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Global Agenda: How to Talk to Protesters

4 minute read
Michael Elliott

A few years ago, Dr. Daniel Vasella, the Swiss CEO of pharmaceutical giant Novartis, told an American interviewer that his firm was going to have to spend a lot more time talking to NGOs. The journalist’s response: “What’s an NGO?” Let’s hope he knows now. NGOs–nongovernmental organizations–have won significant influence over global companies. The demonstrations against global capitalism at the G-8 summit in Genoa were the latest manifestation of a trend that–mostly quietly and behind the scenes–is defining our age. From Home Depot (criticized for its use of tropical hardwoods) to Starbucks (attacked for the treatment of workers on coffee plantations), from Big Oil (a perennial target for environmentalists) to tuna canners (think dolphins), companies are increasingly changing their business practices when pressured by activists.

Confrontation between activists and businesses isn’t inevitable. Indeed, in the past few years, companies from Shell to papermaker Westvaco have found common ground with environmental groups. In the wake of the riots in Genoa, I asked some smart observers of the scene how to make those relationships work. Their advice:

FIRST, ACCEPT THAT THERE’S NO GOING BACK. Manny Amadi, CEO of Cause & Effect Marketing in London, says companies can no longer expect to escape scrutiny from activists. Remembering the worldwide damage to its reputation that Shell suffered because of its troubles a few years ago in the Niger delta, of all unlikely places, he says, “Nobody can hide.” But Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of New York City-based public relations consultancy Ruder-Finn, says few companies have yet acknowledged this “profound change in our society.”

GOOD WORKS AREN’T ENOUGH. “You can’t buy corporate social responsibility,” says Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide in New York City. “You have to do it.” Amadi argues that many American companies confuse social responsibility with philanthropy. Nike long prided itself on writing checks to charities in the Pacific Northwest. But for a global brand, that wasn’t enough. When activists attacked the company because of working conditions in its Asian factories, says Amadi, a company that had thought of itself as a “good guy” had to rethink its game.

KNOW WHOM YOU ARE TALKING TO. Vasella divides organizations into those that genuinely want a dialogue with his drug company–he mentions the famine-relief group Oxfam–and those, like many animal-rights activists, that don’t. “Don’t try to convert the unconvertible,” he counsels. Talk to the “decent people” who respect different points of view. From the other side, Charles Secrett, executive director of Friends of the Earth UK, concedes that some activists believe talking to corporations is a sellout and only violent revolution will change the world.

THINK GLOBALLY. THE ACTIVISTS DO. Bloomgarden says the Internet makes it possible to “organize a global community around a certain issue in a split second.” In particular, if you’re an American firm, listen to what your European divisions and partners say. Many of tomorrow’s issues, particularly in the fields of environmentalism and international human rights, get an airing in Europe before they do in the U.S. Amadi observes that most European companies have a broader view of who their stakeholders are; American ones often concentrate solely on their stockholders. Secrett fingers Monsanto, once a world leader in biotechnology, as a classic example of a company that thought it could adopt American tactics and “resist and fight” those Europeans who opposed genetically modified crops. (It lost.)

It’s easy to dismiss petrol-bomb throwers, but when millions of young people feel that the opportunities and costs of globalization aren’t being fairly distributed, companies that appear sympathetic may gain a competitive edge. European and Japanese companies report that young graduates ask tough questions about a potential employer’s social practices. And European firms, with their more developed commitment to social responsibility, Edelman argues, are developing a “halo effect” among consumers worldwide. For American firms competing globally, that’s a reason to know what NGO stands for.

TIME.com ON AOL See time.com/global for more on relations between NGOs and business. You can e-mail Michael at melliot@aol.com

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