Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

Roast Busters: When people power works

What makes a talkback radio station and a multinational drinks company decide to bow to public pressure? Phil Taylor examines how smart activists are using the power of social media

Giovanni Tiso used Twitter to inspire public reaction against Radio Live presenters Willie Jackson and John Tamihere. Photo / Marty Melville
Giovanni Tiso used Twitter to inspire public reaction against Radio Live presenters Willie Jackson and John Tamihere. Photo / Marty Melville

Giovanni Tiso admits surprise at the outcome of his actions. The Italian-born, Wellington-based writer, activist and self-described Marxist is the man who saw to it that Willie Jackson and John Tamihere were suspended from their radio show.

Tiso challenged RadioLive advertisers to make a stand following comments the pair made about the Roast Busters rape group and their interrogation of a young female caller who said she was a friend of a victim. As a result, advertisers boycotted the show, prompting management to act by taking off air the former MPs who have leadership roles with Maori organisations.

The dominoes fell quickly. A segment of the offending Jackson and Tamihere broadcast was used as a promotion for the show but was soon pulled.

After Jackson and Tamihere made what Tiso considered a non-apology - they were sorry listeners took offence, rather than about their line of questioning - it seemed they would simply carry on.

"Everyone I know was angry," says Tiso, who on November 8 wrote a column, This Is What Rape Culture Looks Like, for an Australian publication, concluding that it was time to "turn the outrage and anger into collective action".

Aware advertisers bought space on the station rather than individual shows, Tiso told the Herald that in contacting advertisers he'd hoped for no more than to extend the conversation and keep the story alive.

His second call was to AA Insurance, which to his surprise said they were pulling their ads from the show because they were unhappy with the interview and the apology. "Yellow, I think was the turning point. Yellow got in touch to say they were ... pulling from the station all together."

ANZ, Freeview, Telecom, Vodafone, Briscoes, Countdown and the Mad Butcher also pulled advertisements. As responses came in, Tiso shared them with his 2000 Twitter followers, many of whom passed the news to their followers.

And so, says Tiso, "there's a reasonable amount of resonance there". He's since asked those advertisers to each donate $10,000 to Rape Prevention Education and has posted to Twitter a scoresheet recording the responses (Telecom and ANZ have pledged).

As to whether such campaigns make scapegoats (the heat shifted from the youths, to the police reaction, to the radio hosts), Tiso says, you apply pressure where you can with the tools you have.

"There are much harder things we should be doing. Social media is very good at pressuring sponsors but it's not very good at pressuring the police ... (or) Government. (But) if the last two weeks have taught us anything it has taught us that rape prevention education and counselling services are essential. These need to be funded by Government and this is something we can get a broad political consensus about. It's not a left and right issue." Tiso and others are promoting rallies scheduled for today to urge the Government to take action.

Australia-based publicists for change.org (an international platform that carries petitions) are also involved, trying to bolster interest in the rallies and an associated petition to be sent to Prime Minister John Key.

A mob has quickly formed but whether that means mob justice is another matter. Though the two broadcasters may have become scapegoats, Tiso says they had to go because "what they did was worse than anyone else in their field".

The power of social media was not always appropriate but in this instance was. "It was a very difficult week but it might have been a turning point. Whatever contributed to that, whether it was social media, I think we have to look at it positively."

Oxfam's harnessing of people power via social media led this month to a decision by Coca-Cola to change the way it obtains sugar, committing to stop using ingredients it identifies as derived from the practise of "land-grabbing".

Thousands of New Zealanders are among a quarter of a million people who signed Oxfam petitions urging food and beverage makers to stop using ingredients from suppliers where large-scale land acquisitions and land conflicts. It followed an Oxfam investigation that concluded some supply companies were taking land without payment or consultation to build sugar plantations. Houses were burnt and communities forcibly displaced in the process.

Oxfam is targeting the three biggest users of sugar and using social media to influence the companies decisions by applying a carrot-and-stick approach. Though Coca-Cola benefits from the appearance of being socially responsible, the other two of the world's big three sugar-buyers, Pepsi and Associated British Foods, get the cane.

