For some issue activists, illegal is just a sick bird

Many companies seem to be constantly surprised that some activists are prepared to break the law in support of their cause. Yet this is a largely unspoken reality of issue management, and a serious challenge for organizations facing determined and single-minded opponents.

A good example is the Greenpeace assault on Shell facilities in Britain in July, which saw activists blockade and shut down 74 petrol stations in Edinburgh and London to protest against the company’s plan to drill for oil in the Arctic. There were similar actions in Denmark and Germany, and Greenpeace also blocked access to the Shell Headquarters in The Hague.

British and European police made arrests and protesters will duly appear in court.  But what can a company do in the face of such opposition?  Shell UK issued a statement recognising the right of individuals to express their point of view and said they had met with many individuals and organizations who oppose drilling off Alaska. “We respect their views and value the dialogue. We have extended this same offer for productive dialogue with Greenpeace.” Which is polite and conciliatory, though of course Greenpeace proudly refuses to take part in any such dialogue.

By contrast a threatened illegal action a few weeks earlier triggered a robust and successful response, when British protesters tried to destroy a GM wheat crop at the government-funded  Rothamsted Research Institute in Hertfordshire. Massed police used a trespass order and mounted officers to successfully block hundreds of activists determined to storm the property.

More importantly the scientists had launched an effective communication offensive – including its website, Twitter feed and a YouTube video – to explain the importance of the research and directly urge the protesters against violence and criminal damage. They also offered to fund a public debate in a neutral venue, which the protest group declined.  The Guardian science Editor commented: “The Rothamsted scientists have won public support.  In stark contrast to the 1990s, the media overwhelmingly condemned the campaigners’ threat of vandalism.”

So what is the best strategy when threatened with an illegal protest? State your case openly and boldly; leave it to the police; and don’t listen to the lawyers who advise legal action such as an injunction. And ignore “security experts” who suggest using spies or private detectives against individual activists. The “fighting fire with fire” approach has famously backfired on far too many big corporations who should have known better.

Any organization planning to use legal muscle against activists – even if they are breaking the law – would be well advised to remember the biblical battle between David and Goliath.  No-one remembers what they were fighting about, but everyone knows who won and who was the villain of the piece.

Footnote: Managing Outcomes reported in March how Lucy Lawless (aka Xena Warrior Princess) joined other Greenpeace protesters to occupy an oil-drilling ship in New Zealand, destined to take part in Shell’s Arctic exploration. After numerous legal delays they have now pleaded guilty to a reduced charge, apparently negotiated to protect the TV star’s ability to work in the USA. They will be sentenced in September.

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About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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