Battling Big Business
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.
deception can help people to recognize such manipulation in order to
do something about it. The best way to counter these major powersbattling
big businessis 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.
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 inviteand the attendant danger
of lower share pricesmany giant corporations are now resorting
to counter-strategies in order to combat the activities of organized
Today, identity determines a corporations 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. Shells 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 businesss growing vulnerability. PR
departments are not sufficiently equipped to deal with todays
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.
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 detailsthe list is endless. And so are the ways to get
this kind of information.
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
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.
and strategies applied in European countries may differ from those in
the United States or elsewhere, grassroots movementsfrom NGOs
to NIMBY groups, concerned citizens to radical reformersmust realize
they could be the next target.
The first part of
this book presents a wide variety of case studiesworst-case scenarios,
if you willto 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
Apart from the usual
suspectsmajor US and European firmsmost 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 companys policies, while at the same time giving a voice to
workers and communities who are in some way victims of them.
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
This book is only a start: the battle has just begun.