fresh thinking

Lessons learnt from dealing with dissent

Mark Hannant, 20th September 2016

I've spent the last week thinking about adversity. As if my choice to be a migrant entrepreneur and set up a business in India didn't bring enough of that!

My current wilful immersion in the subject of adversity is because I'm preparing to speak at the Learning and Organisational Development Roundtable (L&OD Roundtable) next month on how brands manage their reputation in times of adversity. So I've been reflecting on the many instances I've observed, and in recent times been asked to advise on, as companies and brands navigate their way through choppy waters.

One of my first assignments as a business editor 20 years ago, embarking on what was to became a career in corporate communications was a project with Shell. It was grappling with the fallout of its decision to decommission the Brent Spar, an oil storage and tanker-loading buoy, in the North Sea. The scientific community was broadly behind Shell's decision and it had received approval from the UK government. The problem (for Shell) was that large sections of the public believed the company was on the verge of committing a major environmental disaster. The dissenters were vocal, had the support of a PR savvy adversary in Greenpeace and showed their dissatisfaction by boycotting Shell's petrol stations in countries such as Germany.

I was very much a bit player in the piece - an agency extra, a walk on part with no lines and no name on the credits - but two lessons stood out that have stayed with me throughout the intervening years. They have informed a host of other scenarios I've encountered.

One of the problems for Shell was the sprawling nature of the organisation: At the time a series of fiefdoms operating as silos and lacking an overarching view of its reputation across the many stakeholders it engaged with. So a decision made in its upstream (E&P) business in the UK, which it felt entitled and justified in making, was causing ructions in its downstream (retail) business in another country in Europe. Not an easy conundrum for it to resolve.

The lesson I learned was that viewing parts of your business as unconnected is fundamentally flawed. Damage can be done in places far away from the problem. Never underestimate the power of contagion.

The second lesson was about the way in which Shell approached the communications it undertook even once it had accepted that it had a reputational issue on its hands. Its natural response, as an engineering company, was to talk about the issue in terms that were scientific and quasi-legalistic. It believed its solution was technically the best and it had government approval. The problem was that this style of communications didn't resonate with the protesters for whom this was an environmental issue and emotionally charged. At some point Shell's communications team realised the need to change tack and developed a communications plan, some of which I had the opportunity to contribute to, that spoke in a language that was more conciliatory, open to looking at alternatives and less entitled.

My takeaway was the importance of putting oneself in the shoes of the audience you want to engage. Seek to communicate in a style that they'll be responsive to and address issues that are of concern to them.

Those two lessons have been invaluable over the past two decades. I've lost count of the number of times, across industries and in many markets, the implications have been replayed.

The L&OD Roundtable takes place on 18 October in Mumbai. There will be a twitter chat on 30 September. Do join the conversation. You can tweet me comments and thoughts @teammagenta

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