Cybersociology Magazine: Issue Five

Field Report: Introducing the Panel Discussion of the Counter-Strategies Corporations Employ Against Campaigns

Featuring: What are the modern-times strategies of present day companies? And: How can we respond to these?

By Eveline Lubbers

This introduction includes a short outline of the themes to be discussed at the forum at the Next 5 Minutes Conference, in Amsterdam, March 14, 1999. Being used are examples from the work of the panelists and cases they have been working on. Also included are extracts from recent articles on the corporate world's reaction to social and environmental campaigns, illuminating the main themes from different points of view. References are included below.

"The greatest threat to the corporate world's reputation comes from the Internet, the pressure groups newest weapon. Their agile use of global tools such as the Internet reduces the advantage that corporate budgets once provided.."

[Quoted is a PR-manager who is trying to teach multinationals how to deal with modern day pressure groups, creatively using the power of the media sound bite.]

Losing control of the media arena as result of the activities of a pressure group has become a nightmare scenario for the modern multinational enterprise. Some corporations learn fast, from their critics i.e. from us. This creates a big market for PR-companies that are hired to change the worst scenario into a business opportunity.

What are the modern times strategies of present day companies?
How do they respond to pressure groups or future campaigns?

Three main strategies can be distinguished:

1. Openness and co-optation
2. Monitoring and intelligence
3. Aggressive PR, using legal threats, front groups and so called 'green-wash' tactics

What is the danger of these strategies?

1. Openness and co-optation

One of the tenets of the new Shell strategy based on openness and honesty is the oil-multinationals' Internet site  that was launched early 1996, and renewed late 1998 (and most recently coincidentally the day after the N5M-panel). 'Dialogue' is the core concept, and sensitive issues are not sidestepped. The Shell Internet site receives over 1,100 emails a month, a full-time staff member answers all these mails personally and within forty-eight hours. There are links to the sites of Shell's competitors and detractors, and also to progressive social organizations. However, not to any critical organizations more radical than Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace, but this aside. At the site's discussion forums arranged by subject everybody is allowed a say about Shell's practices. The question is of course whether this form of openness really influences anything other than the company's pr-work! The forums are not intended for people to question Shell. The email facility is provided for that purpose, and visitors of the site are using it quite intensively. What the content is of the questions being asked, and the company's answers to these, remains between Shell and the emailers.

All in all, one might conclude that this amounts to a fake openness, for show purposes only. After all, in public true discussions are being eschewed. Shell denies that the forums are merely window-dressing, functioning mainly as barometer for what certain people think.

To co-opt the environmental debate is one side of the coin, to demonize and marginalize the environmental movement is the other.

One PR guru, Rafael Pagan, has outlined a three step divide and conquer strategy on how corporations can defeat public interest activists who apparently fall into four distinct categories: radicals,, opportunists,, idealists, and realists,. The goal is to isolate the radicals, cultivate, the idealists and educate, them into becoming realists, then co-opt the realists into agreeing with industry.

The bottom line, says another PR-specialist, is that if you dialogue with people, then you win. If you meet a group that will not compromise, then you have a problem. One recent classic example of this is the Uwa from Colombia who refused to backtrack against oil development and even threatened suicide if Occidental and Shell drilled on their land. It was the companies who backed down.

2. Monitoring and intelligence

Losing control of the media arena as result of the activities of a pressure group has become a nightmare scenario for the modern enterprise. Shell was taken by complete surprise when the Greenpeace campaign against sinking the Brent Spar former drill platform achieved its goals. A comprehensive review of what has become known as the PR disaster of the century indicates that Shell had it all wrong about its own influence on the media. There was a new factor in the game, which had been completely missed out: the role of the Internet. Ever since the Brent Spar debacle, Shell sports an Internet manager who is convinced that listening to the Internet community is an effective barometer of public opinion about your company. The Shell Headquarters in London are making a thorough job of it. Specialized, external consultants have been hired who scout the web daily, inventorying all possible ways Shell is being mentioned on the net, and in which context. In combination with real life intelligence gathering, from open sources to covert actions like eaves dropping and infiltration (the tiny London Greenpeace campaign against McDonald's had the honor of being joined by at least seven covert agents) this results in lots and lots of information. Strategic knowledge that can be used for various purposes in order to disarm campaigners.

The least harmful -in a way- would be tackling the aims of campaigners with a carefully balanced PR-campaign. The surprise effect of a picket line or a sit-in can be countered if the targeted corporation was aware of something coming on forehand. Winning time and photo opportunities dealing with reluctant spokespeople and clumsy CEO's is always good for sound bites in the mainstream media. Without this surprise effect, campaigners loose half of their means, so to speak.

