Activist-citizens: The Changing Face of Influence

February 1, 2012

As we face another year of jagged uncertainty, here’s a growing challenge to business leaders:  yesterday’s line between the masses and elite market influencers is as muddied as the turf under an Occupy Wall Street protest. There really is a shift in the balance of power across the stakeholder spectrum, and you can expect it to continue evolving.

For the energy industry, whether oil & gas, utilities or clean tech, this “democratization of influence” will intensify the need to proactively manage corporate reputation, and it will also challenge everything from operations, customer service, market performance, financing, strategy and governance. The masses (communities, consumers, ratepayers, NGOs and interest groups of every stripe) have unprecedented access to communication channels, information and networks of people, and ever increasing skill at using them.

Citizen movements, whether as profoundly revolutionary as the Arab Spring or as opportunistic as the Occupy events, are built on the frustrations of empowered masses, as were the responses to Verizon’s and other recent (and ill-fated) attempts at imposing user fees. The same is true in political arenas around the world, and TIME magazine punctuated a year’s worth of news reports on citizen activism by naming the protestor Person of the Year.

Now, we’ve reached a tipping point as institutions meant to serve the citizens – whether government or business or others — have violated the public trust to the point where people are fighting back using digital tools. That means the organized resistance being felt by energy corporations, whether that’s opposition to smart meters, hydraulic fracturing, pipelines or wind farms, is going to grow and it’s going to get more effective. “Where we had activist investors, we will see activist consumers,” said Paul Polman, CEO of consumer products at Unilever and chair of this year’s World Economic Forum in the Wall Street Journal

In this new reality, authenticity isn’t a nice-to-have. It’s a survival requirement. Institutions will be held to an unprecedented standard of accountability, and the repercussions for failing to meet that standard will be severe.

Meanwhile, the development of new energy technologies to meet the world’s relentlessly growing demand will create more tension where it already exists:  with politicians, with regulators, with environmentalists and consumers. This more “retail” engagement will morph beyond service and transactions to public affairs issues. Here’s an essential to-do list to prepare for this new reality.

  • Identify the most influential, credible third parties where you have relationships – shared interests and values – and engage, educate and activate them as a network of informed advocates
  • Use available digital tools to monitor, and to act on developments with urgency
  • Develop engaging content to ensure your organization’s voice is heard on social channels. Blogs as communication channels for two-way dialog with stakeholders are fast becoming de rigueur
  • Where it makes sense, offer incentives to encourage people to join your community on social networks
  • Find your narrative. What makes your organization interesting and relevant to broader stakeholder groups? Raise your tolerance for being provocative, creative or even entertaining to earn an increased share of attention

If you’re more accustomed to broadcasting messages through advertising, the new reality demands you move to a dialogue model.  There are leaders in the energy sector doing this successfully, and they’re not only doing a better job of listening to their stakeholders, they stand a chance of dis-intermediating detractors who may oppose, or even attack them.  Those firms developing open engagement capabilities across a wide stakeholder and channel spectrum will be best positioned to achieve the authenticity and accountability that are increasingly becoming tablestakes in every business.