proposed legislation can also be a powerful weapon. In the case of SeaWorld’s ongoing conflict with the makers of Blackfish, a state lawmaker in California has has proposed a bill that would ban SeaWorld from using killer whales in shows at its San Diego theme park. While actual passage of the bill is in doubt, the fresh round of publicity generated by the proposal is itself enough to further damage SeaWorld’s brand.