I. Introduction

I. Introduction

As organizations seek ways to increase profits by way of international markets, many turn to the field of public relations as a way of reaching cross-cultural markets. In designing public relations/communication programs, there are many factors that public relations practitioners must consider in order to be successful in these markets. Factors such as cultural differences, language barriers, values, beliefs, and customs often make it difficult, if not nearly impossible, to successfully promote an organization's product or service.

Public relations practitioners have an important role that is crucial to the success of the organization. Public relations practitioners have a responsibility to be the mediator between the organization and its public(s). According to Murphy and Dee (1992), "Public relations makes organizations more effective by building relationships with stakeholders in the environment that have the potential to constrain or enhance the mission of the organization." This role also includes disseminating information to the publics and seeking information as well. This information or feedback often provides the public relations practitioner and the organization with insight as to how the publics perceive the organization.

Oftentimes organizations forget or ignore the importance of the public relations practitioner's role in the organizational structure. As a result, the organization's publics become dissatisfied and often react in a way that is harmful to the organization. This conflict can be characterized as activism in which, if not dealt with correctly, can end in harsh consequences such as a decrease in profits or a tarnished image.

The purpose of this paper is to provide an examination of public relations and the influence of activism in the McLibel case.


A. Rationale of McLibel's case relevance to public relations

There are several reasons why activism is relevant to the field of public relations. To begin, corporations have increasingly been ineffective in dealing with activists publics. According to Grunig (1992), "Too often in the past, corporate management has been inclined to ignore the potential impact of small collectivites." This results in organizations assuming that activists lack legitimacy, thus not affecting the bottom line of the organization.

Secondly, activism acts a "rejuvenator" for the organization. Gollner (1984) (cited in L.A. Grunig 1992) contends that organizations should view pressure from activists groups as "the energy of rejuvenation." In implementing this philosophy into the organizational structure, management will be able to significantly change the way it manages relations with its publics as well as groups in society.

Finally, activism is relevant to the field of public relations because it is part of the public relations process. L.A. Grunig (1992) stated:

"(PR is) a constant process of studying what an organization, company, or industry is doing, researching the constantly changing public climate within which it is doing it, and shaping communications programs to make sure people understand what's going on."


II. Literature review of Activism

A. Definition of publics

In order to effectively deal with activism, it is important to correctly identify and characterize the relevant publics. A public, according to Dewey (1972) is "a group whose members face a similar problem, recognize that the problem exists, and organize to do something about it." Grunig and Hunt (1984) assert that there are three stages in the evolution of publics. In the first, the latent stage, the public does not recognize the problem. A public moves to the aware stage when it recognizes a problem.

The final stage is the active stage in which the public recognizes the problem and organizes to do something about the problem. According to J.E. Grunig and Hunt (1984) the idea is to communicate with an aware public before it actively opposes an organization, thus becoming an activist public.

B. Definition of Activism

Activism and activist groups can be defined several ways. L.A. Grunig (1992) defines activism as: "An activist public is a group of two or more individuals who organize in order to influence another public or publics through action that may include education, compromise, persuasion, pressure tactics or force. Anderson (1992) defines activists groups as: "strategic publics because they constrain an organization's ability to accomplish its goals and mission." Anderson (1992) went on to describe activists as those that "create issues, appeal to government, courts, or the media for litigation, regulation or other forms of pressure."

Activists groups have one major purpose when it comes to putting pressure on organizations. That purpose is to exert control over the organization from the outside. Moore (1974) explained "Our role is to present options as forcefully and as articulately as possible." Mintzberg (1983) suggested that the purpose of activists groups is to "keep the corporation on its toes, quick to respond to needs other than it own as a closed system."

In order to better understand activism and activist groups, it is important know how they form and operate. Activists groups usually form when a group of individuals face a similar problem, recognize that the problem exists, and organize to do something about. This is usually done by making public policy issues out of problems through careful organization and the use of propaganda techniques. Mintzberg (1983) noted that "Pressure campaigns are based on confrontation, not cooperation; they assume that the organizations must be forced to change against its will." This change however, can come about more effectively if managers take the initiative to find out the public's perception of the organization before the pressure campaign(s) begin.

