Reputation & NGOs Workshop: How do NGO-corporation collaborations affect reputations?

by Michael Hammer, Executive Director, INTRAC, Oxford

Session 2 focused on how NGO – corporate (business) collaborations may affect reputations with presentations of two papers:

Edward Walker: 'Astroturifng the Field: Elites, Reputations, and the Effects of Covert Corporate Advocacy on Public Trust'

Shon Hiatt: 'Organizational Responses To Movement-Induced Policymaking: Climate Change Hearings, Protests, And New Technology Development Among U.S. Oil & Gas Firms”  (Hiatt, Grandy & Lee)'

Facilitator Comments:

Edward Walker focused on the effects of astroturfing (a practice where corporate actors instigate, fund or simulate in hidden ways citizens’ concern on matters of corporate interest) on public trust. Shon Hiatt[1] reported on his research on US oil and gas industry responses to public movements in relation to climate change.

The presentations worked hand in glove: Ed exposed the widespread and systematic use of astroturfing across a whole spectrum of corporate actors, usually aimed at countering negative impact on reputation by campaigning by others, or undermining competitors’ commercial projects. He unpacked the differentiated impacts of the revelation of astroturfing on NGOs and corporate actors, providing evidence that in general terms NGOs were more likely to suffer sector wide reputational damage, while for corporate actors reputational damage resulting from revealed astroturfing was more closely bound to the organisations involved, and dependent on pre-existing public knowledge of the brand.

Shon’s research showed examples of responsiveness of corporate actors to public pressure on regulators, illustrated by the adoption of carbon sequestration technology in result of campaigning and lobbying of Congress on climate change by larger alliances of not for profit groups. He provided evidence that such responses were beginning way before policy outcomes were tangible through regulatory action itself, and where the business case for the responses adopted by industry was not clear cut in terms of economics. This suggested effectiveness of long term advocacy efforts by civic action coalitions.  

Discussions focused on whether astroturfing was a practice limited to corporate business actors, or whether unsupported claims made by NGOs about public receptiveness or benefit to user groups fell in the same category. While considered different, participants explored in what way claims to public benefit by large organisations needed to be substantiated, and what reputational damage may result from a failure to be able to do so, or to be caught in the act of artificially constructing positive civic response to a corporate initiative. Large NGOs were recognised in these discussions very much as interest driven corporate actors, too.

Shon’s research was seen as a vindication of the method of public interest campaigning, yet the discussion also queried whether more needed to be investigated about the process of forming such successful coalitions, and the factor of time involved in success or failure of maintaining such coalitions and achieving corporate change in behaviour during the actual advocacy and lobbying phase as opposed to such behavioural changes resulting from (subsequent) regulatory pressure.