"Now Coca-Cola has taken action," Oxfam says on its website, "rivals (sic) PepsiCo can't justify being so far behind. Now, just ahead of their shareholder filing deadline, we need you to blast their in-boxes with messages telling them to keep up with Coca-Cola and commit to zero tolerance for land grabs."

Carrot and stick or blackmail?

"You could put it like that," says Oxfam New Zealand executive director Barry Coates. "There's a big first-mover advantage to a company that picks up on these messages first.

"We preceded this with the action on the rights for woman farmers in cocoa supply chains and targeted the chocolate companies. There you had competition almost between the companies to say who was going to be first to sign up and Nestle and Cadbury did very quickly."

A New Zealand example was the decision by Dole in May to scrap the "ethical choice" stickers on its bananas, following a report which criticised conditions on its plantations. Oxfam gave the company its research (that found the company used underage plantation workers in the Philippines, required them to work up to 12 hours a day and paid them less than the minimum wage) a month before launching its social media campaign. By then they weren't really able to argue the messages and the research were inaccurate.

The core battle is for transparency. Coates gives the example of Coca-Cola - which, he says, has not identified the countries let alone the supplier it sources sugar from, claiming the information is commercially sensitive. If it is clear where the sugar is source there is a way of "exerting leverage back on suppliers who may be acting illegally or unethically.

"That is the kind of transformative thing around some of these campaigns; you are not only getting a one-time result you are changing the ability of others in future to be able to exercise that influence and that is when campaign outcomes become really important."

Coca-Cola has agreed to provide greater transparency, something Coates puts down to sufficient pressure being put on them via "the credibility of the research, the public pressure, the sense their brand and their reputation can be damaged by this". Rather than ask corporations to introduce an ethical element into their bottom line, change comes, he says, when the company sees it is in its economic interests.

Oxfam had been campaigning on trade, land mines and Third World debt long before the internet changed the game. There was a learning curve and although online campaigns were plentiful few were successful. To be effective a campaign has to be based on solid research in order for the message to be credible, have clear targets and, ideally, a deadline for action. For example, Oxfam is pressing Pepsi to follow its competitor's lead before its upcoming date for reporting to shareholders.

"People have to feel that it is winnable, tangible enough that you can make progress that you can see."

In the age of the world wide web, the cost of demanding change has never been cheaper. Information is easily disseminated, pressure brought to bear by clicking a link or sending an email. "You're more powerful than any of the Big 10 food companies," Oxfam says on its website. "Without you, they won't stay big for long. Use Facebook and Twitter to nudge your favourite brands. Contact the CEO personally and tell them what needs to change."

With the bulk of shareholder worth lying in intangibles including reputation, there is a growing awareness of the risk in not being a good corporate citizen. Former big-five accountancy firm Arthur Andersen, along with Enron and Monsanto, are among many who got it wrong, says Coates. Whereas reputational risk used to be handled by the public relations department - "as we used to say, 'delay, deny, fudge"' - it is increasingly seen as core strategic decision-making. "I think the change is going on in some of the more savvy companies."

It's a trend he thinks the public understands. "Campaigns to try to influence Government policy get much less support because of the belief that they will be ignored by politicians. But you ask them to do something to change a company's policy, people actually think they will be listened to. I think a change that is going on because once upon a time people thought the exact reverse."

Otago University Associate Professor of marketing, Ken Deans, says the rise of social media campaigns is partly because it is cheap.

"Whereas they didn't have the budget before, they now have the ability to spotlight such activities. They are not printing posters, they are not running campaigns, they are putting it out there to the following they already have."

Done well, it can go viral.

Deans sees nothing wrong with challenging advertisers in the case of Jackson's and Tamihere's Radio Live show, or Oxfam's sugar campaign.

"It's someone putting a stake in the ground and aligning themselves one way or another. Companies have been pulling advertising and sponsorship forever. The difference here is more people know about it. Used properly, I rather like the empowering of individuals and organisations that previously couldn't afford to have that exposure. You don't need to do a leaflet drop, you don't need to buy primetime space."

Successful social media campaigns have an inbuilt natural selection, Deans suggests, because they needed to have merit and be well-executed to cut through the noise.

- NZ Herald

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