Furthermore, the exchange of information between law enforcement, governmental intelligence services and corporate security gives the investigating authorities extra opportunities to take their own measurements to prevent people from potentially using civil disobedience to stage public protest. This could vary from leaking damaging stories to the popular press to playing people off against one another using intimate knowledge about different points of view. Potentially more damaging are tactics to stimulate to use of violence by campaigners (f.i. through infiltrators) to discredit their goals.

3. Aggressive PR, using legal threats, greenwash tactics and front groups

The fear of legal threats made the printers of The Ecologist decide to destroy the entire print run of an issue of the magazine on biotechnology and the Monsanto Corporation, September last year. After 29 years of reliable partnership, the printers pulped the comp lete edition two days before it was due to appear, without notifying the editors. The Monsanto special was a direct response to the multinatin ials large-scale Europe-wide advertising campaign, in which the company proclaims, among other things, that Food biotechnology is a matter of opinions. Monsanto believes you should hear all of them., The magazine highlights Monsanto's track record of social and ecological irresponsibility, and illustrates its readiness to intimidate and quash those ideas, which conflict with its immediate interests. (The issue opens with an article by HRH the Prince of Wales on genetic engeneering Seeds of Disaster. Prince Charles gave his permission for republication -it first appeared in the Daily Telegraph- as a contextual introduction to this special issue).

After 29 years of reliable partnership with the printers, the editors of The Ecologist found out that the printers had pulped the entire edition, two days before it was due to appear - without notifying them. After the magazine had found another printer, the problems where not over yet. Two leading newsagents in the U.K., WHSmith and John Menzies, decided not to sell the issue, for fear of being sued.

This incident demonstrates that Monsanto's reputation of aggressive legal intimidation makes it difficult for the public to be properly informed of the serious potential dangers of genetic engineering.

'Greenwash' is a special form of PR. The fossil fuels industry has, for instance, treated climate change as a PR-problem - it has funded so-called independent scientists and formed green- sounding front groups, like the Global Climate Coalition. In the run up to the Kyoto meeting late 1997, the GCC spent $ 60 million dollars trying to persuade the public that they were not to blame and justify a business as usual future.

This AstroTurf lobbying (as opposed to grass roots campaigning) has also occurred in Western Europe. Publicly exposing the schemes of deceptive industry front groups has largely diminished the success of this strategy in Germany. However recently a lobby group has been actively rallying grassroots support against wind energy sites near German towns. Their representatives are even going as far as buying up houses at possible sites in order to stage protest as local citizens.

Public debates on local issues usually get attention from regional media, but the story often doesn't make it on a higher level. A week later, the same corporate PR organisation may emplay the same astroturf methods at the other end of the country, but the whole picture remains hidden from local people and national media.

Astroturf techniques are performed successfully also at the level of European decision making in Brussels, in an arena that is very far from everyday national debates, and from the  local level. Unless, of course, serious research uncovers this kind of strategies.

Agressive PR-campaigns can create a climate for violent attacks. In the United States the constant promotion and use of the term 'ecoterrorist' by anti-environmental campaigners has initiated a fear dynamic. Constant references to 'ecoterrorism' makes the authorities and vested interests begin to worry. The fear-dynamic provides ample job opportunities for private security firms hired by companies that live by envorinmentally destructive practices. It sets the stage for aggressive counter-reaction and makes anti-environmental violence seem like an acceptable and understandable response to a direct threat. It is impossible to quantify the occurence of violence against environmental activists in America, because violence is designed to silence. There are probably hundreds of acts of intimidation that go unreported because perpetrators have succeeded in their aim, using intimidation to 'chill' the environmental or social critics concerned. It is mainly grassroots activists, miles >from the relative safety of big cities who are suffering the most. Very often these activists are women, who are involved in local environmental problems. Acivists who live in remote areas or in blighted neighbourhoods are also singled out for attack. Furthermore, the support these 'front-line' activists are receiving from the mainstream environmental movement has been verging on non-existent. Not speaking out against violence isolates people and makes it safer to attack them.

What can be done to diminish the effects of these Counterstrategies?

Knowledge of corporate PR strategies may help activists and concerned citizens to recognise manipulative strategies and distinguish them from industry behaviour that are truly indicative of change. Understanding corporate strategies enables people, when necessary, to organise effectively against them.