Activist also use the media to place pressure on organizations. The reason for using the media is simple: the media conveys legitimacy. According to the theory of agenda-setting, the media provides a form of legitimation and confers status on the individuals involved in the activism, L.A. Grunig (1992). The agenda-setting theory also holds that media coverage of events creates "citizen definition of the importance of those events" Olien, Donohue, and Tichenor (1984) (cited in L.A. Grunig 1992). Research by Harris (1982) ) (cited in L.A. Grunig 1992) has also found that activist groups use the media to build a favorable image, to educate the public, or to use the ensuing public opinion as a court of appeal. As a result, activist often experience advantages over the organization(s) they oppose when it comes to media coverage. Newsom (1983) pointed out that "small pressure groups have more flexibility in dealing with news media and are likely to approach them in the best possible problem-facing behavior."

Hainsworth (1990) found that "the typical relationship with activists tends to be quite hostile across (all) organizational types." In his view, activist efforts were like a "cyclical process whereby social issues 'rise like the phoenix at some later time as those adversely impacted seek...again to initiate change.'"

Mintzberg (1983) explained four reason why there is a growing hostility growing between organizations and activists groups. He argued that the first reason is that economic power has become highly concentrated. Research has shown that the public worries about the enormous amount of influence that rests in the hands of a few corporations. This monopoly has many individuals concerned that this influence will be forced into their private lives as well as their work lives.

Secondly, the economic power of the private sector has led to "increasingly significant social consequences." This concern has caused the public to question the role of business in society, resulting in a thorough examination of the cultural, technical, environmental, and political ramifications of corporate policy and the social consequences on the above mentioned.

Third, the public's expectation of the economic and social responsibilities of the businesses has risen.

Finally, the corporation is usually controlled by its own administrators. In Mintzberg's opinion, "Were the corporation controlled by those upon whom is had an impact,...there would be no issue of who should control it."

C. Five types of activists publics

According to Lesly (1992), there are five types of groups activist can be defined as. The first type is the sincere group. This group has a "clear purpose that frankly reflects their rights or interests."

The second group is called the "do-gooders." This group is usually comfortable and affluent. "They seek an outlet for their purposefulness in helping others or in making things fit their theories of life."

The third group are the social engineers. This group consider themselves intellectually and morally the "cream of society and are intent on imposing their superior judgment onto the entire human system."

The fourth type of activist is holier-than-thou group who feel that heaven has anointed them with the one true formula for human existence and that it is their duty to impose it on everyone else.

Finally, the "anti's" are those who are against almost everything, constantly dissastisfied with their lives and the world.

In order to deal with these publics effectively, Lesly (1992) suggests that public relations practitioners must become sensitive to the psyche of the people involved in these activist groups.

D. Grunig's Situational Theory

Grunig's (1977) situational theory consists of two dependent variables and three independent variables. The two dependent variables, active and passive communication behavior, can also be called information seeking and information processing. Information seeking, as described by Clark and Kline (1974), is "the planned scanning of the environment for messages about a specific topic." Information processing is "the unplanned discovery of a message followed by continued processing of it," Clark and Kline (1974).

The independent variables are situational because they describe the perceptions that people have about specific situations, especially problematic ones causing conflict. Grunig (1977) defines these three variables as follows:

Problem Recognition. People detect that something should be done about a situation and stop to think about what to do.

Constraint Recognition. People perceive that there are obstacles in a situation that limit their ability to do anything about the situation.


Level of Involvement. The extent to which people connect themselves with a situation.

According to the theory, previous research has confirmed that high problem recognition and low constraint recognition increase active information seeking and passive information processing. The level of involvement also increases, however it has little effect on information processing.

People seldom seek information about situations that do not involve them. They will however randomly process information about low involvement situations if they recognize it as being problematic.

