This report was written by:
Ollie Wiltshire – MAX Security’s Regional Director of Intelligence, Europe and the Americas
Adam Charlton – MAX Security’s Senior Analyst for Europe and the Americas
While protests, boycotts, and other forms of activism have always been a threat to the private sector, recent developments in social media technology and political trends have uncovered a series of evolving risks. Traditional activism towards the private sector often involved the targeting of businesses due to practices deemed to be unethical or opposed to certain political or social movements. In recent years, activists and political movements have expanded their methods of protest in a series of evolving ways, which can have a significant impact on private enterprises.
As research on the operations of any businesses becomes easier through various online resources, in addition to the ease with which findings can be shared on social media, potential links between private businesses and controversial governments or policies can be identified by a growing number of individuals. This enables smaller groups to easily find businesses that they can present as opposed to niche causes, dramatically increasing the number of companies potentially targeted.
Similarly, the private comments of employees or individuals associated with businesses also play a more significant role in catalyzing protests than in the past. Controversial statements can often lead to the company being associated with a wide variety of political positions not representing the values of the business, some of which may spark the interest of various activist groups.
It will focus on physical security threats which arise from distorted, negative images of brands, which can be mitigated by monitoring online trends, attitudes, and corporate reputations.
For further information on how you can track and protect your company’s reputation and physical security through Brand Monitoring Services please contact Max Security Solutions at +44 (0) 203 540 0434 and [email protected]
Risk: Protests targeting companies for the actions of associated governments
Increasingly, activists target companies due to controversial actions of associated governments, either in the company’s country of origin or in a country of operation, despite limited connections between the business and the controversial actions.
One catalyst for these types of risks is the ease with which activist groups can research and disseminate information online regarding an organization’s associations and operations. Through social media and rudimentary online researching capabilities, activists are able to quickly build a list of companies deemed to be linked with controversial governments who are then targeted for protests. Additionally, activists, particularly in young or radical groups, may not research with diligence to understand the extent of the association between the private company and the government in question.
The decision to target private companies, instead of government buildings, is often one of convenience. Private facilities are far less secure and easier to identify than government offices. Protesting a business that may have multiple offices or stores with minimal security is typically more accessible than targeting embassies or consulates, which already have established security structures and are typically better equipped to handle demonstrations.
Activists often perceive protesting against companies based on the actions of governments in areas of operation as a way of putting pressure on the targeted government indirectly. Especially in countries reliant on foreign investment, protesters aim to threaten companies through physical disruptions and boycotts in an attempt to affect the economic situation of the country and compel the government to change its policies. Given the multitude of grievances against any one government, these protests can follow seemingly random trends which necessitate a deep understanding and close tracking in order to adequately predict threats and risks before they manifest. Even if a company is not involved in a controversy, it is important to monitor brand reputations, particularly if the company can be, even loosely or falsely, associated with controversial government policies.
Case Study: Anti-Turkish protests against private companies in Europe amid military operations in Syria
Since Turkish military operations in Syria began to expand in January 2018, there has been an uptick in anti-Turkish sentiment within Kurdish and Anarchist communities across Europe. This sentiment has manifested in mass protests, most notably in Germany, as well as vandalism and incendiary attacks on Turkish government buildings, including embassies and consulates across Europe. However, pro-Kurdish activists have not limited attacks to government institutions. Activists have targeted multiple private companies linked to or seen to cooperate with Turkey. For example, on March 11, a mass brawl broke out in Dusseldorf Airport, Germany as demonstrators protesting against a Turkish-based airline clashed with passengers. On April 10, activists planted and detonated a bomb outside of a bank with links to Turkey in Bologna, Italy.
Such protests were facilitated by online groups which would aggregate information on companies that were deemed to somehow support Turkish operations in Syria and disseminate findings to protesters in order to encourage attacks and demonstrations.
Risk: Protests against companies for unofficial positions and sponsorship
Due to the increasing use of social media and online news, the opinions of a company’s senior leadership are more available and under closer inspection than in the past. This opens private businesses up to scrutiny for opinions or political positions held and expressed by employees, which potentially do not reflect the official values of the company. As such, the personal opinions of company leaders and lower-level employees alike can overshadow or even undermine company policy.
Focusing on quotes from employees or controversial sponsorship links allows more casual observers and activists to easily find targets for protests and can often quickly galvanize public outrage. Similarly, due to social media trends, political positions of individuals linked to or sponsoring particular organizations can quickly encourage negative sentiments and widen the scope of protest movements, especially when the subject of the controversy is particularly sensitive. Such risks require rapid detection in order to fully formulate a public relations strategy which can quickly solve the issues and reframe the reputation of the company along its actual values.
Case study: Sponsors targeted for taking positions on both sides of debate over national anthem protests by US athletes
In 2017, controversy arose in the US sporting world surrounding a movement which saw many players kneel during the national anthem in protest of various policies deemed to negatively impact African-Americans. This trend gained significant attention nationwide and given the extensive corporate sponsorship in the US sports industry, quickly led to calls, from both sides, to target large businesses over their stances on the issue, either official or unofficial.
One sponsor’s CEO reportedly expressed his disappointment in a league’s response to the players’ protest on social media and subsequently reported a decrease in quarterly sales. The CEO linked the poor sales to the league’s public image. Another company reportedly faced significant physical and online protests for refusing to comment on the controversy.
In this case, companies were boycotted for sponsoring the league, as well as for their position on the kneeling protest, whether it was an official position or that of a prominent employee. The case demonstrates the risks which can be mitigated by paying particular attention to local, regional, and international political and social trends, as well as the public image of private businesses with links to any controversy. Particularly, it is crucial that companies not only see the public image they create but also how it appears in the eyes of the consumer, especially during times of political sensitivity.
Manifestation of Protests
Boycotting allows for protesters to demonstrate their grievances in a direct way and is increasingly common across the political spectrum, due to its relative ease, wide legality, and potential impact. Boycotts offer activists an easily organized form of protest, in which results are often less tangible than counting the numbers attending a rally. This allows activists to avoid the possibility of poorly attended demonstrations, which often give the impression of the grievance being a niche cause or lacking in support.
Physical protests are becoming easier to organize via social media, spreading details far beyond typical activist circles. That said, protests can vary significantly both in size and nature. Companies with multiple locations or offices may find protests less well attended but affecting a larger number of offices or stores. Conversely, companies with well-known central offices or locations may witness protests with significant turnout outside these locations, while smaller or peripheral locations remain unaffected.
Spray painting or other means of vandalizing a physical company asset is often intimidating for employees, especially if it involves or threatens violence. Increasingly in southern and central Europe, as well as South America, vandals use Molotov cocktails or other incendiary devices, which, while intimidating, tend to only cause structural damage. These attacks can often be difficult to prevent completely, however, typically occur at night.