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The importance of standing up to activists

The importance of standing up to activists

Richard Berman is an NRN contributor and president of Berman and Company, a Washington-based communications firm. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News.

Berman and Company president Richard Berman

Coca-Cola is a classic, and one of the most respected consumer brands. It was probably a no-brainer for AMC television program “Mad Men” to close the series with the Coke advertisement “Hilltop,” known for the jingle “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” one of the iconic advertisements of the era portrayed in the show.

A lot has changed since 1971, when McCann Erickson produced a commercial with an international cast of singers “in perfect harmony” that praised coming together over soda. To take just one example of a shift, look to San Francisco, which is voting on placing a warning on soft drink advertisements that blames them for obesity and tooth decay.

This is yet another in a series of illustrations of the dangers of failing to respond to activists. Indeed, soft drinks have been so singled out that Dairy Queen which sells ice cream and is owned by Coke shareholder and soda lover Warren Buffett, also felt compelled to take action. While politicians in the kooky Bay Area may lead the political attacks, cultural attacks range far beyond the Left Coast.  

By marking soda as a unique contributor to childhood obesity, activists began a process of changing opinions and driving public decision-making. In hindsight, the soft drink industry failed to invest enough to manage activists who were changing public opinion at an early, correctible stage. They now face an expensive, uncertain and desperate rearguard action to stave off some very bad and unwarranted pressures.

The idea of “coming to public judgment” in stages was popularized by social scientist Daniel Yankelovich. He proposed that judgment proceeded in several identifiable, distinct steps, each more disruptive to the existing order. By not responding — or not responding aggressively enough — Coke ensured that its commanding height of respect would be lost to political pressure. It would lose to self-appointed morality health czars (and czarinas).

Anti-personal choice warriors, animal liberation groups and trade unions all exist to create controversy where it didn’t exist before, in this case, to turn having a soda with your kid into a political statement laden with controversy.

Initial awareness campaigns — think trumped up “death from obesity” statistics — are the opening bid. Then the rant moved to kids. (It’s always kids that are sympathetic victims.)

This lays the foundation for a climate of urgency to at least make some easy changes. Activists used the early momentum to get soda vending machines out of schools.

The public never bites on activists’ “bold solutions” at this stage. They are too disruptive, too soon. But quick fixes — easy moves that impose few costs on the public — become appealing. Animal liberationists know this well. It’s why they save their strongest attacks for luxury products, like fur clothing, and obscure farming practices like maternity pens for pregnant pigs, which appear to have no significant effect on the fewest number of consumers.

Strategic weakness is exposed most clearly here. Coupled with a quarter-to-quarter mentality, business operators see the failure of the “bold solutions” as the storm having passed. The activists are a nuisance. Not a problem. They are seen as faddish, not the harbingers of change in public opinion. In fact, the first failures are the eye of the storm — worse is yet to come. There comes a point — and the soda issue might be approaching this stage — where people begin to entertain bold solutions, even those that might make their own lives worse. Taxes, regulations and controls on availability come into play, and it’s no longer just kids. Even companies that might otherwise support the product being attacked capitulate, fearing singling themselves out as being out of step with public opinion.

The costs of early responses to activists and managing public judgment at this stage are relatively high. The costs of conceding what remains of the decision-making process is higher. At this stage, people are sensitive to messages. They are listening and may have even come to an intellectual judgment. Once they do however, they are set up to embrace an emotional commitment. Game, set, match.

No business or industry that serves a public good can responsibly allow its adversaries to drive the public judgment process. Developing a mentality of preemptive action has become necessary in the Internet age. Press releases coupled to “he said, she said” responses or typical crisis management plans are very yesterday. The examples of hysteria, bad statistics, junk science and twisted economics are everywhere. And they are taking a toll on those who don’t recognize what is happening to them.

How has your business responded to issues raised by activists? Join the conversation in the comments below.

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