HR Policy Global

S02E04 - The Anatomy of a Corporate Campaign

The fourth episode of the “Wild Side” details the anatomy of a corporate campaign, what they are, how they are organised, and how to identify a company's vulnerabilities. National corporate campaigns began in 1899. Today, global campaigns go viral with the help of social media. Tools of the trade are not strikes or workplace labour sanctions but actions that damage a company’s reputation in the eyes of customers, legislators, politicians, shareholders, and the public. Notable real-world examples are “Killer Coke”, “Rotten Apple”, “The Real Toy Story”, “Just Stop It”, and “Make Amazon Pay”.

Key Takeaways: 

  • Two examples of global corporate campaigns targeting and linking company vulnerability. [1:22]
  • Origins of a global campaign and common tactics intended to damage a company’s reputation. [5:54]
  • Global corporate campaign design and risk profiles. [8:48]
  • Unpacking Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. [10:38]
  • How companies can protect themselves from global corporate campaigns. [12:25]


I’m Alan Wild and welcome to the Wild side podcast series … managing employee relations in modern times 10 minutes at a time.  Today we’ll talk about corporate campaigns, their origins, who is behind them and how they are planned. The subject is consistently one of the most popular in our live programs. This is probably because the campaigns are played out in the public domain, are designed to damage company reputations, and to grab the attention of the C suite.  The age of social media has given a niche sport Olympic status.  Of course, the whole point behind a campaign is that they are very public and very personal. Can you imagine how a trade union recognition issue in the United States in a subsidiary of a British company gets resolved by an NGO campaign in Southern Africa.  I’ll tell you in a moment ….  

…  … as you know, I’m the Senior Adviser to the HR Policy Association … the leading voice of CHRO’s today. 

As I said, I’m going to look at what corporate campaigns are, how they are organized and how you can identify your company’s vulnerabilities … and what better place to start than with a couple of examples. The two cases demonstrate different forms of targeting and the linking of vulnerability. One is linked geographically and the other links issues.  The geographic linkage example is a while ago … the years 2006 to 2008 … but is probably the best example of a well-planned and executed truly global corporate campaign.  You should note that, even having settled the trade union issue, the campaign by the NGO “War on Want” continued in the public domain under the banner “G4S Globalizing Injustice”.   In case you worry about breaches in confidentiality … all of the materials I use here are readily available in the public domain. 

Here we go.  An American security company, Wackenhut, was pursued for recognition by the services union SEIU with no success on the part of the union.    The company was taken over by the UK headquartered global security company G4S, and the SEIU reached out to it’s global affiliate UNI Global Union.  UNI Global initiated contact with the UK headquarters to complain about the alleged anti-union behaviours of its US subsidiary to no effect. UNI reached out to the well-known  NGO War on Want.  War on Want had long been interested in human rights abuses in the security industry in Southern Africa in an extremely critical report detailing what we might call over-aggressive security behaviours – some of which involved G4S. 

With the publication of the report, UNI global made an offer to G4S suggesting that they could work together on the security issues in southern Africa to make G4S a part of the solution not in the cross hairs of the problem.  They started to work on the issue … and at the same time, in 2008,  Wackenhut  recognised SEIU as the bargaining agent in nine US districts.  This triangulation of issues succeeds because it uses a vulnerable spot for the company in one country to secure an instruction by HQ management in another country to resolve an unconnected labor relations problem in a third country.

The second example containing a different kind of linkage is much more modern. The “Make Amazon Pay” campaign links the issues of the environment, taxation policy, global dominance, union recognition, pay and working conditions and a charismatic leader under an umbrella campaign involving NGO activists and international trade unions.

The two cases raise an important issue. Corporate campaigns are rarely, if ever, simply about the company. The company is simply a vehicle, a poster child if you like, for the pursuit of a broader campaign that is piggybacked onto by trade unions for their own ends.  In short, the issue itself can rarely be solved and the “victim” company can transition from one to another. We can all remember when Macdonald’s and the MacJobs campaign marked the company as the world’s worst employer. That moved on to Walmart and today it is Amazon … but it will move on.  Just as G4S recognition of the SEIU in Wackenhut didn’t make the case go away, nor would union recognition issues in the US be resolved in the eyes of unions if Amazon changed their stance on US labor policy. The target would simply move on. Trade union recognition battles and associated public campaigns have long been a major part of local labor relations history in the United States and will not go away.  For many years a huge inflatable rat has been erected outside the headquarters of companies indulging in alleged anti-union behaviors.  

