As much value as a business may place on its physical assets, there is something slightly less concrete it must keep a handle on at all times: its reputation. Showcasing practices in the mould of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and ethical trade can greatly enhance a company’s position in the eyes of consumers, and set it apart from the competition. Nevertheless, when a venture doesn’t openly disclose its fundamental values and the nature of its core working practices, it may leave itself more susceptible to the possibility of consumer protest, occasionally in the form of a boycott.
Of course, a coordinated refusal to buy a certain product or cooperate with a specific organisation is normally sparked by an unsavoury event or information leak, exposing what the campaigners would regard as some ‘home truths’ about the alleged guilty party. One only has to look to the horsemeat scandal, Bangladeshi factory collapse and ongoing tax controversy for some particularly relevant and topical examples that have served to thrust the very notion of consumer protest back into the spotlight.
Yet, far from having been brushed under the carpet prior to recent events, the threat of action is always simmering just below the surface, and is therefore dismissed at a business owner’s peril. “People power and consumers’ ability to change an organisation by voting with their feet or their purses is probably one of the most powerful drivers of commercial change and of organisations looking at the way in which they deal with their business and arrange their affairs,” says Rebecca Gudgeon, business development executive of communications consultancy Grayling UK.
In that sense, treating an impending or developing crisis as a positive wake-up call, as opposed to a threat, is a logical first step towards dousing the flames, and can help turn the tide in your favour. “I think organisations can use that sort of situation as an opportunity not only to repair their reputation, but also to take a market-leading positioning,” comments Gudgeon. “If one brand that has been at the heart of the issue – or any brand in the industry – can actually take a market-leading positioning by setting a standard or benchmark, or calling for an industry approach or charter that others will then buy into and follow, that can allow an organisation to position itself at the front of the ethical charge, and will give them a competitive advantage.”
Such an approach does appear to have become the norm over the last decade, with companies putting solid systems in place to identify any imminent campaigns at an early stage, and come out the other side with their reputation intact. Much of this stems from a realisation that the breadth of an organisation’s stakeholder base can quite easily be underestimated, namely by failing to factor consumers into the equation. “Customers are actually a stakeholder group. And customers who are giving you feedback, even if it is not the feedback you want to hear, are often friends of the business,” explains Richard Harrison, co-founder of the Ethical Consumer Research Association (ECRA). “Ultimately, there are people around you who feel they are affected by what you’re doing, and they are making a point.”
Engaging with campaigners as soon as you get a sniff of their intentions is a very advisable tactic. Yet, more than just being a simple recommendation, such behaviour has become engrained in the crisis-management strategy of many a corporate giant.
“From your brand or organisation’s point of view, it is all about understanding whether there is an opportunity for you to engage before the actual boycott takes place,” comments Duncan Gallagher, the UK and EMEA crisis practice lead at international PR firm Edelman. “The recommendation is always to try and take these conversations offline. If it is a social media platform, don’t have the conversations in public. Enter into a dialogue either via email or over the phone, but look to get your point of view across. If that looks like it is not going to work, you just need to put together your position, because you will be asked to comment.”
Depending on the reason for the boycott, this comment could either take the form of an admission of responsibility followed by a plan of action, or a reiteration of a company’s values and explanation of a particular mode of operation. Harrison identifies Primark as a model example here, highlighting the chain’s swift reply to its critics in the wake of the tragedy in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which cost the lives of more than 1,100 factory workers. “Primark was particularly singled out following the collapse but everybody has to some degree praised its response,” he suggests.
Meanwhile, the furore surrounding the tax arrangements of Google, Amazon and Starbucks presents a rather different challenge. “They are absolutely legally entitled to arrange their tax affairs as they have,” says Gudgeon. “If they feel that goes against the swell of public opinion, it is then incumbent upon the organisation to decide whether that is going to have such an impact on their business that they are going to have to realign their tax arrangement. If they don’t feel that is necessary, there is a really strong case, from a reputational point of view, to say an organisation has to set out its stall very clearly.”
All said and done though, boycotts have become a rarer breed in recent years. “Our broad narrative is that boycotting is to some degree being replaced by third-party assurance on labels,” explains Harrison. “We know that people don’t necessarily believe companies when they try and defend themselves, which is why third-party accreditation can give consumers confidence that a company is doing the right thing.” And acquiring such accreditation shouldn’t be too hard if you operate your business transparently and ethically at every step of the way.