WHEN THE ACTIVISTS COME TO CALL: Pressure groups hold a cosh over firms like Huntingdon Life Sciences, intimidating staff and barracking suppliers, customers and investors. And it's not just those with a connection to animal testing that are at risk. Othe

WHEN THE ACTIVISTS COME TO CALL: Pressure groups hold a cosh over firms like Huntingdon Life Sciences, intimidating staff and barracking suppliers, customers and investors. And it's not just those with a connection to animal testing that are at risk. Othe

by STEPHEN COOK
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It was a murky winter's evening when the 45-year-old executive got out of his car to walk the 12 paces to his front door. He heard footsteps behind and looked round to see two figures wearing black balaclavas rushing towards him. 'As I turned, they sprayed something in my face,' he recalls. 'I don't know what it was, but suddenly I couldn't see anything and it hurt like hell. Then they began to hit me. As I staggered around, I fell in through the door and managed to slam it behind me. I was on the floor, cursing and shouting that I couldn't see.

'Then they smashed the windows and the glass fell all around me. While all this was happening my wife and three-year-old daughter were standing in the hall, watching. They called the police and an ambulance. I stuck my head in a bucket of water. It was painful and itchy, but my sight came back quite quickly.'

This attack, in the sinister parlance of a nebulous group called Shac (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty), is known a 'home visit'. You qualify for one if, like this executive, you work for Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), the Cambridgeshire company whose work on laboratory animals is legal but controversial. Shac brags about these home visits on its web site.

In scenes reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange, employees of HLS have had their cars burnt, their windows broken, their children terrified. It's a nerve-racking experience to have 20 people in skeleton-masks outside your home, chanting abuse. Brian Cass, the firm's managing director, had his scalp laid open when three people beat him with staves in the drive of his house.

A 37-year-old scientist had to flee his house with his pregnant wife and baby daughter when his car was set on fire in the drive early one morning. 'I feel as if I'm being stalked,' he says. 'I don't dare let my daughter pick up the post because there might be razor blades in it. It's like having an illness - you can forget it all for short periods, but then it jumps back at you. If it all went away, it would be like the sun coming out from behind the clouds.'

HLS has attracted particularly extreme activists because of its involvement in animal testing, but few companies today can sit back and say it will never happen to them. We live in an age of rapid-reaction, single-issue pressure groups, protesting about a range of subjects from environmental damage to health issues and sweatshop labour. Fortunately, few groups are prepared to use personal violence and intimidation in their campaigns. But even the most moderate and constitutional groups have demonstrated that they can run effective and damaging campaigns, and the impact on business and reputation can be immense. Protesters on the doorstep are every manager's nightmare.

Des Wilson, who led many successful campaigns, including one against lead in petrol in the 1980s, is now an adviser to industry. He says companies are more switched on than they used to be. 'They're less arrogant and leaden-footed. And the more enlightened pressure groups are interacting better with business - for example, in Jonathan Porritt's Forum for the Future.'

The experience of HLS has also made more business people take notice of the potential damage that pressure groups can do. The BioIndustry Association's annual seminar on risk and reputation attracted 40 participants this year, twice as many as last. But there is evidence that many companies are still not facing up to the problem of proliferating pressure groups, nor tackling it in an informed and realistic way.

The recent past is littered with object lessons in how not to handle things. The expensive and self-defeating 'McLibel' lawsuit launched by McDonald's in 1994 is an example. England's longest libel trial ran for two and a half years and cost McDonald's about pounds 10 million, and although protesters Dave Morris and Helen Steel were convicted they became popular heroes. And there was Nike's hostile reaction to accusations made in 1996 that it used sweated labour in its Asian manufacturing business.

Denise Deegan, a PR consultant specialising in managing activism, says the evidence shows that 'organisations that come under activist pressure tend to be unprepared, do not know how to respond, and either fail to respond at all or respond ineffectively. There is a temptation to bury one's head in the sand and hope that activists will go away. But they won't.'

How should companies deal with the challenges posed by activists? Of all the advice distilled by consultancies and industry associations over three decades, there appears to be two dominant principles: enter a dialogue whenever possible, and be prepared to change.

Alternative strategies of ignoring activists, going into battle with them, infiltrating their ranks and refusing to move from an entrenched position usually end in tears, says Deegan, whose book Managing Activism has just been published. She recommends 'a peace process-type approach involving negotiation and conflict resolution'.

When challenged over sweated labour in Asia, Nike refused to talk to activists and said the subcontractors responsible were beyond its influence. The ensuing campaign culminated in a US tour by a worker from one of the factories, feeding a media frenzy about long hours, low pay and hazardous conditions. Nike ran newspaper ads appealing to the public over the heads of the activists, but by this time the media were also pointing the finger. After two more years and its first financial losses, the company embarked on an improvement programme. Says Deegan: 'These actions could have been taken much earlier in negotiation with activists, saving it much embarrassment, grief and expense.'

