TCS Daily


Orwell Would Be Proud

By Nick Nichols - May 21, 2002 12:00 AM

They travel around the country in tie-dyed T-shirts banging homemade drums and singing ear-crunching songs. They set up websites to organize themselves as they tour from city to city. Wherever they go, local police must mobilize to prevent rioting.

If you guessed the fans of Ozzy Osbourne, you're way off. No, this is the new anti-corporate protest movement, one that has become so zealous, so diffuse and so devoted to full-time rabble-rousing they could make even Ozzy's fans blush.

And soon they could be coming to a town near you. That's because this is the time of year when most major American corporations hold their annual shareholders meeting. For most investors -- like you, for example, if you have a 401k retirement account -- those meetings are an opportunity to trim the boardroom sails and make a company more efficient. But for the anti-everything activists, it is an opportunity to sponsor frivolous resolutions so varied you practically need a racing form to follow them all.

Things have truly gotten out of hand. Take the annual International Monetary Fund meeting in Washington last month, for example -- the Super Bowl of activist gatherings. The crazy-quilt of protest topics included globalization, the War on Terror, racism, legalizing drugs, Israeli self-defense and host of other grievances. In fact, these aren't even called protests any longer. Organizers now refer to them as "convergences" and they are meant to draw together virtually anyone interested in protesting anything.

They may be badly dressed, they may march out of order, but one thing they are not, is disorganized. They have highly effective clearinghouse websites such as Protest.net that schedule every aspect of their actions in detail. What to bring, where to stay, how to form an impenetrable human chain and what tear gas feels like -- all are laid out for the activist on the go.

Don't have an issue? No problem, showing up and banging a pot is all that counts. Protest.net explains: "If you wait for the perfect issue -- the one that will do pure good for all without any risk of problems -- before doing anything, you will end up spending you entire life waiting."

For businesses on the receiving end, the array of full-time groups and the capriciousness of their targets can be bewildering -- and costly. Trade associations like the Grocery Manufacturers, the National Restaurant Association and many others can all recount the loss in revenue, jobs and reputation that resulted when the protest crosshairs moved over their industry.

Earlier this year, for example Wal-Mart, was the target of a "convergence" called "National Buy Nothing Day." Activists descended on targeted Wal-Mart stores to push empty shopping carts in long lines designed to clog aisles and prevent customers from buying anything. And just last Friday, the Center for Science in the Public Interest attacked pizza restaurants. The year before, the same group went after movie theaters' buttered popcorn.

What's more, nearly every company in the Fortune 500 is the target of some kind of protest or boycott. Victoria's Secret is repackaging its beauty products because Greenpeace didn't like the plastic containers. Home Depot has signed a pledge to use timber approved by the Rainforest Action Network.

What can businesses do to fight back? For starters, don't roll over. When you give in to this kind of seemingly benign extortion, you only invite further activism.

Giving in to environmental activists last year, Coca-Cola increased the amount of recyclable content used in their bottling. This year, the eco-activists are back at Coke's shareholder meeting to sponsor a resolution demanding "comprehensive" recycled bottles. Just last month, "social investment" firm Calvert Group filed shareholder resolutions against Gateway and Hewlett-Packard, insisting that the companies "study the environmental impact of used personal computers."

For corporate leaders tempted to appease or quiet the cacophony, take a deep breath and think again. These are permanent protests and the things they object to fundamentally are the capitalist system, free markets, and technological progress. To seek compromise with them, as the Irish say, is to plow the sea. An 18-year-old in a tie-dyed shirt with a bucket on his head does not have all the answers.

So let these activists shout to their hearts' content. The right to be heard does not include the right to be taken seriously.

Nick Nichols is CEO of Nichols-Dezenhall Communications Management Group in Washington, D.C., and author of Rules for Corporate Warriors: How to fight and survive attack group shakedowns.
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