Corporate Lifestyle and the Limits of Conception, Research Time, 19/01/2015

Part of my research in my Communications program involves hunting down actual corporate communications plans, to study their structures and how they set out actionable steps in abstract terms. My jobs will eventually involve writing and preparing these documents and putting them into action, so I should learn about them.

However, corporate communications plans are confidential documents. Firms or employees produce them for their clients or bosses. So you don’t exactly find professional-quality communications plans just lying around online to be found on the front page of a simple google search.

Until you find the communications plan that Edelman & Assoc. wrote for one of their top clients, TransCanada, lying around online to be found on the front page of a simple google search. My thanks to Greenpeace for finding me such excellent educational material. I don’t actually want to work for a firm like Edelman or Hill & Knowlton, in the long run, precisely because their major clients are often petroleum companies or monarchist governments. I’d like to work for a company whose business I have no moral qualms with, like most businesses that exist.

Satires of corporate culture are often cartoonish. The Kids
in the Hall were some of the best, and the craziest. But
even the most exaggerated parody, at its best, is
brilliantly insightful about the essence of what it mocks.
But a plan like this makes an excellent template, if not for its content, then for its quality as a communications plan alone. This was clearly produced by a group of the best people at one of the world’s top public relations firms. They’ve done excellent research in identifying the stakeholders in the Energy East bitumen pipeline project, the communities most likely to support the pipeline, and a variety of strategies and tools to reach and mobilize those people.

Yet there is still one area of the plan that strikes me as a blind spot. It occurs in a late section, where they talk about how to react to messages from opposition groups, particularly environmentalist non-governmental organizations. These are groups like the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Quebec’s Équiterre, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Environmental Network. 

There’s an innocuous, but telling line in a discussion of how well groups like this have incorporated technology and social media to organizing their activism. The report says they “long ago adopted grassroots as part of their organizational DNA.” I could be making far too much of a single line, but sometimes, some very insightful philosophical thinking comes from focus on innocuous, throwaway comments.*

* An example in the recent history of philosophy. Both Peter Singer and Jacques Derrida began their landmark works on animal rights from a reflection on a single footnote in the works of Jeremy Bentham about the moral imperative of acknowledging suffering.

The authors of the communications plan refer to grassroots organizing as something that Edelman and its client TransCanada still need to work on. And it refers to grassroots organizing a tool that environmentalist organizations adopted to spread their messages and accomplish their goals. It refers to the environmentalist organizations themselves as the prime movers of environmentalist campaigns against oil pipelines in ecologically sensitive areas.**

** Seriously, I could not work on a project that would take on the interests of a major petroleum company. Their major seaport in Quebec for tanker ships at the town of Cacouna also hosts a major beluga whale sanctuary. And their job is to work toward making people okay with this. And I’m not okay with any of that.

It’s as if environmentalist lobbying and publicity organizations were the mobilizers of the environmentalist social movement, in the same manner as Edelman and TransCanada aim to mobilize a movement of people to support the construction of pipelines. That vision of organizations’ relationship to the environmentalist movement is, quite simply, false.

Environmentalism began as a social movement of individual activists communicating with each other as they mobilized their local communities and connected across a variety of different local interests. The organizations were a product of the local movements as they raised funds and built the communications and lobbying infrastructure to coordinate action on national and global scales. The best environmental organizations still take their agendas from local movements throughout their national, continental, and global constituencies.

It’s quite speculative of me to make this last point, but what better place is there for speculation than a blog. Environmentalist activists don’t typically interact with the people who go to work for the world’s largest public relations firms. Their working cultures are likewise extremely different. 

Local activists meet each other wherever they go, building connections among disparate groups and funnelling their concerns to advocacy organizations. Employees of a public relations agency follow the orders of their superiors in the company, and the general directives of the company itself. Activists mobilize from the bottom upward. Public relations strategists mobilize from the top downward, and this communications plan is a strategy document for such a mobilization.

I wonder, if you work long enough in the latter kind of organization, and immerse yourself in its culture for so long and so deeply, that other ways of mobilizing become difficult to conceive. That Edelman communications plan is the strategy for an organization to mobilize an otherwise passive populace on behalf of a client company, TransCanada. 

Perhaps Edelman’s strategists imagine their client’s opponents in an environmentalist advocacy organization as having parallel practices. They imagine that, like TransCanada, an organization like Équiterre has its own interests that its own public relations staff mobilizes an otherwise passive populace to promote. Do they even believe that it’s possible for the people to mobilize the organization to advocate for their interests?

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