3 August 2001
Coalition against BAYER-dangers


Since Seattle European business has chosen to leave the task of tackling WTO critics to politicians like EU Commissioner Lamy. However, there are now strong indications that this strategy is about to become more like that of US business and that European industry will engage in various forms of counter- campaigning to undermine the perceived growing powers of NGOs. A leaked strategy paper from the powerful Association of German Industries (BDI), shows that German industry is planning NGO-style campaigning to win public support for corporate-friendly international trade and investment policies. The paper, entitled “NGOs - a challenge for business” and written for an industry seminar on NGOs and trade policy, also points out the potential for weakening NGO campaigns by luring the opponents into ‘dialogue’.

The BDI paper complains about the growing influence of NGOs on public opinion. Their power, the paper states, is based on the widespread credibility and trust enjoyed by NGOs like Amnesty International and WWF, as well as the advanced international networking, through which “NGOs have gained an advantage in knowledge and mobilization”. The campaign against a WTO Millennium Round is mentioned as an example of how fast NGO campaigns can spread and how effective they can be. It is exactly the fact that NGOs have taken on topics like international trade and foreign investment that worries the German employers organisation. These issues used to be the exclusive terrain of corporate lobbyists, who now have difficulties responding to these new “important competitors”. This is why BDI has set up a working group on how to deal with the NGO threat. The working group collects information about membership, financing and structure of the most important NGOs and which develops strategies how to counter criticism. One strategy proposed is to copy NGO tactics and carry out campaigns targeting public opinion, a style of working which was until now very rarely used by German business.

Emphasis will be on controversial issues like genetic engineering and the impacts of globalisation. The BDI also plans to establish a European network of corporate policy experts which will directly target politicians and the EU bureaucracy. Internal communication will be through email lists - a classic NGO tool. In case of conflicts with NGOs, BDI distinguishes three different options: non-reaction, confrontation and dialogue. The strategy of non-reaction boils down to simply ignoring all criticism and was for many years the preferred option for German business. BDI however only recommends this strategy in the rare cases where the opponent is too unknown, powerless or ideologically extreme to be a real danger. The strategy of confrontation includes for instance the threat of court trials as well as discrediting the opponent. This strategy tends to be counter- productive because of the “David against Goliath” effect, which shifts sympathy to the attacked NGO and might damage the company’s image.

Therefore BDI recommends its members to consider engaging NGOs in “dialogue”: an effective strategy to evade conflicts – “without giving up own points of view.” Indeed, the BDI paper does not in any way acknowledge the problems resulting from corporate-controlled international trade and investment policies. Instead, it clearly states that industry through “dialogue” with civil society hopes to gain the upper hand in the conflict and improve its public image. Among the benefits for business is the possibility to gain insights into the strength of the NGOs and their arguments, learning from their expertise as well as generally “taking the wind out of the sails of their opponents.”