In the past two years, Romania experienced several major civil unrest moments, a sign that people are beginning to wake up and show interest for the changes that affect them, even indirectly. The Rosia Montana scandal marked the emergence of a new class of stakeholders in the life of companies and brands, which in Romania had so far been sheltered from the social civil movements they were already facing in other countries. We can say we now have a new category of audiences, which require attention and mark the emergence of a new need in the communication industry: managing activism.

Activists are a special audience category – dissatisfied, for sure, but consisting of people who hope that companies will eventually respond to their needs. Letting aside the point at which the consumers who are most upset will threaten, explicitly or implicitly, with severing relations with certain companies in favor of others that do not violate their personal principles, activists are a group of players who effectively act on their own beliefs, in order to change the behaviors and policies of the corporations they target. For example, the energy industry has been shaken by many scandals in the last year, but one that did not seem to end too soon was the one linked to shale gas extraction.

As a matter of course, companies with no connection to shale gas extraction have been sucked into the vortex of charges of destroying the environment, and often have hit an informational blockade orchestrated by activists.

Last year, some of our customers, Prospectiuni and NIS Petrol, got into situations in which they were forced to reset their communication strategies to introduce an interaction element with the activist groups that had the power to hamper their activity. How can you manage communication with an audience that not only does not accept your messages, but on the contrary, uses them to discredit you?

In 2014, we developed our competences of managing activism and understood that first of all companies that face such problems always have to be prepared for a crisis situation. It is imperative that a brand be very well strategically and logistically prepared to be able to successfully go through a public protest or a strike, events that always make hot stories in the media. Constant monitoring of all communication channels is a form of always being in touch with what is to happen, since a crisis can almost always be prevented. And in those cases when it however cannot be avoided, the time one has to establish a powerful response strategy is important.

At the same time, in such situations transparency towards the media becomes more important than ever. If a company constantly maintains a personal relationship with the press, if it shows it is open to provide information on the projects and plans it has in the country at a local, but especially national level, then it can count its benefits precisely at such times. More information on future activist moves may come from journalists, who will first check the information with the representatives of the concerned companies.

Close attention should be given to the employees who come into contact with the local audiences. In 2014 we conducted a full range of direct phone assessments through weekly and monthly reports, the results of which were later morphed into periodic training sessions. Employees are the first message bearers and they must always be kept updated on situations inside and outside the company, as well as trained through clear procedures on how to act in case they are prevented to do their job. But probably the most important measure to be taken is to ensure open communication with the people, the immediate audience of the company.

Whether we talk about local communities or authorities, the company has to be always there through customized information, through direct and clear messages about its real purposes, through CSR projects and investments that earn the locals’ trust. Always, the company must be at least one step ahead of activists, as it is easier to create a favorable opinion on virgin ground than to fight to change views that are already established. The biggest mistakes made by corporations in managing activists were to withdraw behind the closed doors of offices and factories and to refuse to communicate with any civil society representative.