Talking to the company

This post is part of Investigating Companies: A Do-It-Yourself Handbook. Read, download or purchase the whole book here.

Putting questions or accusations to the company you’re looking at can lead to new information and it can be a good way of testing what you’ve found. The company may confirm your findings, or they may say you’ve got the wrong end of the stick and produce solid evidence to show why. If so, it’s better to know this before you go public.

To get a formal response from the company as a whole, for example to accusations that you are making against it, you’re probably best off calling the main contact number or, if they have one, the press office or media centre. If they think it’s worth their while to engage with you they will, even if you’re not from the media. If it’s a small company, you could also go straight to a director.

If you’re looking for information, rather than a formal response, it may be better to talk to the individual member of staff responsible for the part of the company’s work that you’re interested in. Give them a call directly if you have their number, ask to be transferred through the main switchboard, send them an email or go down to their workplace. See section 3.1 and section 3.5 of our handbook for more on finding details of directors and senior members of staff.

You could also go to industry events, such as expos, conferences, exhibitions and corporate award ceremonies. These events are designed to be hobnobbing opportunities for corporate executives as well as a chance for corporations to network and market themselves, and to make deals. You may find government officials there too. Companies sometimes hand out information at these events that is not available in the public domain. Arms companies, for example, have been known to give out details of illegal weaponry at arms fairs. You can often gain access to these events quite easily – for some it’s as simple as going on the organiser’s website and registering. For more controversial exhibitions you might need a cover story. See section 3.6 of our handbook for a list of corporate events organisers.

If you’re part of a campaign, use the access to senior staff you sometimes get as a result of a protest, action or other event to ask them questions, or ask them to confirm or deny accusations.

Here are a few tips for getting useful information from interviews or interactions with people from the company you’re looking into:

PREPARE BEFORE

Check your facts and brush up on your background knowledge. Choose your questions in advance and make them as precise and understandable as possible so you don’t waste time with genuine misunderstandings. It might be helpful to practice with somebody. Think about the tone you want to take in advance. In general, making eye contact, not interrupting, keeping your emotions in check and being polite but firm are good default modes, but there may be times when more adversarial or friendly approaches may work better. Try to think about the issue from the company’s point of view to anticipate possible responses. They may shut up shop and get suspicious if you ask about something particularly sensitive, so leave those questions till last and get the less controversial ones in first.

KNOW WHO YOU ARE

You may decide that you’ll get more information if you use an assumed identity. This will depend on what you’re asking for. If you want a company to confirm or deny accusations you are making, it may make more sense to say who you really are: if they think you will publicise your findings, they may want to correct anything you’ve got wrong. If you start a dialogue like this, remember that you’re there to get information about the company, not give it about you. But if you’re looking to pry out information they wouldn’t usually give, using an alias may work better. Make sure you’ve thought it through and are prepared for questions they may ask about you.

Remember that if you’re making contact over email they’ll probably search the name you give on the web. They’re unlikely to give out sensitive information if they doubt your cover story.

DOCUMENT YOUR INTERVIEW

Note the time, place, who you spoke to and their position, any alias you used, major points and important quotes. Do this during or immediately after your interviews – most of us forget details surprisingly quickly. Record it if possible so you can confirm and verify any good quotes you get.

You’re under no legal obligation to tell the interviewee you’re recording them on a video camera or dictaphone if you’re not going to share it with others. If you do publish or distribute it, you’d need to show that your actions were in the public interest if your interviewee chose to sue. If somebody talks to you ‘off the record’, they don’t expect you to publish what they say. If you do, they’re unlikely to talk to you again.

LOOK THROUGH THE JARGON

A response, especially a written one, from a company may well be corporate fluff that doesn’t really answer your questions. If you want to check if you are correct about something, reiterate or rephrase your question or accusation and ask the company to confirm or deny specific points.

If they just deny something without providing supporting evidence – or they deny a slightly different question to the one you asked, then keep asking until you get a proper answer. If nothing is forthcoming, that may be an answer in itself. Don’t let them schmooze you.

KNOW WHEN TO STOP

If the person you’re talking to offers to send you a useful document, consider ending the interview there. Wait until you’ve actually received what they send, then contact them again with more questions if you have them. If you’re trying to pry information out of a wary staff member, you may be better not asking for anything too sensitive the first time you talk, unless you think that will be the only chance you are going to get.

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