Once dismissed as sandal-wearing extremists, single issue pressure groups are now expert at getting support from the media and co-operation from business. Lexie Goddard reports.
The media dubbed it David versus Goliath. Dave Morris and Helen Steel, two unemployed environmentalists from North London, locked in a courtroom feud with McDonald's, a global giant with 19,200 outlets in 94 countries.
The 'McLibel' trial began in June 1994 when McDonald's sued environmentalists over the distribution of a damning leaflet entitled McCancer, McDisease, McHunger and McDeath.
Campaigners later turned the table and counter claimed against McDonald's stating that a 'McFact' sheet about their action libelled them.
Aside from being the longest libel trial in British history the McLibel trial is a clear warning to business that far from being sandal-wearing extremists, pressure groups have become a force to be reckoned with. Morris and Steel's support group, The McLibel Support Campaign, now has it's own office space, several thousand supporters and alliances with pressure groups in 25 countries.
It also has McSpotlight, a website containing case details and campaigning photo material, which has been accessed by over three million people since it's February launch.
It's structure is typical of the 1990s pressure group. Ex-solicitor Dan Mills is the group's unofficial spokesman, but he takes pains to explain he is just part of a 'grass roots' movement with no central co-ordination but alliances with animal rights, fair trade and environmental pressure groups. In a bid to become more organised the group is gathering volunteers to leaflet local stores ready for it's World Day of Action Against McDonald's on 16 October.
But most of all, Mills is media friendly. He has been interviewed by 'countless' TV and radio stations from places as far flung as South Africa and New Zealand and is eager to send information about the McLibel Support Campaign to interested journalists.
At McDonald's, meanwhile, it's business as usual. The burger giant's UK director of communications Mike Love acknowledges the case has damaged the McDonald's reputation but refuses to be draw into a proactive battle which is still running.
'It has been debated in various PR journals whether this is a PR disaster or success,' says Love. 'I feel strongly that this is not a question of a PR campaign. The time for that will not start until the end of the trial,' he adds. 'Then we can talk about the messages coming out of the judge's decision. Until then it's a legal, not a PR matter.'
Outside the UK, however, it is already a PR concern. A confidential internal memo reveals the company's PR strategy in the light of requests for interviews from the Australian investigative programme, 60 minutes, which was filming anti-McDonald's campaigners. The document which concerned the possibility of interview requests from McDonald's personnel in Australia discusses the need to 'contain it as a UK issue' and 'keep it at arms length - not become guilty by association. ' It ends thus: '...hopefully we can deal effectively with each situation as it arises and minimise any further negative publicity.'
John Grey, chairman of Media Natura, a PR agency specialising in environmental development and social justice issues believes McDonald's was right to stay silent. However he adds, 'If they had been pro-actively and consistently auditing their vulnerability in terms of the human rights agenda this would not have happened.' Grey believes that, despite the rapid expansion of pressure groups, many businesses are still slow to take them seriously.
'The idea of pressure groups consisting of Mr-sandal-wearing-person-from-Islington is a relic of the 1970s but a lot of corporations don't notice that things have changed and are very vulnerable,' says Grey. 'Token gestures will not wash. There are still many companies who believe that by launching environmental award schemes or having discussions with pressure groups they are building lasting relationships,' he adds. 'They are deluding themselves.'
Media Natura was originally set up to help pressure groups communicate better and they made up 80 per cent of the consultancy's income. Today that has dropped to 20 per cent and Media Natura's advice is sought by companies like Unilever, NPI and Sainsbury's.
'Pressure groups have become hugely sophisticated in their ability to manage the media and in their understanding of how to package stories,' comments Grey on the drop in business from pressure groups.
But for some pressure groups lobbying is still a necessary campaigning tool in order to secure permanent change.
Compassion in World Farming is a charity which has been campaigning for the welfare of farm animals for 30 years and was at the heart of last year's much publicised protests against live veal exports. CIWF campaigns director Philip Lymbery uses a range of 'peaceful and legal tactics using modern equipment'.
They include standard campaigning tactics like celebrity endorsement and it's Agscene newsletter to the more modern tools of video investigations, direct mail and the internet.
But he says: 'I heel that, having whipped up steam in public, you still need a political follow through. Lobbying is still the way forward in order to push the important buttons.' Under the umbrella of the European Coalition for Farm Animals, the group has successfully lobbied the Council of Agricultural Ministers to bring forward proposals to ban veal crates on a Europe-wide basis.
For other pressure groups lobbying is too slow and weighed against their favour. Business, says Grey, is the way forward as an increasing number of corporations are realising that environment and fair trade need to be built into corporate strategy. 'Pressure groups are realising they have to become part of the solution instead of just pointing the finger at the problem, says Grey.
This attitude is epitomised by Greenpeace's 'solution campaigning' philosophy where group scientists have developed non-CFC refrigeration and, more recently, a car which uses less petrol. This tactic is helping to mend relations between campaigners and their targets says director general of the British Nuclear Industry Forum, Roger Hayes.
'Greenpeace is changing it's approach,' says Hayes. We have been slowly trying to build a dialogue over complex issues so long as we come up with solutions. Pressure groups are now very effective at getting their message across,' adds Hayes. 'Industry has been much slower to repined as was the case with Brent Spar. The nuclear industry has been forced into becoming more transparent and to communicate better and faster. Now we are saying we have rights as well as responsibilities. It's a two-way street. We are just feeling the way and starting to trust each other.'
Sainsbury's, one of Greenpeace's targets in it's bid to phase out supermarket refrigerators which emit CFCs, set up an Environmental Management division three years ago. One of it's main aims is to identify new issues and assess their implications for Sainsbury's.
Division manager Alison Austin makes it clear that both pressure groups and businesses have their own agendas and the company is in the business of creating change without incurring costs.
But Austin has seen more and more issues raised by pressure groups in her two and a half years in the role.
She believes business just cannot afford to ignore an issue like the environment which now takes a permanent place on the average consumer's agenda. 'Pressure groups do have a valued role in society in terms of raising issues and helping to form social values,' she says. Not only that, but they are according to Austin, becoming more expert at thinking along business lines. 'They are becoming much better organised at presenting factual data which is important for businesses which have to present clear arguments internally in order to make changes.
Pressure groups have also become a lot better at campaigning on a community-based level,' adds Austin. 'They are keen not to lose their campaigning hard edge but have a growing understanding of the different ways of changing things other than their attack tactics. The more enlightened are seeing how they can support without endorsing.'
Austin concludes: 'We are doing a lot but there is more to be done.'