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Know your activist – ‘Activism’ is Not Always a Synonym for ‘Crisis’ in The Boardroom

‘Activism’ is Not Always a Synonym for ‘Crisis’ in The Boardroom

Differences of opinion within the shareholding and boardroom are an inescapable part of doing business; PR agencies should be prepared

Roger Darashah

During the first few weeks of my first assignment in India (in 2012) I was surprised by the number of crises being reported and handled by my colleagues. ‘Crises’ blocking budget approval, PR plans, campaign roll-outs, even vacations for some unfortunate staff.   Upon further investigation, I discovered that it was more a question of taxonomy; in Europe we classified such events as product recalls, CEO resignations, industrial action, criminal investigation etc.  Here in India, they are simply referred to in PR circles as ‘crises’.

Another type of event which falls into the same collective in India is ‘activism’; the idea of groups of like-minded influencers trying to influence the course of corporate decision-making. Such influencers could range from individual members of the public or shareholder groups, to NGOs and corporate institutions.  Their motives could range from environmental or ethical consciousness (ethical activism), to strategic differences with the direction of a listed company (corporate activism).

But there is a lot of grey area in between – shareholders refusing to sanction executive remuneration could be taking an ethical or strategic stand, proxy bodies lobbying for the removal of a board member could be citing a conflict of interest (his/her presence on another potentially conflictual board) or simply incompetence.

These distinctions and nuances are important; particularly for PR professional trying to navigate the same. I’m not sure that the current catch-all vernacular ‘crises’ really serves such situations.  In most cases, activism is the legitimate (and perfectly legal) expression of a point of view; simply dismissing dissent as a form of ‘crisis’ is a disservice to all concerned – including the PR industry.

The history and nature of corporate India has created many larger-than-life personalities – leaders, owners and managers of businesses.  None of them – no matter how large – should feel indifferent to alternative perspectives, whether the latter are motivated by ethical, strategic or operational differences.

Legitimate activism – which respects the law, which is based on public protagonists whose intentions are verifiable – is now a part of the communication consideration for any listed firm in Europe and the US. Dedicated proxy firms act on behalf of shareholder interests, whether to address corporate excess, or to realign corporate direction.

PR firms are a corporate’s ‘intermediaries’ listening and relaying insight and intelligence between the corporate and its various stakeholders.  This role provides them with a unique perspective; but one which will only be truly realized when both parties – PR agencies and their clients – redefine their concept of crisis.

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