It’s no longer just the danger of bad stories going viral. In the digital age, corporations face a very different and unprecedented threat. Now, an array of hostile forces has integrated strategies, collaborating in multifaceted campaigns to put targeted companies or industries on the defensive, damage reputations and secure significant changes in corporate policy.
They’re often referred to as “corporate campaigns” or “global strategic campaigns.” The adversaries include labor unions, activist groups, minority shareholders and plaintiffs’ lawyers. Their agendas are mutually supportive, such that a lawsuit or an attack on a company’s environmental practices can be leveraged to force concessions to union organizers.
If such strategy is formidably protean, the Internet is just the right tool to consolidate this global collaboration. These adversaries use Big Data to gather astounding volumes of information about companies. They organize shareholders online. They launch personal attacks against executives. They don’t hope the content goes viral. They make it viral.
Corporate social responsibility is an easy starting point for adversaries to depict responsible actions by companies as mere Band-Aids. When companies like Walmart (a favored target of corporate campaigns) and Target signed on to the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety after April’s Rana Plaza building collapse killed 1,100 people, it was a cue for labor groups like the UNI Global Union to counter-attack. Corporate culpability for Rana Plaza was purportedly implicit as the agreement was a “sham” absent third-party monitors. Yet, if corporations don’t sign accords or write checks, that too betrays their moral inadequacy.
UNI – a federation of over 900 affiliated unions and 20 million members in 140 countries – is a prime mover, with significant resources and research capabilities. One 2013 document by its Commerce Sector is rich with data on Walmart’s plans to increase its global workforce (and potential new union members). Importantly for corporations that entertain any hope of fighting back, the document is also a digital roadmap to victory, highlighting Wal-mart’s aggressive use of phone and Skype and a strong social media agenda.
Labor is predictably the frontline as organizers work globally, especially on behalf of service workers. Unions draw on multiple potential liabilities, using corporate governance as a cudgel, for instance. Earlier this year, UNI held a public hearing on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), encouraging whistleblowers to come forward. Meanwhile, the adversary has found many welcome supporters among regulators and public officials, even as activist minions disrupt shareholder meetings, inflaming governance debates or holding transactions hostage.
Because the impact of any single issue may reverberate companywide (i.e. a strike in Brazil could portend other vendettas, perhaps a local environmental problem), the focus of corporate planning must be equally broad in scope. To that end, no one is better positioned to play a leadership role than the GC. The concomitant business lessons are compelling:
Corporations can no longer plan for crises that have beginnings, middles, and ends. Corporate campaigns are sustainable ventures and companies must think in terms of a veritable Hundred Years War at every level: What is the long-term viability of a CSR plan? What must IR look like in an era when disruption itself is the activists’ goal?
Corporations cannot fall asleep at the digital wheel, not when the adversary’s global agenda is only achievable on the Internet. Companies and industries must match them strategy for strategy.
If the corporate response is to be as necessarily holistic as the attack, there can be no silos, no synapses between IR, HR, etc.
Enterprise risk needs to include 24/7 reviews of online including activities by NGOs, plaintiffs’ lawyers, and regulators that suggest linked campaigns. Labor/employment practice is no longer just about contracts and conditions. A new sensibility is required to win the game.