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01 February 2002

NGOs have more brand cred


When a big story pits a well-known NGO against an international company, which side are you likely to believe?

Chances are you'll believe the NGO.

Research by international PR firm Edelman shows that Europeans and Australians trust Amnesty International, Greenpeace and the Worldwide Fund for Nature more than they trust the government, the media or corporates like Microsoft, Monsanto and Exxon/Esso.

If the study was repeated here, we expect it would yield similar results.

Only in the pro-business United States are Microsoft, Ford and Nike more trusted than the NGOs - a status no doubt being eroded by the Enron collapse.

In recent years, corporations have earned themselves some very bad press. Public controversies involving Exxon, Monsanto, Rothmans and others have damaged the reputation of the corporate community, and have helped fuel the anti-globalisation movement.

When issues arise, individual corporates tend to compound their plight through their inability to relate to ordinary people. Corporate-think and corporate-speak are a culture apart from the emotional, human perspectives which drive many news stories.

Attempts to engage with the public are often doomed by responses which are slow, clumsy and lacking in credibility.

NGOs, on the other hand, have clear agendas, take the offensive and move fast. They go straight to the consumer through the popular press, TV and the internet. Despite at times taking liberties with the facts underpinning their arguments, NGOs are perceived by the public as selfless crusaders with the wider interest at heart.

If corporates want to deal with NGOs, they have to get involved in popular debate - a messy world where most corporate executives are exceedingly uncomfortable. It also means they have to be prepared to compromise.

An alternative for embattled corporates is to try to publicly discredit their adversaries. But with mainstream NGOs enjoying such high trust, asking the public to choose between a corporate and one of God's handmaidens is a very risky tactic indeed. And if the argument is won, the war may be lost - the public nearly always backs the perceived underdog.

Should corporates give up the battle, then?

No. But they do need to anticipate likely public reactions to their activities and plan accordingly.

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