She also cites the case of a New Zealand logging company, Timberlands West Coast, which attacked and tried to discredit its opponents until its 'dirty tricks' campaign was exposed. HLS, whose image was damaged when an infiltrator published a video of an employee hitting a dog, might also have done better, she says.

'Perhaps, if HLS had foreseen the problems they encountered, they might have chosen to do things differently from the start - for example, been more strict about procedures, carried out research into activism and been more open and proactive. But things always seem clearer in hindsight.'

She cites North West Water as an example of a company that handled its opponents well when it was faced with the problem of siting a big new sewage plant on the Fylde peninsula in Lancashire. Surfers Against Sewage and the Marine Conservation Society were among those lined up against it.

The company formed the Fylde Forum, which drew 40 representatives from local councils, statutory bodies and pressure groups. Decisions about siting and design were thus devolved to the bodies that felt most affected by them. The firm won a reputation for openness and transparency.

The rapid-response strategy of Swedish furniture retailer Ikea has earned it a reputation as 'Teflon-coated' - no criticism seems to stick to it. When shown in a TV documentary to be selling carpets made by children chained to looms in Pakistan, Ikea terminated the supplier's contract and began working with Save the Children and Unicef to halt child labour. Now Ikea helps fund a Greepeace International project to map disappearing forests.

But even this year's Teflon companies could be next year's targets, argues Article 13, a consultancy that advises companies on ethical standards. Much of its advice is about conforming to environmental and social legislation, but it stresses that wider awareness is vital. 'There's a sense in which ethics is where the law stops and the dilemmas start,' says Jane Fiona Gumming, director of Article 13. 'What are ethics and where do they fit into the company? Who decides what it ethical? We help businesses ask those questions of themselves and a wider spectrum, including staff, customers, suppliers, regulators, government, the local community, environmental and pressure groups.'

She adds: 'Often when things go wrong it becomes clear they've looked at only one part of the spectrum. The world is changing so fast that there are hidden risks and opportunities all the time, and companies need to be scanning for them. Once they start doing that and listening to their stakeholders, we find they build an innovative culture that delivers to the bottom line as well.'

But what should happen in a case like HLS, when the pressure groups are not interested in dialogue? Huntingdon is talking instead to two constititutional groups: the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection and the National Anti-Vivisection Society. Talking to co-operative groups in this way, says Deegan, may lead to an introduction to unco-operative groups. 'The relationship building process is likely to reduce the risk of universal condemnation. Key audiences are also likely to see the organisation as open, accountable and seeking to improve its functioning.'

Deegan also recommends open and active relationships with the media, politicians, regulators and employees. Companies should be frank about the risks that their activities may pose, such as chemical spillage or electromagnetic radiation, and have a well rehearsed plan to seize the initiative if an accident happens.

If a company senses that an activist group is prepared to damage its property or attack its staff, it is usually quick to instal physical security - HLS is 'better protected than most army bases', according to one employee. Firms can also get advice from specialists like International Corporate Protection (ICP), whose activities include response to kidnap and ransom. But Marcus McCaffrey, an ICP director, says it's important not to overdo it. 'If you start putting up barbed wire and searchlights, people begin to take an interest and to think that you have something to hide and protect. There's a balance to be struck - a fortress mentality disenfranchises the workforce, creates media attention and can gives credibility to pressure groups that may be targeting you.'

But there's a substantial list of things individuals can do to protect themselves: don't advertise your address, use a Post Office box instead of getting mail at home, set up a fast link to police, keep away from windows, garage your car, check underneath it before you drive, vary your routes and timings, grow high trees round your garden, instal a passive infra-red detector system.

'Don't make yourself an easy target,' says McCaffrey, a former army officer. 'Activitists go for the line of least resistance, so if you make yourself unpredictable you weight the odds in your favour.'

Pressure groups have proliferated in recent years and, like business, their activism is now on a global scale. The coming of the internet has made it much easier for protesters to communicate with other groups and to organise themselves. One German web site, Norbert's Bookmarks for a Better World, boasts more than 30,000 links to sites dealing with topics ranging from peace to women's issues and 'many more future questions'.

The versatility and flexibility of contemporary activists has been demonstrated by the emergence of the new breed of 'antiglobalists'. These highly organised and mobile groups boast about their ability to 'swarm', as they did at the World Trade Organisation's meeting in Seattle in 1999, the IMF meetings in Washington and Prague and the May Day riots in London last year.

