Corporations have multiple strategies for dealing with criticism from grassroots campaigns. In the age of PR, one of them is epitomised by ‘Hopenhagen’ “Hopenhagen is a movement, a moment and a chance at a new beginning…It is the hope that we can create a global community that will lead our leaders into making the right decisions. The promise that by solving our environmental crisis, we can solve our economic crisis at the same time. Hopenhagen is change – and that change will be powered by all of us.”
On the surface, the ‘Hopenhagen’ project aimed to gain signatures for the UN’s ‘climate change petition’. Peel back a layer, and we reveal that behind this appropriated language of ‘movements’ and ‘justice’ sit cleverly self-promoted PR companies, and environmentally damaging corporations. Created by a string of large PR companies at the behest of Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, the Hopenhagen project reveals the close relationships built by big business with the UN COP process – which has in the past 16 years served it well. Hopenhagen served as a corporate tactic to avoid regulatory limits to business, sideline the legitimate and effective challenge that real social movements pose to them, and attempt to avoid disillusionment with, and the surfacing of valid critiques of, the UN process.
It is an example of what can happen when corporations take it
upon themselves to ‘engage’ with us.
Walking the streets of Copenhagen during December 2009, it was impossible to avoid the Hopenhagen project: from adverts plastered across billboards, to the ‘Hopenhagen square’ complete with giant TV screen and an inflatable globe. Corporations were now participants in street mobilisations, under the strap-line “Turning Copenhagen into Hopengahen”. Alongside this advertising take-over was the Hopenhagen take-over of the virtual world. Its website boasted a petition signed by 6,172,820 people across the world, and offered ‘citizens’ the chance to ‘spread hope’ by getting a Facebook ‘Hopenhagen passport’ in which to collect virtual stamps, or by buying a Hopenhagen t-shirt. With these acts, ‘citizens of Hopenhagen’ would supposedly be able to ‘lead the leaders’ into ensuring a “future of prosperity, health and progress” at Copenhagen.
But towards what objectives was this resource-intensive ‘campaign’ deployed? In the true spirit of corporate ‘engagement’ with the public, Hopenhagen was the project of PR and advertising companies – those most skilled in the arts of discourse-management, agenda setting, and desire manipulation. Hopenhagen was launched by the International Advertising Agency, and led by Ogilvy, one of the world’s largest PR and advertising companies, and their subsidiaries Ogilvy Earth, Ogilvy PR and Mannov (part of Ogilvy PR). Other PR, marketing and advertising companies involved included: Ketchum, Colle+McVoy, GroupM, and Havas. Website work was handled by Zazengo, a software company which focuses on helping Fortune 100 companies ‘engage’ their employees and consumers on sustainability issues. With their time and expertise ‘donated’ for free, Hopenhagen was not about direct profit making for the individual PR companies involved. Their motivations were more complex.
Ogilvy are pioneers in the world of greenwash. Famous within the world of PR, and infamous amongst campaigners, for their $200 million re-branding of BP as ‘Beyond Petroleum’ in 2000, Ogilvy have managed, despite the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, to place themselves as ‘experts’ on ‘avoiding greenwash’, asserting that “brands need our greenwash compass more than ever”. Their report ‘From Greenwash to Great’, published April 2010 (just before the Deepwater Horizon well first exploded), gives “best practice” advice to “steer brands through the challenging terrain of sustainability marketing” towards “enhanced reputation, inspired customers and invigorated employees”.
To avoid being labelling as ‘greenwashers’, and therefore the discrediting much of their core business, Ogilvy align the creation of effective action on climate change with the concept of ‘sustainability marketing’. They do so partly by developing the concept of the concerned ‘citizen-consumer’. This embeds the idea that change is inevitably driven by businesses, who can only act ‘voluntarily’ when enough of their customers desire such action, ie avoiding regulation. Therefore, the never ending task of ‘engagement’ with consumers is required. Which is obviously good for Ogilvy’s business.
The Hopenhagen project attempted to show that the concern of ‘citizen-consumers’ was having a positive affect on one of Ogilvy’s top brands: Coca-Cola.