E. Game Theory

The basic premise of game theory holds that conflicts of interest can be modeled as games of strategy. Game theorists model these conflicts by considering the participants as "players" in the game. One player is the organization and the other is the activist group in which each player has certain preferences and dislikes. Each one has to select "plays" or strategies for reaching the preferred outcome while simultaneously considering the opponent's strategies.

Game theory examines various approaches to conflict by applying specific models. These models can be divided into two classes of game: zero sum and non-zero sum.

On the pure conflict extreme is the zero-sum game which can be defined as: "one in which the payoffs to the players in any outcome add up to zero; what one player gains, the other must necessarily lose," Colman (1982). These types of games are based on pure opposition, as there is no possibility of profitable collaboration.

The non-zero sum game is dominated by mixed motives games. In this game, each side retains "a strong sense of self-interest but is motivated to cooperate, to a limited extent, in order to maximize very different benefits for each," Colman (1982).

F. Asymmetrical v, Symmetrical Communication in Activism

Public relations theory suggests that conflicts are most efficiently resolved when "participants evolve compatible ground rules for play," Murphy and Dee (1992). This concept is the underlying principle in Grunig and Hunt's (1984) definition of symmetric two-way public relations.

This communication, according to J.E. Grunig and Hunt (1984), "resolves conflict 'through negotiation, communication, and compromise.'"

According to L.A. Grunig's research, she found that two-way symmetrical is the least practiced. "In case studies of organizational response to activism, she found too few instances of two-way symmetrical public relations to prove that it was the most effective model," Anderson (1992). L.A. Grunig (1986) was able to conclude that because organizations fail to effectively deal with activists publics using the other three models of public relations, there was an implied need for the two-way symmetrical model. Her five assertions about two-way symmetrical communication between organizations and activists are:

1. Organizations need two-way communication to learn the consequences of what they are doing on all of their relevant publics.


2. Organizations need two-way communication to tell the publics what they doing about the negative consequences.


3. The two-way symmetrical approach to public relations is an on-going process.


4. An on-going, balanced, and proactive program of constituency relations must acknowledge the legitimacy of all constituent groups regardless of size.


5. Research is an important variable in the two-way symmetrical model of public relations. Organizations must learn to measure their effectiveness in terms of more than simplistic short term gains or losses...


G. New Public Relations/Activism

Activist groups which have mastered the art of public relations have coined a new term for it: media advocacy. According to former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission and how head of the Advocacy Institute Michael Pertschuk, media advocacy is defined as "the strategic use of mass media for advancing a social or public policy initiative," Rose (1991). This usually means that activists should use research and frame data so that it is interesting and understandable to the media and the general public.

III. Activism and McLibel

The McLibel case provides an excellent case study of how one company unsuccessfully dealt with two activists from a small group. This study provides a blueprint for future studies of the cause and effect of activism on organizations.

McDonald's, an U.S.-based multi-national corporation, spends approximately $2 billion dollars annually on advertising and promotion of its restaurants and products. In expediting the expense of this huge expenditure, McDonald's strongly believes in defending it reputation. As a result, this defense has often been taken up through legal action, in which the company has secured many apologies from its harshest critics who wanted to avoid legal proceedings. However, this period of remaining unchallenged came to an end when two activist decided to challenge McDonald's by trying to change its internal policies from the outside.

A. London Greenpeace

Greenpeace is an activist group with 3.3 million members in over 22 countries which uses highly visible actions to draw media attention to environmental problems. The London Greenpeace group, a division of Greenpeace, is an independent group of activists that has no involvement in any political party. This group meets weekly to "share concern for the oppression in our lives and the destruction of our environment."

Greenpeace, being an extreme organization, has to "manage or maintain its public image as a group that will not compromise on environmental issues, Murphy and Dee (1992). This has lead to a "take-no-prisoners" approach which can be summed up to the zero sum strategy. The organization fits Grunig's (1989a) description of a high involvement, information seeking public which believe in collective intervention in organizational decision making. This public seeks to change the direction of environmental decline versus a substitution for lost resources.

