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Battling Big Business



Eveline Lubbers

Battling Big Business is not about sustainable management, corporate responsibility, or the merits of business engaging with NGOs. There are already plenty of good titles that address good intentions for real change within certain corporations.1 Rather, my aim is to expose those companies that present themselves as born-again ethical enterprises while at the same time resorting to a bag of dirty tricks. I want to make people aware of this double agenda, and conscious that there is a strategic component in virtually every PR act, and in every contact between corporations and stakeholders.

Understanding corporate deception can help people to recognize such manipulation in order to do something about it. The best way to counter these major powers—battling big business—is to unravel their strategies and expose them to the public. Only the sharing of information can diminish the effects of such corporate deception.

For this book I invited experienced activists and investigators to expose the counter-strategies which modern oil, tobacco, fast-food and high-tech industries are using against their critics: rebranding themselves as environmentally friendly; co-opting their critics; forming front groups which masquerade as citizens’ organizations; lobbying behind the scenes of governments and international agencies; suing their critics for libel; and employing private security firms to spy on, even infiltrate, the opposition.

Corporations are under more pressure from their critics these days than ever before. In a concerted effort to roll back the adverse publicity their environmental, labour and consumer records so often invite—and the attendant danger of lower share prices—many giant corporations are now resorting to counter-strategies in order to combat the activities of organized opposition.
Today, identity determines a corporation’s value, over and above its actual products or services. The more companies shift toward being all about brand identity (as Naomi Klein has explained in her book No Logo), the more vulnerable they are to attacks on this image. At the same time, corporations are becoming as powerful as governments, and must expect to be held to account in the same way. Consumers are demanding sustainability, accountability and transparency.
Losing control in the media arena as a result of activist pressure has become a public relations nightmare for the modern multinational. The industry learned that lesson the hard way. Shell’s lost battle over the Brent Spar and the human rights situation in Nigeria which haunts the oil company are now, as we will see later in this book, landmarks in the field of dealing with corporate social responsibility. Monsanto has become famous for its gross underestimation of European resistance against its introduction of genetically engineered products.

The power of spin can no longer protect big business’s growing vulnerability. PR departments are not sufficiently equipped to deal with today’s complicated stakeholder demands. Unless a company genuinely wants to change controversial policies, it is in desperate need of strategies to counter the effects of critical pressure.

First and foremost, a company needs to know what is coming its way. This means that nowadays business intelligence has gone beyond details about the world economy, faraway wars and news about the competition. It now must include an assessment of the risks of becoming the target of campaigners, boycotters or Net activists.

Publicly available information is not sufficient for this task. Informal data, however obtained, is worth its weight in gold. Desirable information is not limited to concrete action scenarios, but can be as broad (and vague) as long-term strategy discussions, impressions of the atmosphere inside a group, connections between organizations, networking possibilities, funding details—the list is endless. And so are the ways to get this kind of information.

The intelligence about activists, NGOs and other stakeholders, their ideas and plans thus gathered, provides the basic material for the development of corporate counter-strategies. Profiling what they do as ethical and sustainable has become common sense for modern companies, and part one of a general greenwash operation. What comes after that depends on the specific situation of the company in question and the political state of affairs at that moment.

Not every corporation will use the full scheme of deception described in this book. Some will stick to reaching out to stakeholders and beefing up their PR machines. Some, as we see in the following chapters, will engage in a complicated divide-and-rule strategy by dialoguing with ‘moderate’ critics and separating them from their ‘radical’ counterparts. And others resort to underhanded activities quite at odds with the public image they wish to portray.

When the pressure is high, some companies use several counter-strategies at once. As Shell was setting up its widely praised website, which addressed sensitive subjects like human rights and environmental damage and invited stakeholders to take part in a dialogue, it was also getting several private companies to monitor what was being said about it on the internet, as well as employing business intelligence bureaus, one of which was exposed for having one of its spies pose as an activist.

Too often in my work supporting grassroots activists, I encounter people who have got into trouble because they were unaware of these corporate reprisals. If left unchecked, corporate counter-strategies can weaken the stability of a group, drain the energy of individual activists, or dampen the success of a campaign. Whether out of denial, naïveté, arrogance, modesty, or a simple lack of time, activists often refuse to see that their campaign could become the object of manipulation. They might recognize the effects of corporate deception too late, if at all. Some security awareness could limit the damage.

Although tactics and strategies applied in European countries may differ from those in the United States or elsewhere, grassroots movements—from NGOs to NIMBY groups, concerned citizens to radical reformers—must realize they could be the next target.

The first part of this book presents a wide variety of case studies—worst-case scenarios, if you will—to explore the heretofore known limits of what can happen when a corporation shifts into high gear. The period of time these stories describe shows that the corporate front has been working on avoiding criticism for at least ten years, whereas some of the strategies even have their roots in the seventies: countering the boycott of the South African apartheid and the anti-Nestlé babyfood campaign. Each chapter focuses on a specific counter-strategy: dialogue, greenwash, censorship, monitoring or spying. Some overlap between the cases presented here is unavoidable, and this effectively links the stories. The cases here can be seen as forming a bigger picture, about which readers will, I hope, be able to draw practical conclusions of their own.

