Engaging with Activists: 10 Tips from the Trenches

Just as with any relationship in the early courting stages, activist engagement is never easy at the start. Most companies just don't know how to talk to activists. Make no mistake―activists hardly know how to talk to companies either. But then, activists don't need companies to like them as much as companies need activists to like their business practices—or at least leave them alone. Don't feel bad when they target you. It happens to the best of companies.

Being the target of an activist campaign, or potential campaign, isn’t necessarily the end of the world. Activist engagement could lead to many different kinds of fruitful relationships, including partnership programs, joint lobbying or information sharing. But, the most valuable part of engaging with activists is that it allows companies to learn different perspectives on key issues affecting their business and may make their commitments stronger. And hopefully, your companies will generate goodwill making activists less likely to initiate a campaign against you. If nothing else, they may at least warn you of any potential actions and give you time to prepare and react.

Below are a few tips you should follow if you decide to engage:

1. Find out what they do: Most activists focus on more than one issue, the same way most companies have more than one product or service. Do your homework and find out a bit more about the activists and what they regard as their “bottom line.” Activists often adhere to a stated mission that speaks to their focus and how they work. This will help you determine if there is any potential for a long-term, constructive relationship or whether you are too much at odds with each other.

2. Know their differences: Activist groups might have a similar mission―to make the world a better place―but each group believes its approach is the right approach. Putting activists together in a room would be like putting you in a room with your biggest competitor; it’s likely that there will be some tension. Respect the differences between activists by not putting them together in the same room for a consultation exercise. Activists are proud and competitive too. Meet each group separately in an environment that works best to put it at ease.

3. Understand their commitment: It’s important to know the personal commitments of activists because an insult, even a minor, unintended one, can result in a disproportionate reaction. Questioning or belittling their commitment will only hurt your relationship and could inspire them to strengthen their campaign against your company. At the same time, building personal relationships based on common interests can be a solid foundation for future engagement.

4. Start by just talking: Rather than expecting immediate, ground-breaking strategic partnerships, have a conversation to learn about each other and build trust. There might be a few obstacles to overcome, such as perceptions of what “big business” is all about and a feeling that you want to “greenwash” your company by associating with them. Take it easy and let them get to know you. Don't create expectations, just listen and learn.

5. Begin early: Companies tend to start talking to activist groups only after a campaign has started. By then, the majority of the damage has already been done, and activists are in a difficult position when it comes to developing a relationship. Start early and target specific activist groups that are either very powerful or have some interest in your industry.

6. Know you’re not alone: Don't make the mistake of thinking yours is the only company that is the target of an activist campaign. Not only do most activists have numerous focus areas, but they also tend to have numerous targets within a single campaign. Make sure you know who else they are targeting. See if you can build alliances with other companies or at least know what those other companies are doing to address activist demands. Remember that activists will play you against each other if they know you are unaware of what your competitor is doing.

7. Don’t hold open the wallet: Many companies think activists do what they do to attract more funding. The truth is most of them don’t. First and foremost, activists want to affect change. They are judged by their supporters and donors on the change that was achieved, not the size of their budget.

8. Realize you can’t always agree: Activists are not your business partner, nor are they dependent on you for their existence. If they start to agree with you on everything they will lose their ability to be seen as legitimate, independent third parties. Besides, forcing them to say only good things about you will undermine the reason you want them on your side in the first place. Areas of disagreement can strengthen the view that you are serious in your engagement and want to show other stakeholders that activists like you even though they don’t like everything you do.

9. Relax, it’s not a popularity contest: It doesn’t matter whether you’re right or wrong. The majority of people will believe activists before they believe a company. Fighting activists in public only makes it look like you’re trying to bully them, and chances are whatever you throw at them, they will throw back at you. Don’t try to beat them by arguing with them. You can’t win in the eyes of the public.

10. Remember, companies that react first make easy targets: Companies tend to react to almost every inquiry or letter from major activist organizations. Even though open engagement is crucial, remember that activists like to throw out the campaigning net and see who they can catch. Activists will send out numerous letters to different companies and wait for a reply. They can use pieces of the response in media materials, outreach to supporters, new letters to the company, protest slogans, etc. They are waiting for someone to make a mistake and blink first. If it’s a campaigning net, hold out for a bit before you react.

This article was written by Henk Campher, who serves as a vice president at Cone with expertise in CR strategies such as stakeholder engagement and integrating corporate responsibility initiatives and communications with brand development and identity. It originally appeared on www.coneinc.com.