The Countryside Alliance and the protesters against fuel tax in Britain in 2000 also showed that the type and social class of protesters are widening. Demonstrations were once the pastime of students, trade unionists and anarchists, but the middle classes and small business people are now regularly seen marching with the best of them. The incinerator, the traffic scheme, the mobile phone mast - we are all protesters these days.

'Home visits' and threats to shareholders and banks that invest in target companies have prompted new measures, expected to become law before the general election. These include a right for directors to withhold their addresses from published registers, police power to move demonstrators away from private homes, and the inclusion of e-mail and text messages in the scope of the Malicious Communications Act. The BioIndustry Association is pressing the Government for further measures, including more money for police forces, and has urged banks and finance houses not to withdraw funding from threatened companies: fund managers Phillips & Drew and the investment arm of HSBC were among those that cut links with HLS. Barclays did the same, saying: 'Our first responsibility is to the safety and welfare of our staff and their families. We cannot guarantee the safety of our people because of the actions of a small group of animal rights activists.'

More recently, the two market-makers for HLS, Winterflood Securities and Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, announced that they were bowing out, potentially marking the end of public company status for Huntingdon. The decision followed a 'home visit' to a Winterflood director (see panel) and British Biotech's subsequent announcement that it was halting contracts with HLS.

Capitulation to intimidation and the new legal restrictions both put an open society in jeopardy. Des Wilson points out that the 'nuttier' pressure groups create problems for the more responsible ones by endangering genuine dialogue. But the threat faced by most companies is likely to be less extreme than in the case of HLS. Many pressure groups are wedded to using only constitutional methods such as lobbying, representation and publicity.

Others will take 'direct action', which usually means they are prepared to break the law on matters of conscience but will stop short of personal violence and the targeting of individuals and their families. The approach of Greenpeace, which claims success for many of its campaigns, ranging from saving the whales to banning nuclear waste, is the 'industry standard' for such groups. Blake Lee-Harwood, media director for Greenpeace, says its methods are essentially non-destructive and defends the attack on a genetically modified food crop in Norfolk in 1999 as 'a small destruction to prevent the larger one of releasing GM pollen all over the county. In general we have a high respect for people and their property.'

He adds: 'We work on the proximity principle - no secondary picketing, if you like. We will climb an incinerator and cap the chimney, but we won't go and stand outside the house of the captain of the whaling ship giving him a hard time. That's indirect action, it's too easy, and the danger of intimidation is too high.

'In our book, no-one should feel fear: they may be profoundly angry - blue in the face with anger - but we will always strive to do things safely. So, no, we would not engage in the tactics used by some of the elements in the animal rights movement. We deeply respect the law and campaign for more legislation, but we're prepared to break laws we believe are wrong or inappropriate.' It's a big step from this approach to the 'home visit', and the issue of animal testing and experimentation seems uniquely capable of prompting a small minority to take that step. The result is a brand of terrorism that claims an ethical rather than a political basis, but it has failed to attract mainstream support in society.

Des Wilson was a firebrand in his day but never believed in destruction or personal attack. His advice to businesses confronted by activists would always be to seek an intelligent and responsible dialogue. 'But the extremists tend not to like dialogue. I call them punk campaigners because they don't want progress - they just enjoy the game of battering and abusing. And when you come across these guys, what I say is be tough, take them on, and if the worse comes to the worst let the police do their stuff.'

WE KNOW WHAT YOU DO. TORTURING ANIMALS. KILLING FOR PROFIT

A tiny woman with a scarf over her face and a safety pin through an eyebrow is prowling along the fence, banging steadily on a tambourine. 'We know who you are, DuPont,' she howls. 'We know what you do. Torturing animals. Killing puppies for profit.' A big copper shadows her, smiling nervously, truncheon flapping on his thigh. A cold Sunday afternoon on the outskirts of Stevenage, and about 80 animal rights protestors have descended on what they believe to be a customer of Huntingdon Life Sciences. It's a demo that could be heading your way if you've anything to do with the pharmaceutical industry - anything the fundamentalists of the animal rights fringe consider a contribution to cruelty. They're a motley crew - shaggy men with soft smiles, earnest women in woolly hats studded with badges, a few hard-looking, black-clad youths in heavy boots. Some of them make forays round the back of the DuPont building, where a local resident confronts them. 'Why don't you f*** off!' he shouts. 'People live round here, you know.' The police ease the demonstrators away, pulling masks off faces so the video team can get pictures of them. The noise of drums and whistles is deafening. 'Animal rights, bruv, innit?'grins an excited 15-year-old. 'They treat dogs like shit, so we'll burn down the police station.' He's soon joking with the coppers, banging his head against their body armour. In the car park a demonstrator's spaniel and a police Alsatian strain towards each other. Soon they all disappear, heading for the next target in a cavalcade of old vans and family cars plastered with 'animal defender' stickers. The scene is replayed at the Roche plant on the edge of Welwyn Garden City, but this time a demonstrator who refuses to remove her mask is arrested and led off, yelling, to a police van.

