Linda Butcher: David can still slay the corporate Goliath

The fear of reputational damage remains a potent weapon in the campaigner's armoury, writes our columnist

Linda Butcher
Linda Butcher

For many campaigners, the prospect of seeking behavioural change in corporations or large companies is a daunting one. Their size and power could easily dissuade anyone with a just cause from taking them on, directly or indirectly.

However, there is one weapon in the campaigner's arsenal that, like David's sling and stone, can unsettle any corporate Goliath: the fear of reputational damage.

The concept of reputation management began as a PR tool used to promote companies above and beyond ordinary media relations. It proved a double-edged sword, however, as shown by the work of campaigners such as Sheila McKechnie when she was chief executive at Which?, in challenging large companies on ethical, fairness and cost grounds.

With the spread of the internet, modern reputation management is mainly an online tool, used to determine, define and protect an organisation's reputation through related search results, social media activity and comments on review sites, such as TripAdvisor and TrustPilot.

Whatever the medium, though, today's companies and corporations know that any damage to their reputation can have a devastating effect on sales, stock-market value, levels of influence and other factors. Here are some examples of effective reputation-based campaigning.

In the mid-2000s, Camden Council, in north London, had a serious issue with flyposting – promotional materials being put up illegally. This contributed to an increase in vandalism, litter and graffiti.

When it became clear that Sony was one of the main perpetrators, despite claiming to be environmentally friendly, Camden took out a corporate antisocial behaviour order against the company, generating significant media coverage. On the first day of the subsequent court case, Sony threw in the towel and agreed not to flypost again.

In 2013, anger and dismay over the level of gender-based hate speech on Facebook, and the social network's failure to act, prompted women's groups to mobilise mass tweets and emails to companies whose products appeared alongside misogynistic content. Advertisers started to withdraw, fearing reputational damage, and Facebook finally changed its moderation policies.

Lastly, bookmakers Paddy Power placed an advert in 2014 about the Oscar Pistorius trial that read: "It's Oscar time. Money back if he walks." The petition site responded with an online petition and campaign, resulting in a record number of complaints and forcing Paddy Power to withdraw it.

As these examples show, campaigning that affects a company or corporation's reputation can bring about real and positive change. So don't be afraid to be a David to their Goliath.

Linda Butcher is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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