A common feature of the coverage of the “credit crunch” has been the reporting of “ordinary people’s anger”. At the moment, this anger is largely something which politicians are dodging but not, so far, meaningfully directing. There have been outbreaks of “banker rage” which have given some indication of the extent to which politicians will wish to be on the winning side of popular opinion. However, less commented on has been the likely effect on pressure groups. The mobilisation of anger into action is a core activity of pressure groups around the world. If the economic consensus is roughly right, that unemployment is going to rise remorselessly for the next 12 to 18 months at best, real cuts in wages and public sector services, widespread foreclosures on unpayable mortgages and all the other indicators of economic decay, there is plenty of anger to go around.
The environment movement have become impressively professional in the dark arts of media manipulation and political positioning. These lessons have not been lost on a wider range of other “issue categories” where groups have seen how vulnerable a brand reputation can be to a well run campaign to associate the product’s reputation with undesirable brand characteristics. From palm oil in biscuits (“wiping out rainforests kills orang-utans”) to Somali pirates (“they have no choice – the European Union’s fishing policy depletes their protein source”) the blame game is returning to favour.
Finally, there is the growing realisation among some of the world’s largest pressure groups that popular opinion in an economic recession is going to lower their political influence. This is a paradox that will drive much pressure group activity; they have to be seen to be effectively channelling public anger, for there is a small but real risk that they become the object of it.
Rising petrol/gasoline costs, unreliable electricity supplies, real jobs leaving and the much promised “green jobs” never quite arriving, are all likely to be deployed in an overall attempt to blame the greens.
On past form, the pressure groups will focus attention on consumer brands and multinational corporations’ reputations. The perceived failure of the Copenhagen conference on climate change to achieve anything meaningful, simply feeds the belief that the normal political channels will achieve nothing.
This is a very potent brew rapidly rising public anger in which a variety of groups in society have an almost existential interest in directing it at others.
Those who felt that an economic recession would “see off the greens” and other pressure groups, may be in for a traumatic shock if those pressure groups can effectively turn themselves into the channels of public anger.
Depressing though it may be, the defining feature of the next couple of years in the public space will be blame allocation. Make sure you don’t look blameworthy.