The police win the media game with a radio item accusing the protestors of spreading foot-and-mouth. During the demo some protestors go on a well-policed 'home visit' to Richard David, a Roche director, and Ian Throssell, director of Winterflood Securities, which deals in HLS shares. Next morning the SHAC website crows: 'Throssell knows we will be back to tell him what we think of him at any time we like.' Two days later, the FT reports that Winterflood and Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein are no longer to act as market-makers for HLS. Then British Biotech says it's placing no more research with HLS. Home Secretary Jack Straw calls for City institutions to think very carefully about the message they give to these animal rights criminals'. SHAC is clear enough about the message it's getting: that intimidation works, and that its goal of closing HLS by 2003 is a step closer.

THE LOUDEST VOICES OF PROTEST

GREENPEACE

Leader: Thilo Bode ex-development manager at the German Bank for Reconstruction and Development and Development in Africa and Asia.

Aims: Established in 1971 as anti-nuclear group. Now campaigns on all environmental issues.

Funding: Pounds 102 million 1999 from supporters including Sting, Sir Elton John and Tom Jones. Refuses donations from governments or companies

Key successes:

1997 - Nike, Xerox, 3M, FedEx, B&Q, Homebase, Do-it-All, Magnet, Kinko, Knauf, Schwank and Lenzing announce they will cease buying wood from ancient forests in British Columbia

1995 - Shell UK reverses its decision to dump the Brent Spar oil platform in the Atlantic Ocean

Key failure:

2001 - Forced to back down on sabotage of GM crops after campaigners, including executive director Lord Melchett, were arrested for damaging a field of GM maize in Norfolk in 1999

Web site: www.greenpeace.org

Friends of the Earth

Leader: Charles Secrett, executive director, member of the Advisory Council of the Environmental Law Foundation

Aims: Established in 1971 as grass-roots environmental pressure group. Now represented in 61 countries

Funding: Pounds 6 million a year in the UK

Key success: 1995: The 'death' of nuclear power. British Energy scraps proposed new reactors at Sizewell C (Suffolk) and Hinckley C (Somerset), following years of protests

Key failure:

1997 - Newbury Bypass finally gets the go-ahead despite the efforts of Swampy et al

Web site: www.foe.co.uk

Compassion in World Farming

Leader: Joyce O'Silva animal rights campaigner

Aims: Established 1967 by dairy farmers Peter and Anne Roberts. Campaigns against cruelty to animals in modern factory farming

Funding: Undisclosed sum from voluntary donations, boosted by high-profile patron Joanne Lumley

Key successes:

1999 - EU announces Europe-wide phasing out of battery cages

1997 - Agreement in the Amsterdam Treaty that animals are recognised as sentient beings

Key failure

Live export of animals continues despite vigorous protests by CIWF, notably at Storeham in 1995

Web site: www.ciwf.co.uk

Corporate Watch

Leader: None - Corporate Watch is a workers' co-operative

Aims: Founded in 1996 with a remit to 'support activism against large corporations', Oxford-based Corporate Watch provides research into a range of areas from the oil business and GM crops to call centres and house-building

Funding: From voluntary contributions and paid research commissions. Customers include Greenpeace and Reclaim the Streets

Key successes: Corporate Watch briefings contributed to last year's GMO protests and events such as London Stop the City demo (May 2000) and the Climate Change protests in the Hague (November 2000)

British Union for Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV)

Leader: Michelle Thew, ex-head, National Deaf Children's Society

Aims: Founded 1898 by Frances Power Cobbe, calling for an end to live animal experiments. Specialises in revealing cruelty, as at, Huntingdon Research Centre (1989); London Hospital Medical College (1991); Shamrock (GB) Ltd (1992); and Hazleton UK Laboratories (1992)

Funding: Receives an undisclosed sum from public donations. Celebrity supporters include Twiggy and Jude Law

Key success: 1999 - After a decade of campaigns and boycotts, Procter & Gamble ceases animal tests on about 80% of its products

Key failure: Reputation for shock tactics and militancy is damaging reputation

Web site: www.buav.org

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) Europe

Leader: Ingrid Newkirk

Aims: Established in the US in 1980 by Alex Pacheco to promote animal rights. European arm launched 1993

Funding: Revenue of pounds 17.5 million in 1999, pounds 16.6 million from contributions

Key successes:

1998 - Benetton permanently bans animal tasting on its products

2000 - Clarks shoes and The Gap stop buying black-market leather from India

Key failure:

1999 - Controversial anti-McDonald's poster of a cow's head captioned 'Do you want fries with that? alienated many supporters

Web site: www.petaeurope.org.

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