How #activism puts corporations on the back foot

Social media is saturated with Greenpeace’s Shard stunt, but the challenge will be converting coverage into direct public pressure

The Guardian, 11 July 2013

Six activists scaled London’s highest skyscraper and the Twitter rankings on Thursday, but Greenpeace now faces the challenge of converting the digital noise into public pressure to change Shell’s Arctic policy.

Communications commentators said corporations such as Shell, the targets of the protest, were at a disadvantage in the battle for social media and this stunt represented a new standard in organisation and delivery.

Futerra Sustainability Communications co-founder Solitaire Townsend said Greenpeace has been a trendsetter in this field throughout the digital era. Their traditional strategy has been:

“to do an extraordinary, impactful, challenging, scary stunt. They’ve done that for 40 years. Classic new Greenpeace is to do that with absolute state-of-the-art digital campaigning around it that puts every corporate campaign I’ve ever seen to shame.”

Townsend said this action’s scope, organisation and delivery represented a “new paradigm” in digital communications strategy:

“The rest of the digital community, especially the corporate community, is getting taught here. Campaigning used to be about how many people you got on your demo. With six people doing something, Greenpeace has managed to get tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Brits involved in this campaign. It’s not about how many feet you’ve got on your march it’s about how many tweets you’ve got on your hashtag.”

The challenge for Greenpeace, said Townsend, would be to convert the coverage into direct public pressure on Shell.

“The sheer physical endeavour of watching those women climb the Shard is incredible. The message of protecting the Arctic and affecting Shell’s decision making could get lost in the sheer physical spectacle of it.

“Its ability to affect Shell is in part based upon what is unfurled on that banner and whether people follow that message from the spectacle, to the Arctic to Shell.”

Social media had been saturated all day with #iceclimb and others words related to the climb trending on Twitter. Townsend said that this sort of monopolisation was invaluable.

“You used to have roadblocks in advertising where a company would buy every advertising channel and so whenever you flick the TV over the same advert was being shown. You can’t do that any more because there’s too many advertising channels. The idea of a roadblock just simply doesn’t exist, except for huge, often unexpected news events. Greenpeace has managed to create almost a digital roadblock. At one point there was something like six of the top 10 trends on Twitter.”

Robin Grant, founder of We Are Social, said that pressure groups currently had the upper hand when it came to manipulating and creating social media coverage. “Companies haven’t really learnt how to deal with these things properly.”

Shell’s Twitter and Facebook accounts carried no mention of the climb. Grant said not engaging was the only strategy open to the company because commenting on the issue would only create a lightning rod for extra comment.

Grant said:

“Any dialogue they enter into, either with Greenpeace, or the press, or the public through social media is just going to play into Greenpeace’s hands. Pouring more fuel on the fire.

“Unless a company can engage substantively with the issues and therefore is either confident in its position or prepared to change it there’s really not much point in engaging in that conversation. If the company’s position remains to stick as they are and they don’t want to engage on the issues then it is not to their advantage to do so.”

While Shell would definitely be concerned, Grant said that Greenpeace’s message may struggle to outlive the stunt. “It’s a fairly transitory thing, it’ll be out of the news again tomorrow. And therefore, how much impact does it really have?”

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