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The ‘activist’ dilemma

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The ‘activist’ dilemma

As reputation specialists, exasperated clients come to us with the ‘activist’ dilemma. Will we be worse off if we engage and give them air or if we ignore and let them skew reality? They will be frustrated and exhausted by public attacks based on disinformation and oversimplification.

As reputation specialists, exasperated clients come to us with the ‘activist’ dilemma. Will we be worse off if we engage and give them air or if we ignore and let them skew reality? They will be frustrated and exhausted by public attacks based on disinformation and oversimplification.

“But it’s not true,” we hear.

“The issue is much more complex, but no one will listen.”

Before we go further, I must clarify that activism comes in different forms. In general, direct action by the public to bring about political and social change works as an important lever for progress. Think about the suffragettes, the abolitionists, the anti-Vietnam war movement, ‘Save the Franklin’ and Black Lives Matter. It is not reserved for one side of the political spectrum nor to any issue.

What I want to talk about here are the fairly new forms of predominantly digital activism that use deception to push an agenda regardless of the means – the kind of activity that also undermines the integrity of positive forms of activism.

The tactics vary greatly, but we are increasingly seeing a sophisticated level of coordination, infiltration and persistence. It is not uncommon to see:

  • A single truth taken out of context, and a web of disinformation created around it to spark outrage.
  • A cloud of distrust created around a single company or industry to achieve a larger goal, which is often not divulged.
  • The release of analysis by select scientists to prove claims that contradict the common scientific consensus.
  • The use of celebrity, one-sided "documentaries", sensationalism, conspiracy theories, news blogs and PR stunts to dominate search engine results, make noise and appear to represent more of the population than they actually do.
  • The targeting of uninformed audiences domestically or abroad with disinformation to build initial support.
  • The targeting of a company’s stakeholders to indirectly force a response.

The frustration for companies comes when an issue starts to impact their reputation because people assume the claims made by “the little guy” must be inherently true or that their analysis is more valid than the evidence provided by industry.[1] Equally frustrating can be the amount of media time and gravitas given to unsubstantiated viewpoints.

A common reaction is to resort to legal action, but this can be costly and give the accusations increased exposure and validity. At the end of the day, it comes down to building trust with your stakeholders, including the general public and the media, and that takes time.



[1] According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer (p6), the 'informed public' trust community members (69%) and citizens (65%) to do the right thing but only half (51%) trust CEOs to do so.

Some steps to start turning the tables:

1.      Look the truth in the eye

Ask yourself if there is any truth to the claims. What part of the business or its position are people finding objectionable and is there something you can do about it. If the criticism is focused around one issue that can be easily fixed, the argument will lose momentum and you might even receive praise for responding to public concern. However, if you avoid the root of the problem, it’s very hard to convince people you are being genuine about other claims that might be false.

2.      Find out the agenda

It’s important to understand what you’re up against so you know how to respond. Who is coordinating the attacks and why? It could be a disgruntled former employer wanting revenge from their loungeroom, a competitor looking to gain market share or a broader movement or belief system that is contradicted by your core business or industry. Forcing transparency around the group’s agenda and motivation gives people a fair chance to evaluate whether they still want to support the cause.

3.      Gather evidence

One of the biggest problems we encounter is the lack of verifiable data to support the company’s position. It becomes a case of your word against theirs and the public’s general distrust of big business and institutions often swings the argument in their favour. You need to show recent evidence and, importantly, how you got it. If the systems aren’t in place to gather the necessary data, it might require an upfront investment to create that transparency. Stories of lived experience are also useful. And if the information you gather doesn’t match what you’re saying, you need to be willing to address that. Again, being proactive in this area can turn it into a positive story.

4.      Speak to your stakeholders directly

You might have customers, suppliers, investors and regulators asking you for clarification. They might be worried about the flow-on effect or already be the target of attacks by association. Like anyone, if your stakeholders are getting all their information from the activist groups, they will either start to believe it or want to distance themselves from it. The best thing to do is take the time to explain where the criticism is coming from, what the facts are and what you’re doing to resolve the conflict. You can then start to communicate with the media and broader public.

5.      Counter the content

Sometimes these attacks can catch you off guard and you find yourself on the defensive. To take back control, you first need to make it easy to find clear and consistent answers to the questions being asked on your website and in your supporting materials. Next, you need to create diversified content that gives people the opportunity to hear your perspective, even if it doesn’t directly acknowledge the activist group or their accusations. At some point, you will have to decide whether to take part in the discussion created by them or create a parallel discourse. The amount you engage will depend on a range of factors including the expectations of stakeholders.

6.      Keep it simple

One of the ways activist groups are successful is by reducing a complex issue down to a simple fact. The natural response is to want to educate the community. While an authoritative voice can be effective against an emotional one, the message still needs to be simple and accessible to gain the same kind of traction. You can then build on those messages over time to create a more complex picture.

These issues can drag on and also re-emerge in new forms, but it's important to remember that responding appropriately can actually strengthen your relationships, reporting and reputation.

At Daymark, we have addressed the ‘activist’ dilemma with clients in the agriculture, retail and manufacturing, food and sport sectors. If you wish to discuss this, please contact Sarah Parkes on sarah.parkes@daymark.com.au

Published: 05/02/2021 Author: Tags: Back to News