Global campaigns started in the early 1990s by what we would now call human rights activists in companies like Nike, Mattel and Levi Straus.  Next, “name and shame” corporate campaigns designed to pressure company behaviours targeted Nestle, Coca Cola, Pepsi, Unilever, UPS, H&M, Apple, WalMart and the users of so-called conflict minerals. They moved on into tech with campaigns around executive behaviors in Uber and Google and the end use of products and services with Microsoft.   The campaigns often focus on catchy titles … in Nike’s case “Just Stop It”; Mattel “the real Toy Story”; “Rotten Apple”; IBM “Roadmap to Hell”; and “Make Amazon Pay”. The campaigns rarely use industrial action and involve strikes and loss of pay … they aim to damage company reputation by targeting clients, customers, investors, and governments.   What was primarily the  property of human rights activists has become jointly owned with trade unions …. mostly associated with anti-union behaviours, but also citing child labour, slave labour and discrimination being seen as human rights abuses.  As we move forward, the recent emphasis on the environment has seen the trade unions turn to the working environment focused on health and safety and so-called algorithmic management.

Before I talk about the anatomy of a campaign there are important issues to note.   First, the core issues will not be resolved by the acts of any one company – the fight against child labour, slavery, equity, the environment, contract labor, the gig economy, and safety and health issues are long term targets.  What campaigners look for is a recognizable target for the campaign. Second … the best way to avoid a corporate campaign is not to have been involved in one in the first place.  Companies like Nestle and Walmart have been serial targets on multiple issues … in Nestle’s case from baby milk to chocolate to shrimp imports from Thailand. Amazon is one of today’s multi-faced campaigns.

Some campaigns are opportunistic and based on a company misstep … #Google walkout would be an example. Others are deliberately researched and well planned.  An exercise I often use is to give HR People the challenge to design a corporate campaign against their own company.  The results of many of these have been replayed in boardrooms on the risk management agenda.  Something to read is a booklet produced by the UK Trade Union Congress called “What kind of Company are you keeping … a short guide to Strategic Corporate Research”.   The guide shows how to look at a company through two lenses … union strengths and company vulnerabilities.  To identify vulnerabilities they look at the company through three angles … the parent … its shareholders, management, board members, lenders its history and strategies.  They then turn to operational issues.   The industry, competitors, raw materials, procurement, products, distribution, customers and clients, facilities, the workforce and subsidiaries.  Finally, they look at outside stakeholders. Health and Safety authorities, the environmental footprint, regulators, communities and politicians.   Have a go at your own risk profile … give yourself just your local knowledge, an internet connection and two hours.  You will be surprised.

My primer for understanding campaigns is a book written in 1971 for civil rights activists in the United States by Saul Alinsky and used in the successful presidential campaign of one Barak Obama.  Alinsky offers thirteen “Rules for Radicals” … the title of the book.  Here are a few that have stood the test of time and become stronger in the socially networked era;

“Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have”.
“Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules”.
“A good tactic is one your people enjoy”.
“The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself”.
“Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it”.

To see these ideas in practice let me read from a UK news report.  “Private Equity executive Damon Buffini was the subject of a bizarre trade union campaign when the GMB [a UK union] paraded a camel outside his church in protest at Permira’s takeover of the AA. The stunt referenced the biblical aphorism that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”.

Building and maintaining a positive reputation is the company’s strongest defence.
IBMs long standing good reputation meant that when the company was targeted by international trade unions the response of the public and policy makers was generally “you know I really can’t believe that about IBM”.  This is why activists will continue to target companies that have “history” …  “I see x are at it again”.    Take a look at a company like Unilever and the lengths they go to build and maintain their reputation in both internal operations and their value chain in an industry that is fraught with risk. 

In a later episode I’ll be talking about the international trade movement and toward the end of the series I’ll cover developing a risk map for your company.    If you want to learn more about what we do or participate in one of our formal programs you can get me on [email protected] or on Linked In.
I’m Alan Wild and you have been listening to “a walk on the wild side”.