The history of resistance to Coca-Cola is long and varied. Its crimes range from the intimidation and murder of trade unionists in Colombia, to the exacerbation of drought and theft of water from local people in India. Scandal broke at the Coca-Cola bottling plant at Plachimada, in Kerala South India, in 2003 – after protests by local communities who argued that their wells had been run dry and groundwater poisoned by Coca-Cola’s activities. Coca-Cola, who need 2.70 litres of water to create one litre of Coke, were draining up to one million litres of water a day from the underground aquifer in Plachimada which kept the wells full. They were also supplying a toxic sludge by-product from their manufacturing process to farmers as a fertilizer. The sludge was found to contain high levels of cadmium and lead: which, when absorbed by plants and then consumed by people cause cancer and nervous system disorders. Social movement resistance was successful in forcing closure of the Plachimada Coca-Cola factory, gaining a recommendation from the Kerala High Power Committee that Coca-Cola be held liable for US$ 48 million in damages.
A global boycott movement grew up in solidarity with those at the sharp end of Coca-Cola’s activities. However other Coca-Cola factories continue to operate in India, such as at Mehndiganj near Varanasi, where social movements are also working to resist them. Coca-Cola continues to consume 300bn litres of water a year.
Whilst at the height of the Plachimada campaign Coca-Cola India’s vice-president, Sunil Gupta, claimed that a minority of “extremist protesters” were targeting the company. By the time of the Hopenhagen campaign, the company’s PR response to such resistance and criticism had changed remarkably. Now the company were facing the issues head on, sponsoring ‘awareness raising’ by WWF and speaking as ‘experts’ on ‘water sustainability’ at industry and NGO side events. For example, Coca-Cola’s CEO Muhtar Kent was a key dignitary (and one of the few Fortune 500 CEOs at COP15), speaking alongside Oxfam at the World Business Council on Sustainable Development’s major side event, or the Yale University, World Environment Centre and TERI conference on water, at which Coca-Cola’s Vice President of Environment and Water resources, Mr Jeff Seabright highlighted “the urgent need for corporate action in addressing water challenges…” The Hopenhagen campaign ensured that
Coca-Cola adverts were plastered around the city of Copenhagen, and the company used the conference as an opportunity to launch their new ‘plant-based’ recyclable bottles.
COP15 was both a crucial lobbying opportunity for Coca-Cola, and, thanks to the Hopenhagen campaign, a glorious advertising platform for their brand and their particular framing of the global problem of water shortage. In 2007, at the same time as ‘partnering’ with WWF on their water campaign, Coca-Cola announced its aims to go ‘water neutral’: which appears to entail a mix of water efficiency and offsetting. Whilst it’s performance at Hopenhagen would not give this impression, Coca-Cola has been failing in the first method. With improved efficiency in water use (by 2009 they were using 2.36 litres for 1 litre of Coca-Cola) countered by the fact that it is producing more each year. Coca-Cola’s water consumption has been rising since 2005. The second, appears to be paid for already with the £15m Coca-Cola donated to WWF’s rivers campaign – a campaign which focuses on conserving seven of the world’s major rivers, but does nothing much for India’s rural farmers facing draught as a result of Coca-Cola’s activities.
Coca-Cola is able to present itself as a responsible company, tackling a global problem which matters to its customers. The problem is presented as one much larger than the company, with attention shifted away from both the specific sites of conflict where the company operates, and the fact that the company’s core business is fundamentally unsustainable in a water constrained world. In working with Coca-Cola as a ‘conservation partner’, WWF facilitates Coca-Cola’s use of the issue of water scarcity as brand enhancement.
For PR companies such as Ogilvy, who see great business opportunities in a ‘green-aware’, consumer-citizen market, Hopenhagen was part of a long-term strategy aimed at both cultivating such a environmentally conscious market for the brands it works on, whilst limiting it’s radicalism by maintaining its consumer focus. Hopenhagen also won the PR company a tonne of industry awards.