Monday, February 28, 2011

Anti-corporate activism through social media: how Greenpeace is leading the way

As events in the Middle East have shown, social media can play a critical role in connecting up protesters around a common cause. Whilst in this context the aims are political and the targets are state leaders, over in the world of business, companies are also finding themselves the unwitting subjects of campaigns fueled by social media.   And leading the way in exploiting new technology to confront companies is Greenpeace. After having claimed the scalp of Nestle last year with its viral Kit-Kat ad that prompted the company to change its sourcing of palm oil, Greenpeace has also recently rolled out its "Polluter Harmony" campaign in Canada to confront government support of oil sands companies. Last week, it claimed another victory with the US retailer Costco announcing a major sustainable seafood initiative after a Greenpeace campaign featured the company in a series of videos going through an "Ocean destroyers anonymous' program. And now, it has set its sights on the social media giant itself, Facebook.

Greenpeace is no stranger to the use of new technology in anti-corporate activism. As Ethical Corporation reports, the organization was propelled onto the world stage by its use of live video footage from its campaign ship in the mid 1990s. The organization also led the way in using YouTube videos to target companies, such as its Kimberly Clark campaign back in 2004. Since then Greenpeace has continued to exploit developments in new media to get its message across and engage people in its campaigns against big companies. For example, a 2009 campaign against an extension to Heathrow airport involved setting up a 'Join the Plot' website that enabled some 90,000 people around the world to become "beneficial owners" of land earmarked for the new runway, thereby giving them the right to be represented at any future inquiries about the extension. Plans to extend the airport were subsequently shelved by the UK Government.

The Kit-Kat YouTube spoof, which was part of a concerted campaign to stop companies sourcing from the Indonesian palm oil supplier Sinar Mas, was so successful that it made it into our top 10 stories of last year. As Greenpeace put it, “With nearly 1.5 million views of our Kit Kat advert, over 200,000 e-mails sent, hundreds of phone calls and countless Facebook comments, you made it clear to Nestle that it had to address the problems with the palm oil and paper products it buys.”  And, lo and behold, it did.

The latest campaigns have so far garnered attention, and no doubt ruffled a few feathers, but it remains to be seen what kind of success they've actually achieved. The Polluter Harmony campaign was started in the US in time for Valentine's Day 2010. This February, attention switched to Canada after the Environment Minister Peter Kent started extolling the virtues of the 'ethical' oil sands. It's a well executed campaign featuring toe curling spoof videos of big company bosses and politicians (or 'tar-crossed lovers' as the Canadian declaring their love for each other in the form of those nauseating love match clips used by online dating sites such as e-harmony. Similar in style are the Costco videos portraying the company as an initially in-denial 'ocean destroyer' who eventually completes the 6-step program on sustainable fishing and graduates from rehab. They've generated thousands rather than 10s or 100s of thousands of views, so in social media terms have not exactly taken off, but all the same have clearly been a nagging irritant for the company.

And then there's Facebook. Here the tool isn't just social media, so is the target. It's a smart piece of media planning for Greenpeace to be attacking Facebook through, well ... Facebook. The main focus is a Facebook page urging the company to 'Unfriend Coal' as a power source for its new data centre. Featuring a cute logo that uses the iconic Facebook thumbs up (and thumbs down), as well as a cheeky (or maybe just annoying) video that apes the "Story of Stuff" technique to remix the Social Network the campaign is gradually going viral. The page now has some 60,000 friends and the video has been played almost half a million times on YouTube.

But its not just the numbers we should be looking at here. The interesting things about the Greenpeace social media campaigns is the way they manage to harness the power of new technology to get people to do more than just click 'like' or watch a 2 minute video. Here's a few of the things we think they're doing right:

Using social media to get people on the ladder of participation. Joining a Facebook group doesn't represent much in terms of participation, but issues like coal, seafood, runways or toilet paper aren't all that interesting. So it's critical to make it easy for people to get involved, to get their foot on the first rung of the ladder of participation, before engaging them further. Greenpeace has been adroit at engaging .. and then educating ... through providing extensive resources, constant updating of new material, and encouraging people to go go higher up the ladder. Once people know more, there's a better chance they'll participate more and write an email, join a protest, or create their own activist videos or photos.

Mixing earnestness with wit and irony. Activist groups believe passionately in what they do. and the issues they deal with are often ugly and unpleasant. So it's no surprise that their way of communicating is  a preachy form of earnestness. But that often doesn't work with social media where attention spans are small and content is typically "lite". Greenpeace has been effective in using wit and irony in its "lower rung" communications coupled with a more earnest voice once people's interest has been pricked. That combination is something other organizations, including companies, have struggled with.

Creative imitation. Like it or not, but in terms of getting a message across about big brands, parody works. Spoof ads, Facebook icons, dating websites - Greenpeace knows how to leverage the tools and brands of big business to communicate to the public. But it does so in a creative way that helps them stand out from a busy field. As academics, we'd be tempted to call this intertextuality - where the codes or meaning of one text are transferred or re-produced in another.

Fitting social media into a broader strategy.With all the hype around social media it's easy to forget that it's just one tool among many, and just one part of a broader strategy to achieve an organization's aims. Greenpeace appears to have been successful in deploying social media as part of a social change strategy that also involves direct dialogue with companies, developing new solutions, and tackling issues at a policy level.

And a couple of things they could still do better:

End of life 'take-back'. OK, it's not the same as letting your e-waste end up poisoning someone in Africa, but the artifacts of social media also tend to stay around a long time, especially online videos and webpages. Once a company like Nestle or Costco has changed its policy, Greenpeace might want to think about what it should do with all the critical content it has left out there that is no longer an accurate picture of reality. Taking videos down from your own website is one thing, but a successful "push strategy" can leave content lurking all over the web. We like the latest Greenpeace video 'Changes' celebrating Costco's success following the 5-step program - it's a real step in the right direction - but do they have a policy on what should be done about all the rest of the stuff they've produced and disseminated?

Further integration. So far, Greenpeace has been better at creating new content than linking it all up, especially between its different campaigns and across countries. It's a difficult challenge, especially in a network form of organization like Greenpeace International, and where you're trying to talk in (at least) two different voices. But greater integration can pay-off in terms of clarifying the message and capitalizing on successes. Given how far they have come already, it doesn't look to be beyond them. Though maybe that's just another of the secrets of success in social media - the courage to give up control.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Andrew and Dirk,

    Anna Keenan here from Greenpeace International in Amsterdam. My sister in Indonesia spotted this blog and sent it to me, and I've sent your list of learnings - what we do right and what we could do better - around the global web team. If you've got ideas on how we could do better at 'take back' and 'further integration', then please do get in touch. We could raise it for discussion in next week's digital team meeting. :)


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