The canary in the mine

When a pressure group complains… Listen

“Who are these people? Why are they attacking us? They have no legitimacy, they haven’t been elected by anyone. They don’t understand our industry. We’re correct on the science. Their arguments aren’t rational, they’re emotional”.

Pressure groups, interest groups, single issue groups, activists, NGOs. Whatever one’s term for them, some will recognize the language above. These are the phrases that typically accompany the gnashing of teeth inside a company when a pressure group attacks. Heels are then dug in; the company turns to communicators to defend the status quo operating position.

Many of us recognize the parody above. We offer another way to view pressure group criticism. Consider the following points:

The big pressure groups are better at this than you are – it’s what they do.

The core competence of your company is to make and sell a product or service. The core competence of a pressure group is to use communications to get what they want, to take on politicians and corporations. If you go head to head with a pressure group, you have a similar chance of success as if you moved into another industry overnight.

If a pressure group is coming after you, they already think that they will win.

Criticism from a pressure group may be the first time you are aware of the issue. But a pressure group will have planned in advance before approaching you. The group will have formed a strategy, and attacking you is a choice they have made because they think it is their easiest chance of winning the issue. Putting into place the typical corporate response mechanism will lose, because the pressure group has gamed out the scenario in advance. Its plans are based on the typical corporate response.

The battle is for public trust – beware a landslide!

We have all read the surveys that show that the public trusts pressure groups to a great extent, and politicians and corporations to a far lesser extent (most polls put trust in pressure groups on environment issues around 50 – 70%, corporations around 10 -20%) We all note this as interesting, yet when it comes to a potential public confrontation with a pressure group and the company press release is being prepared in response to an allegation, this piece of data isn’t worked through. Companies believe they have the correct facts, and that explaining these will win out. In fact, on a new issue that the public hasn’t heard about, if there is media coverage describing the arguments of a pressure group and a corporation respectively, your argument alone needs to achieve a political swing of over 25%. Ask a politician how often this happens.

The media and politicians know all of the above.

The media always wants to be on the winning side in an argument. The only people more driven by this motive are politicians. In a public fight between a corporation and a major pressure group, the media and politicians are far more likely to side with the pressure group (in which case the battle’s almost over), not because of the intrinsic merit of the pressure group’s argument, but because their previous experience tells them the pressure group will win.

Maybe they have a point.

We have analyzed issues raised by pressure groups over the last twenty years. In well over half of cases, the issue that has been raised by a major pressure group has eventually moved in the direction that the pressure groups were calling for. We are not saying that pressure groups win every campaign, or win them quickly – they don’t. Rather, at some point after the issue was first raised, there is a groundswell of momentum that creates some version of the original change being sought. What does this mean for a company? It means that when a pressure group raises an issue, if you are a company involved in the status quo or an investor in such a company, you should consider very carefully the issue being raised. Is the product or practice under attack sustainable? Not sustainable in the environmental sense, but in the business sense. Can the business status quo be maintained for the foreseeable future in light of potential public expectations? In many cases, the honest answer is ‘no’; the pressure group is the ‘canary in the mine’ – the first alerter of an issue that will not go away.

What should a company or industry therefore do?

Take them seriously. Treat them as you would competitors.

You have a new competitor – a competitor for public trust. How would you act if a new competitor emerged, or a competitor launched a new product? Do that here. Take it seriously, analyze, do the numbers, game it out, scenario plan, do market research. What will your business competitors do? Are you better off than them or worse? What impacts could timing have?

Who are you dealing with?

We have been describing how powerful pressure groups can be, but of course not all pressure groups have the same abilities and influence. A good rule of thumb is, if you or your friends and family have heard of the group outside of your work, take them very seriously indeed. If not, still do the analysis above. Map their motivation, their resources, and their opportunities (i.e. your vulnerabilities).

What are your options?

The usual response is to create the best communications position that defends the status quo. This may be your best (or only) option, but make sure you recognize defence of the status quo as a strategic option, not the only possible strategy. Remember, the other ‘players in the game’ (pressure group, media, politicians) expect you to do this.

Is there an approach which is surprising and therefore stronger? Be explicit about the criteria for your choice, and why you are choosing the option you select. Under what conditions would you choose a different option? Could those conditions come to pass? What would the signposts be? Would all of your choices still be open?

Not to plan in this way in our experience leads to oscillating between belligerence and capitulation.

This is not just an external issue, it is a business issue.

The work you have done to examine the validity of the issue, the sustainability of the business in this area, is critical not just in dictating the external communications strategy, but also the internal business strategy. Many issues that start as ‘external interference’ in the business framework, later become issues of market competition. How will you business outsmart your competitors on the issue?

Remember that your competitors, whatever they say at the meeting of the trade association, will be doing the maths.

June 2009