Last week, Daniel Vasella, chief executive of Novartis, the Swiss pharmaceuticals company, hit back at animal rights activists who have attacked both him and his company, including the desecration of a family grave. This fightback has been an unusually aggressive public response by a CEO. Many prefer to keep their heads down and wait for protests to fade. How should business leaders engage with hostile critics: confront them, bring them inside for a talk or ignore them?
THE MANAGEMENT THINKER
Daniel Vasella was right to protest at this outrage. He has done more than most CEOs on societal issues, and this was a personal insult of a particularly unpleasant kind, at which we should all protest.
Few issues are as charged as animal welfare, but that doesn’t mean the agenda is unmanageable. I have been involved in projects that engaged parts of the animal welfare movement, with considerable progress. Multi-stakeholder forums can boil down complex agendas to a few priorities for a company.
We also have involved activists who have more extreme views, though this requires sensitive handling, coupled with a willingness to make real changes – and a clear sense of where to draw the line. At the same time, some companies have made progress in reducing the numbers of animals “sacrificed”.
We may yet see a shift in attitudes on the treatment of animals, from toxicology labs to the US’s sprawling feed-lots, but in the meantime companies such as Novartis know that this is one of those areas where they are almost always going to be on the back foot.
The writer is a founder of SustainAbility, the consultancy, and author of ‘The Power of Unreasonable People’
THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE
This is a no-brainer – hostile critics don’t go away just because you won’t talk to them. In fact, it usually inflames the situation. CEOs need to engage critics – it’s even possible there is a justifiable gripe that the CEO needs to be made aware of. I can’t promise I’ll win a critic round but I’ll never stop trying and I’ll become better informed in the process.
“United Broke My Guitar” was set up by a passenger who failed for a year to get compensation when his guitar was broken on a United Airlines flight. He wrote a ditty that has had nearly 6m YouTube hits. I bet United wished it handled the complaint differently.
The internet has empowered customers so, fellow CEOs, you ignore this phenomenon at your peril. (How long will it be before Ryanair is on the back foot with its attitude to customer complaints?)
The writer is CEO of Creston, the media group
Many businesses are no longer acting on the defensive or denying criticism. Instead they have built responsible behaviour into the heart of their work and will be reaching out to critics to hold meaningful dialogue and promote mutual understanding. For both businesses and campaigning organisations, the more constructive approach is to resolve issues together before they become a public argument.
Oxfam’s principle is that if we want a business to consider our standpoint, our first approach will always be dialogue. This doesn’t mean campaigning won’t happen, but we will maintain conversations with a company, even if we are running a proactive campaign against them. Ultimately, we want to influence them to change bad practice into good and if we cannot persuade them through dialogue we will move to a public approach. If a discussion with a consumer-focused business doesn’t influence them to change policy, we will let their customers know through media and social networking sites; this is often a situation that most businesses would prefer to avoid.
Where we see injustice, we will campaign, but we also understand that meaningful dialogue is ultimately more likely to lead to positive outcomes.
The writer is chief executive of Oxfam UK
Ignoring them is not an option. Engaged conversation is the preferred route, as long as both sides are prepared to listen, and the antagonists stay within the law. There have to be limits to the hostility.
This approach runs to the heart of what we call public engagement – what will public relations look like beyond the digital revolution? This requires constructive dialogue and the emergence of new and responsible partnerships that advance shared interests among multiple stakeholders: business, governments, NGOs and, of course, citizens (even activist ones).
In this new, democratised and bottom-up world, it is OK to disagree and it’s equally OK to promote a singular viewpoint, so long as transparency and honesty is the default position. We call this “open advocacy”.
Our London office was recently targeted by a bunch of naked protestors from Climate Camp, angry at our work for Eon, the energy group. Our immediate response was to engage them in dialogue (once they had put their clothes back on) and to have an open conversation. A few remain in conversation with us today.
The writer is CEO of Edelman PR in London
Get alerts on Work & Careers when a new story is published