no-dashEveryone’s favourite chimney ninjas No Dash For Gas (NDFG) have revealed today that they’ve declined an offer from EDF Energy via Will Hutton to take part in a ‘Stakeholder Advisory Panel’ to help them figure out the problems of climate change and meeting energy demand. It’s a marked change of tactic considering that the energy giant was at one stage planning on undertaking a civil case against them to the tune of £5 million – threatening the very homes of some of the activists involved. There’s always going to be an emotional reaction to a corporate entity that has acted so aggressively towards climate protesters – NDFG likened it to “being punched in the face and then offered a nice cup of tea.”

But there’s a far more important point of strategy at stake here, as to why NDFG have avoided getting embroiled in the classic corporate attempt to suck everyone in to the soupy mire that is the dreaded, multi-stakeholder dialogue. One might think at first, great, this is the corporation being open to hearing criticisms and can provide valuable campaign opportunities. A number of NGOs, such as Corporate Europe Observatory and the The Corner House, have critically analysed the role that these dialogues can play in making protest groups feel that they have a validated role to play in effecting change with the corporation in question. However, they argue, they are often effectively a means of using up the limited time and energy resources of grassroots groups or NGOs in circular discussions that don’t actually go anywhere, while the corporation in question gets the kudos of being seen to be reasonable enough to sit around the table and take things on board.

As far back as 1998, The Corner House published Engineering of Consent – Uncovering Corporate PR Strategies that warned against corporations manipulating public debate through the tactics of delay, depoliticise, divert and fudge.

A further strategy attempts to defuse public controversy by stimulating discussion on issues of secondary importance. This may also give critics the illusion that they are participating in the decision-making process.

One of the clearest examples of diversion comes from the Shell Oil company. In 1987, Shell commissioned an issues management plan from Pagan International because the company was feeling threatened by worldwide solidarity actions aimed at bringing apartheid in South Africa to an end. The 265-page document, the “Shell US South Africa Strategy”, provided detailed recommendations on how to engage Shell’s critics “in post-apartheid planning” so as to “deflect their attention away from boycott and disinvestment efforts”. Different strategies were proposed for different sectors of society: religious and civil rights groups, academics, unions, international organisations and the media.

The Brussels-based Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) created a substantial body of work looking at the various voluntary business bodies that proliferated in the 90s/00s, such as the World Business Council on Sustainable Development that emboldened some of the most controversial companies to thrive on such dialogue. CEO wrote an open letter to UNED (that later became the Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future) in which they laid out their criticisms of the approach, arguing that:

The vast majority of dialogues attempt to foster a spirit of ‘partnership’ between all parties, seeking to come to some magical balance between the different ‘stakeholder’ viewpoints. Such a seemingly benign objective can dramatically weaken the effectiveness of a campaign organisation and it’s ability to challenge a corporation (to expose greenwash for example) while a company might benefit enormously from “being seen to be” listening to its critics. Having committed to ‘play the game’ so to speak, it takes quite a high degree of integrity and moral certitude to maintain a consciously critical approach in such an atmosphere. Corporations are simply better placed to benefit from such dialogues.

The multi-stakeholder approach often promotes or insinuates the notion of equal participation and representation of differing viewpoints on an issue. Any outcome of such a process would, the theory goes, therefore be somehow reflective of society as a whole and so could be deemed a fair assessment of the full range of views. However, this does not take into account some crucial questions about the essential dynamics of the actors involved, the power imbalances among them, and the selective nature of the definition of ‘stakeholder’.

No Dash For Gas are canny enough to know that its nigh on impossible for a power giant like EDF, who’s model of business almost entirely depends on sucking as much gas as possible into Europe and flogging it for the highest profit margins as possible, to voluntarily make any substantial changes in the way it does business. Change would come about from the twin pincers of power being exerted from below the type of people power embodied in the Reclaim The Power action camp at West Burton Power Station in August, and from above by the type of policy decisions and regulatory mechanisms that would be putting the brakes on the ecocidal dash for gas that the coalition government is currently promoting. It’s difficult to see how dialogue with EDF would contribute to either of these efforts, but it would buy EDF some credibility in trying to voluntarily sort out the difficult muddle of climate and energy, so no need for the government to get involved because it’s got it covered thanks!

Well worth checking out NDFG’s hilarious video-based response to the dialogue invite below.