Businesses should get over themselves and start to work with the grassroots movements that are taking them to task over social and environmental issues. In a previous post, we looked at the incredible power of new social movements in a networked society. Fighting them is a foolish plan. However, many businesses still spend a lot of their time and energy doing just that.
What fighting looks like
“Fact- checking” and debunking
In the minds of many business strategists, the public opposes their projects because “they just don’t get the facts.”… or worse, they’ve been fed lies by advocate groups. To remedy this, they launch extensive ‘debunking’ initiatives, aimed at correcting misperceptions.
Regardless of who you think may be right or wrong here, why is this such a bad idea?
In almost every case where a movement rises in opposition to business interests, there are first order questions motivating advocates. By this I mean that fears for health, safety and wellbeing are running high as well as anger at the fact that dangers are being imposed on them. Rather than addressing these fears, which may often be warranted, the business or industry at the heart of the conflict is coldly telling the public that they are wrong.
- Energy in Depth (Industry-funded site) and it’s ‘debunking’ of Gasland, a film which rings the alarm on the dangers of hydrofracking
- Walmart ‘fact-checking’ a New York Times article in response to criticism of its wage practices.
As defined on Wikipedia, Astroturfing is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participant(s). Typically, this entails the creation of false front groups that advocate for an outcome conveniently in line with business interests.
This is the most visceral and cynical response to grassroots advocacy and unfortunately, it answers to many business strategists’ first instincts when facing opposition. “Why don’t we just fund a counter-movement to put a stop to this?” – I can confirm having heard these thoughts from clients more than once.
Aside from being plain evil, Astroturfing is a horrible idea for many other reasons. The most important of these being that a revealed astroturf campaign solidly confirms a businesses’ position in the ‘villain’ camp. For now, not only is the business a rich and powerful bully, it is also sneaky and ready to deal in deception to triumph over public interests. Again, pure evil.
Though it may be surprising that businesses still try their hand at this in the Wikileaks era, here are a couple of recent examples:
- Global coal giant Peabody Energy has recently been outed for buying almost 500,000 Facebook friends to simulate a grassroots coal support movement
- BP accused of hiring online goons to harass its critics during the Deepwater Horizon disaster
- Canada Action “…an entirely volunteer-led grassroots movement” that has sprung up spontaneously in support of western oil sands pipelines
A better investment of time and energy
Wouldn’t just be easier to find a way to align with some of the things grassroots movements are upset about? To truly listen to these concerns, search for some common ground and work out a win-win solution? Yes, that takes energy and patience. But surely not more than the tactics described above! More on that in my next post.