Action groups could set up public data banks on persons involved in 'two-step-communication' (the use of third parties) 'front organizations' and on corporate-instituted 'grass root organizations'. These could help them expose publicly the most active corporate front-people and organizations in the media. Campaigners could institute an annual competition for the best 'corporate camouflage' of the year.

The N5M Counter strategies panel discussion.

The Counter strategies panel will have a strategic focus on corporate communication: what PR- tools are being developed as a response to a changing society and to the particularities of new media? How do these tools aim to affect public opinion? How has communication evolved to fit in with modern society and values? What are the consequences for the public?

As an example, an insight into the Monsanto 1998 PR campaign will be presented, from a PR consultant's point of view. New strategic efforts in communication with the aim to get biotechnology accepted will be analysed: targeting children, the 'informed decision' and the use of 'invisible corporations'.

The aim should be fitting in with campaigners' experiences, help develop a better understanding on corporate strategies and serve to stimulate ideas on how communication may be used by activists to find effective answers.

Tactical research is a key strategic weapon for activists. Not only should they investigate acts of violence and expose the desinterest of the law enforcment authorities. The 'green private investigator' speaking at the N5M panel teaches how to research corporations' practices by following the right leads.

Let's not forget that most corporations still see the use of new media as a threat to which they don't know how to respond. On line communities are developing, and so is their horizontal communication. Companies tend only to think about vertical communications - pushing out brand messages and treating consumers as if they exist in a vacuum. The lesson that brand owners are about to learn is that the web is an increasingly powerful cultural phenomenon. Activists have been a step ahead of the 'web game' but this medium is becoming more closed and controlled very fast.

Let's use the Internet to it's full potential while this is still possible and continue to develop new creative ways to communicate, exchange information and involve those who need this information.

The Counterstrategy panel:

Helen Holder (GB), working for the Monsanto Round Up campaign, a project of ASeed-Europe based in Amsterdam; as a former PR-consultant she is specialized in corporate strategies.
Sheila O'Donnell (USA), the 'green PI' investigates violence against environmentalists in the USA, and teaches activists in tactical research.
Claudia Peter (G), author of 'Deckmantel Okologie', about AstroTurf strategies in Germany is researching lobbying strategies at a local level in Germany and at a high-level in Brussels.
Andy Rowell (GB), author of 'Green Backlash,&nbs p; Global Subversion of the Environmental Movement',  and is specialized in corporate PR and the strategies being used by companies (Monsanto and Shell) against activists.

Eveline Lubbers (NL), monitoring police and secret services since the eight ies, supporting social activist groups against oppressive surveillance tactics of authorities. Recently she specialized in corporate intelligence and PR-strategies of multinationals against their critics- including net- activists.

Special thanks to Josselien Janssens (NL), Greenpeace researcher on the 'Green Backlash' project (London 1994-1996), currently studying at the Academy for Communications, Hogeschool Holland.


Articles on related subjects by Eveline Lubbers:
Counterstrategies against netactivism. Shell is afraid of Internet.
Shell is making the same mistake. Chad a second Nigeria?
Beat the Dutch! Netactivism in Amsterdam.

Andrew Rowell, Green Backlash, the Global Subversion of Environmental Activists, Routledge 1996

David Helvarg, The War against the Greens, Sierra Club books, 1994

Judith Richter, Engeneering of Consent, Uncovering Corporate PR a briefing paper on the Nestlé Counterstrategy against babymilk-campaigners, The Cornerhouse, March 1998

Matthew Reed, Activists are using the Internet to fight large companies over ethical issues. Yet many major  brand-owners lack a clear counter-strategy.
Marketing Magazine, 2/5/99.

John Stauber/Sheldon Rampton, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You, Lies, Damn Lies And The Public Relations Industry, Common Courage Press, 1995

Monsanto Round Up Campaign

Laurie Flynn, Michael Gillard and Andy Rowell, Ousted scientist and the damning research into food safety, on the tests on rats that raised serious questions about the effects of genetically modified food on internal organs The Guardian, February 12 1999, with related links on  News Unlimited (registration required).

Eveline Lubbers ([email protected]) has been monitoring police and secret services since the eighties and supporting social activist groups against oppressive surveillance tactics of authorities. Recently she has been investigating corporate intelligence and PR-strategies of multinationals against their critics- including net-activists. Her panel discusing Counter-strategies of Corporations against campaigns took place at the Next Five Minutes Tactical Media Conference in Amsterdam, 12-14 March, 1999.


Cybersociology Magazine Contents | This Issue: Five | Respond to this Article