The second part explores tactical tools available to activists, journalists and other concerned citizens: exposure and beyond. Research and the publication of leaked documents are just two ways to counter corporate deception. Deconstructing the use of corporate symbols and subverting the meaning of powerful signs through simple acts of street theatre can be inspiring ways to expose them too. I hope this unravelling will inspire trust in alternatives, the power of creativity, and taking maximum advantage of new media tools. The keywords here are originality, playfulness, unexpectedness, smallness, speed, decisiveness, clarity and unstoppability.

The impact of anti-corporate campaigning grew during the making of this book, with the ‘movement of movements’ (often called the anti-globalization movement) in full swing. Over the past few years, the movement has been gaining in visibility, both on the streets and on the internet; attention in the mainstream media has been booming; and public opinion has been absorbing its ideas. Activists have constructively used the energy they brought back from large, sometimes global protest gatherings (also known as ‘summit-hopping’) to work out new ideas at the local level.

After severe police repression at the European summit and the G-8 summit in summer 2001, an increasing number of voices had been pleading for a new approach. A protester was shot down and severely injured in Gothenburg, Sweden, in June, and another was shot to death point-blank at short range in Genoa, Italy, in July. It was clear that things were going to change. But nobody could have guessed that what would change them would be something like September 11. The terrible events in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania have forced the movement to rethink its position, as Naomi Klein has pointed out in her Foreword.
Although linking campaigns to famous brands has been very useful as an eye-opener, an effective tool to help explain international affairs, it is now time to rethink this image war, but without immediately giving up the worthy anti-corporate campaigning that has fuelled the protests in the street for so long.

And the post-September 11 era has brought anti-terrorist legislation in the United States and the rest of the Western world. New bills whose contents had been on the agendas of right-wing and business groups for a long time were passed with little resistance. Civil liberties are being trampled in the rush to fight the undefined spectre of ‘terrorism’, the definition of which the FBI had broadened after the Battle of Seattle in 1999 to include ‘anarchist groups’ like Reclaim the Streets.

But the post-September 11 backlash will eventually fade. The immediate dislocating effects on anti-corporate campaigns, at least, will not last forever. Corporate social responsibility was still high on the agenda at a November 2001 global summit of public relations advisers in San Francisco.2 And one need only look at the vast differences between the broken-off WTO talks in Seattle and the agreements reached in Qatar to understand that we owe it to our friends in the global South to continue to fight against corporate power.

Apart from the ‘usual suspects’—major US and European firms—most corporations in Asia and elsewhere are hardly monitored. Enforcement of corporate responsibility is sketchy and uneven, and during hard economic times like these such policies are often cut back. Maybe now is the time to strengthen relations with our counterparts in Asia and the South and think about what we can do to address their grievances.

The Norwegian group NorWatch uses a method that could be useful elsewhere. This independent watchdog organization looks into the environmental and social track records of Norwegian multinational corporations in Asia, Africa and Latin America. NorWatch believes in getting first-hand witnesses to tell a story, so it visits the subsidiaries of the companies it investigates, inspecting the environmental situation, interviewing workers, meeting people in the community and listening to the opinions of local management.

The fact that NorWatch specifically targets Norwegian companies ensures media attention back home. This attention leads to pressure that helps the group influence the company’s policies, while at the same time giving a voice to workers and communities who are in some way victims of them.

NorWatch’s work has been fairly well received in Norway. It has added a concrete dimension to the globalization debate by using as examples people and companies members of the public have relationships with. This kind of campaigning could be one solution to the growing need to re-focus on locally based activities in light of both increased security and the need to re-focus on substance.3 Another attractive strategy would be to improve investigative research to better support activist campaigns, by expanding the capacity for it and freeing more funds to safeguard the continuity of works in progress.

The origins of this book can be traced back to the third Next 5 Minutes conference, a gathering of media activists held in Amsterdam in 1999. There, I brought together a panel of specialists to reveal the range and insidious nature of some of the tactics used by corporations in their fight to control the media and consumers. Afterwards, we discussed the difficult position of activist-journalists vis-à-vis the growing need for investigative research in this field. Apart from the time and money problem and the diminishing possibilities for publishing, getting taken seriously by the mainstream media circus proved to be a matter of urgency.

This book seeks to inspire independent journalism in support of activist campaigns, both by providing a platform for investigative works and analysis and by motivating a search for new ways to get the message across.

The last chapter, The Pandora Project, is dedicated to activities beyond the book. In order to expand the reach of Battling Big Business, several projects are now being set up in order to create a permanent forum of experts interested in exchanging information on counterstrategies, suggesting topics for activist research, and collecting resources for anti-corporate campaigners.
This book is only a start: the battle has just begun.


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