Images (from 2012 protest against GE in Boston) by Chris Faraone
Say friend … is a multinational corporation with a terrible reputation, a limitless PR budget, and a penchant for backroom deals with fawning politicians bleeding your state for hundreds of millions of public dollars that would be better spent on virtually anything else? A multinational named General Electric?
Are you afraid of the consequences of such malfeasance for your community and for democracy itself? Want to do something about it? Then look no further. What you need is a corporate campaign. Sourcewatch—a fine resource for journalists and researchers alike—has a concise definition of the term:
Corporate campaigns were developed in the mid twentieth century by activists and organizers such as Saul Alinsky, and honed in recent decades by labor unions and non-governmental organizations in the environmental, social justice and consumer movements. The goal of a corporate campaign is to publicize undesirable behavior or practices by a corporation through various strategies and tactics that can force change upon the company and thus allow the campaigning organization to claim a victory for its cause. At any given time organizations and even individual citizen activists are waging scores of corporate campaigns, some of which last for years, with varying results.
In my own experience, a corporate campaign is a limited strategy. It does not automatically lead to a broader democracy movement in a society, but can be a stepping stone along that path. It is not always a progressive strategy, although progressives probably use it more than any other political current. NIMBY activists in rich towns use it to keep apartment buildings and wind farms out. Right-wing Christians use it to attack companies that publicly support things they oppose—like reproductive rights, gay marriage, and the wheel.
That said, a corporate campaign is still a useful arrow in the proverbial quiver of justice. And here’s how you can run one.
- First, decide that a campaign is needed. Gather some like-minded friends into a loose organization, and agree to work together towards a common goal.
- Second, see if there’s already an organization running such a campaign. If there is, check them out. Do they seem to be a real grassroots expression of the needs of some definable community? If they do, then consider joining them or working with them in coalition. Or do they look like what seasoned activists call an “astroturf” group—a fake organization typically set up by some powerful interest or other to help confuse its antagonists and stop them gaining public support. If so, give them a wide berth and spread the word that others should do the same.
- Third, start researching your target corporation. Talk to librarians, journalists, academics, and experienced campaigners for advice. Find out everything you can about the company —with a focus on their recent activities. Look for proof of bad behavior in their business and political dealings.
- Fourth, research possible remedies. What have other communities done to reign in the power of your target corporation and corporations like it? Court action, regulation, and legislation are all good avenues to pursue.
- Fifth, publish your evidence. Papers, articles, broadsides, podcasts, and videos are all good ways to get the word out.
- Sixth, if you haven’t already, start fundraising. You’ll need money to win a corporate campaign. You might get some small grants from open-minded foundations early on, but your lifeblood will (and should) be donations you raise from your personal network, your new organization’s network, online via crowdfunding using platforms like GoFundMe, and through fundraisers of various types. You’ll never have anything like the money of your opponents. But you’ll have the strength of your convictions, and—if you do your job well—the support of your community. And can therefore overcome any obstacle if you persevere.
- Seventh, organize your allies. Pull together community organizations, religious groups, non-profits, labor unions, friendly politicians—anyone who is going to aid your campaign and is willing to work with you.
- Eighth, build a solid social media presence. Make use of widely available free communications technology to make friends and turn them into supporters. Create a page on Facebook, and a central Twitter account—both with your campaign’s name on them. Regularly feed your presence with updates about campaign activities and links to relevant material. Converse directly with your followers as interaction is key on social media. Keep in mind that you may never have to create a full website for your campaign if you make good use of social media, but it’s usually a good idea to at least launch a blog on one of the many free blogging communities.
- Ninth, prepare your public relations campaign. Develop contacts in the press. Plan events and actions that will get and hold the public’s attention. Encourage journalists to cover those events and actions.
- Tenth, hold your events and actions: open forums, lobby days, protests, and boycotts are all good ways to pressure politicians and corporate leaders to change their policies.
Finally, mobilize as many people as you can to support your campaign. Be sure to give them simple things they can do to show their support and attract even more people: like wearing one of your campaign buttons or putting one of your bumpers stickers on their car. If you’ve done your job well, so many people in your community will agree with you that it will become possible to win your campaign goals—whatever they are.
For a useful model, check out the recent successful #NoBoston2024 campaign—which wasn’t a traditional corporate campaign, but that nonetheless had all the elements of one. And it was a slam dunk resulting in a resounding popular victory against putting the City of Boston in hock for decades for a sporting event with a long history of corruption.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.
Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
Executive editor and associate publisher, DigBoston. Executive director of Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Former founder and editor/publisher of Open Media Boston. 2018 & 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Award Winner.