by Judith Richter
Excerpts from a briefing paper on the Nestlé Counterstrategy
published by The Cornerhouse, March 1998
One of the major challenges facing citizen groups campaigning to prevent,
minimize, limit or
regulate socially irresponsible or environment-degrading practices of transnational corporations
is how to deal with the corporations' increasing call for 'dialogue' and 'cooperation'. Many
transnational corporations say they have seen the error of their ways and have rectified their
mistakes. Eager to do their best for 'our common future', they claim to be listening to their critics.
Thus 'dialogues' with companies or industry organisations are frequently portrayed as the way
ahead for citizen groups seeking corporate accountability, rather than 'confrontational' strategies
such as boycotts.
What are the dangers and limits of doing so?
An answer requires exploring the ways in which calls for 'dialogue'
or 'co-operation' have masked
attempts to manipulate public debates; to silence or neutralize critics; and to create an image of
Knowledge of corporate PR strategies may help activists and concerned
citizens to recognize
manipulative strategies and distinguish them from industry behaviour that is truly indicative of
change, and thus be in a better position to counter such strategies.
To be in a better position to resist corporate attempts to manipulate
public debate and engineer
consent, corporate accountability activists need to learn how better to distinguish between
marketing -selling a product- and corporate relations - selling industry views (although
manipulation is key to both kinds of activities).
'PR literacy' can be increased by reading PR textbooks (in particular, glossaries and sections on
issues management and sponsorship) and investigative work on corporate PR strategies.
Spaces for democratic decision-making can be recovered in various ways:
Trying to limit opportunities for industry to gather information on activist plans.
For instance, activists should ask journalists and others interviewing
them about their funding
sources and request to see copies of their publications before giving interviews. If they do enter
into discussions with industry, they should try to avoid giving away strategic information about
their financial and human resources and action plans; they should however, loudly and clearly
voice their concerns about what they regard as the public issue.
Unveiling hidden PR practices
Action groups could set up public data banks on persons involved in
(the use of third parties) 'front organisations' and on corporate-instituted 'grass root
organisations'. They could try to expose publicly the most influential or consciously-manipulative
persons or organisations through their own publications and, if possible, through other media.
They could institute an annual competition for the best 'corporate camouflage' of the year (similar
to existing awards for the 'top polluter, for instance), if at all recognized as such of course!.
Legislation requiring politicians, government officials and health professionals receiving industry
funds to declare that they are doing so could increase transparency in public debates.
Given PR practioners' vital role in engineering consent to anti-social business practices,
action groups could attempt to expose PR practitioners' violations of the various voluntary codes
of conduct instituted by major professional PR associations such as the Public Relations
Society of America or the International Public Relation Association.
Resisting suppression of public issues
The culture of industry secrecy, mechanisms of censorship and silencing
need to be seriously
addressed. Health Action International, for example, is currently co-organising a campaign for
public access to information underlying decisions giving market approval for new medicinal drugs
in Europe. New coalitions are needed to work for national Freedom of Information Acts, and
against structural censorship in the media. Groups should do all they can to expose and resist
industry attempts to silence critics.
Trying not to be used to enhance the image of an industry
To prevent, or at least limit, being used to enhance a corporate image,
and action groups should continue discussing all these issues among themselves and establish
clear policies on funding. There is a need to explore the long-term structural consequences of
NGO's and social and research institutions replacing dwindling public funds with industry
sponsorships, which they are under pressure to do.
Organisations with a high public standing, such as UN agencies and church organisations,
should be particularly careful not to let themselves be used for image transfer or to enhance the
legitimacy of a criticized company.
Resisting corporate attempts to manipulate public debate
Ideally, this encompasses a dual strategy: publicly exposing attempts
to silence, delay, divert or
fudge, on the one hand: while at the same time, developing and publicizing other analyses and
alternative visions, on the other.
Given their limited financial resources and human power, however, action groups often have to
decide between these two strategies. Yet greater exchange and new coalitions between industry
critics from different movements - consumer, health, environmental, democratic media, social
justice and women's movements, for instance - may conserve institutional resources.
Engineering of Consent is focussing on the ongoing babymilk
campaign and the
Counterstrategies developed by Nestlé since the seventies.
The Cornerhouse briefing is dealing with: Corporate PR, The Art of Camouflage and Deception,
Issues Management, Intelligence Gathering and Assessments, Image Management, Suppression
of Public Issues, PR Laundering, Manipulating the Public Debate.