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Posts Tagged ‘John Mackey’

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I have blathered before about the dual importance of pursuing transparency from companies and communicating any observations clearly and creatively. The people at Greenpeace, I said, seem to work with this principle at the top of their minds. Recently though, I have been learning about the murkiest, downright-dirtiest tactics used to influence opinion by so-called ‘special interests.’

One of the most stomach-turning practices has been dubbed ‘astroturfing’ and involves the artificial simulation of grass-roots support. This name, already too clever by half, feels particularly relevant to environmental concerns.

Typical examples are Shell and BP employees being told to secretly turn out for mass rallies in favour of big oil, and the deceitful use of stock-photos by the Federation for American Coal and Energy security. Yet astroturfing is not restricted to America or the oil industry: in the UK, the National Hydration Council is funded by three big bottled water companies and seeks to attack tap water through ‘unattributable briefings’ to the press.

And if all this didn’t seem murky enough already, consider this article by Ben Goldacre about the organic food industry, a darling of the middle-classes. Goldacre explicitly relates the communication policy of the Soil Association with that of other lobbying groups – they can twist facts and withold information as well as anybody. For him, chosing organic may make people feel good about themselves, but it is no solution: But just as we do not solve the problems of deceitfulness in the pharmaceutical industry by buying homeopathic sugar pills, so we may not resolve the undoubted problems of unchecked capitalism in industrial food production by giving money to the £2bn industry represented by the Soil Association.”

 Finally, not only are some organisations deliberately misrepresenting the origin of a message, but they are also consciously distorting the style and execution of their work in order to trick the public. Indeed, this is exactly what the (oil-funded) makers of this Al Gore’s Penguin Army’ clip did in order to give the impression that it was an amateur job – more astroturfing. As a point of interest, this is an entirely different phenomenon to that which seems to have affected both the BNP in their party political broadcasts and this truly tragic (oil-funded) campaign in the US. Here, the videos are presumably ugly because no one with any aesthetic sensitivity would go near them – a thought that could act as a handy rule of thumb.

Yet aside from judging content on its artistic credentials, ordinary folk can’t be expected to navigate through the fog; to see the difference between the good and the bad. Who can we believe? If some organisations are willing to go to such extraordinary lengths to fool people, we must ask the question: should traditional broadcast-style communication be deemed inherently untrustworthy? Is the only satisfactory goal complete openness,  traceability, accountability? Transparency, after all, is what you need when you don’t know who to trust.

I would certainly wager that the biggest plaudits, and opportunities, exist for those big companies that are willing to ‘grasp the nettle’ now. For example, in the US John Mackey, the CEO of Wholefoods, recently went into the lions den to address an audience of loyal supporters of Michael Pollan, an author who had criticised Wholefoods heavily in his book ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’. Yet just by directly engaging in honest debate, the feeling was that ‘Mackey pulled off a brilliant PR move’, despite Pollan commenting ‘It was absolutely clear that no public-relations firm had a hand in your presentation’.

In the UK I have been fascinated by the ‘You ask, they answer’ column in The Guardian for a while. It seems to me to be ahead of its time: an early example of how companies may engage with consumers in the future. When a representative of a firm puts themselves forward, most readers’ questions are emotionally charged, barbed and leading, if they are questions at all. Yet I suspect the average, casual reader leaves with a similar impression to Charles Surface, who comments: ‘…you have a corporate here that has a detailed plan for improving its environmental impact, published it, and is implementing it. Moreover, they actively want you to hold it accountable and have sent someone to talk. You might stop puffing your own environmental credentials up for long enough to realise what a massively encouraging development this is.’

Of course, some companies will not be able to stand up to such scrutiny. Neal’s Yard Remedies, for example, fled the ‘You ask, they answer’ forum when the questions people wanted answering turned out to be about the efficacy claims of their homeopathic products, rather than their flash new environmental policy. But then perhaps Paul Sheldon of Natural Capitalism Solutions is right when he says ‘Hypocrisy is the first step towards meaningful change.’ All companies can talk the talk, but only a few will be able to walk the walk. To demonstrate consistent integrity. To be like  The Man With No Name.

The picture at the top is borrowed, with thanks, from Pulp Sunday.

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