Responding to Requests for Commitments

2Evaluate the Source

Start by evaluating the source of the request to determine engagement strategy.

Research the group making the request, evaluating:

  • Track record of positive interaction/collaboration – are they interested in finding solutions or just agitating? What is their end goal – improving sustainability or elimination of a specific practice, business or industry?
  • Influence/credibility – What is their presence online and in social media? How many members or followers? Do they appear to be mainstream or fringe? Do they base their positions on well-researched, science-based information or on emotional appeals? What is the potential impact on your brand or customers?
  • What have they done in the past with other companies or brands, what are they likely to do? In this case, past performance is a likely predictor of future actions.
    • Have they engaged in unethical or illegal activities in the past to achieve their objectives?
    • Do they utilize legal action such as lawsuits or regulatory petitions?
    • Do they apply pressure via customer or consumers to push for change?
  • Utilize outside resources for information on groups – commodity organizations, competitors, trade associations, Better Business Bureau, and social media influence measures are sources for insight into unfamiliar individuals or groups. Don’t hesitate to reach out to others for insight on their experience with the group.

Who is asking? Do they have a track record of constructive collaboration?

Yes No

If you determine the group is credible it is important to acknowledge the contact with an initial response while you work through your internal process. Waiting until you have a definitive response or plan of action could be interpreted as a refusal to engage and inadvertently trigger additional action to gain your attention. If you determine the group is more interested in agitating than finding a solution, you may decide not to respond. Be prepared for a negative reaction if you choose not to respond to the request. Prepare to activate your response plan if needed to again communicate your commitment to sustainability and willingness to engage reasonable stakeholders.

In your response:

  • Acknowledge the concerns raised
  • Request additional information or clarification if needed
  • Communicate that you are gathering information about the concern
  • Commit to a status update within a specified timeframe and in a specific way. Avoid committing to a public statement, an in-person meeting or a specific outcome at this point.
  • Ask that the group making the request review your current sustainability priorities and identify how this request aligns with current commitments. This sets the stage for a more productive discussion about trade-offs.

Also prepare a holding statement reflecting your willingness to meet and consider the issue in the context of your current sustainability priorities. Hold statement until needed for media or customer/consumer response.

Evaluate the nature of the request – does it appear to be part of a mass communication (letter or email) to multiple companies or targeted to your specific company or brand? Contact your trade association to see if others have received a similar request. Research the requesting group’s website and social media properties to see if this is part of a new campaign. If it is part of a mass outreach, it may be possible to refer it to an industry group or coordinate a response strategy with others who were also contacted.

It will be more productive to work with groups that offer a solution or are genuinely interested in collaboration vs. just raising an issue to promote their agenda. For those not genuinely interested in constructive engagement, you may have to take a principled stand that is in opposition to their position. In this situation, having a transparent and inclusive process that supports your position is essential. Research from CFI shows that if you share how and why you make policy decisions, you are much more likely to minimize outrage and opposition to the decision, even if stakeholders don’t ultimately agree with the decision made. Demonstrating your willingness to engage, listen and evaluate, will make your final decision more acceptable for many and tolerable for others.

Even if it appears to be a mass outreach or fishing expedition or is being made by an extreme group, completely ignoring or dismissing the contact carries risk. No response may be construed as a refusal to consider their position and may cause them to pursue more aggressive tactics to get your attention, such as posting their request on social media or going to customers, shareholders or even legal or regulatory channels. A response from a trade association is one way to acknowledge the request and perhaps provide clarifying information with putting any one company or brand in the spotlight.