B. The libel action

The libel action began in 1986 when London Greenpeace produced and disseminated a six-page leaflet entitled, "What's wrong with McDonald's? Everything they don't want you to know." The leaflet contained criticisms about McDonald's, which the activists accused the corporation of being connected to starvation in Third World countries and the destruction of rainforests. The leaflet also accused McDonald's of exploiting children through advertising, being cruel to animals, serving unhealthy food that causes cancer of breast and bowel and heart disease and having bad working conditions. At the end of the leaflet, the group advocates that consumers boycott McDonald's (Appendix 1). The following is a timeline of the events in the McLibel action:

1982 Dave Morris joins the group.

1988 Helen Steel joins the group.

1986 The leaflet "What's wrong with McDonald's" is produced.

1989-91 McDonald's employs seven private investigators to infiltrate the group

9/20/90 McDonald's serves libel writs over the leaflet asking for an apology. The group has two hours of free Legal Aid and refused to apologized.

6/28/94 After 12 preliminary hearings and four years of appeals, the trial starts. The McDonald's barrister predicts the trial will last 3-4 weeks. The trial takes place in Court 35 of the Royal Courts of Justice, London. McDonald's successfully argues that the case is to complex for a jury, thus Mr. Justice Bell would decide the case.

6/30/94 Day three. Evidence starts.

8/23/96McDonald's, in a publicity stunt, gives 500 pounds to Charlie's Play Center, a children's charity.

8/94 McDonald's initiate settlement negotiations by flying over two McDonald's vice presidents. Since Greenpeace was unwilling to negotiate, McDonald's mirrored the "non-nice" behavior by sending out it own leaflets, in an attempt to discredit Morris and Steel.

2/16/96 McSpotlight internet site is launched.

6/28/96 Second anniversary of the trial.

11/1/96 Day 292. McLibel becomes the longest trial in English history.

12/13/96 Day 313. End of hearing.

6/19/97 Judgment day.

In the verdict of the case, presented by Mr. Justice Bell, he held that Steel and Morris had not proven that McDonald's food and its products caused heart disease, cancer and food poisoning, Third World starvation, rainforest destruction, or bad working conditions. However the verdict of the court held that the two activists have proven that McDonald's had exploited children through misleading advertising, was cruel to animals, was antipathetic to unions and paid low rages. As a result, Steel and Morris had libeled McDonald's but by proving that some of the libelous claims were true, they were only ordered to pay 3/5 of the libel claim, amounting to $97,800.

C. Greenpeace's and McDonald's strategy of conflict

The strategy used by Greenpeace - extreme actions, unilateral demands and its intolerance for compromise is characteristic of the zero-sum approach of game theory. This model emphasizes winning at the expense of the other in which both Greenpeace and McDonald's exemplified through its actions. This method includes communication through manipulation of the issues to slant arguments in its own favor, the use of flamboyant symbols to depict choices in absolute terms, and the refusal to cede any points Murphy and Dee (1992).

Greenpeace used flamboyant symbols in celebrating the second anniversary of the trial by inviting the media and the public to celebrate by eating a cake in the shape of Ronald McDonald's face (McLibel video).

D. McDonald's public relations mistakes

McDonald's first public relations mistake was it pursuit of its "legal vendetta" against the two activists. This action proved that the company "jumped the gun" in protecting its reputation/image. By not conducting any environmental scanning, the corporation had no idea of how its publics perceived the organization after the dissemination of the leaflets. Thus, the company had no idea whether or not it was necessary to conduct damage control in order to protect its reputation.

Secondly, the corporation failed to do environmental scanning on Greenpeace itself. The company had no idea of the size of the activist groups, its power to influence publics locally, nationally, and internationally, the resources the group had available to defend its position, or the credibility of the organization.

The final public relations mistake the company made was using asymmetrical methods to disseminate information. On the eve of the trial, McDonald's issued 300,000 leaflets that called the activists liars, as a way of discrediting them. This strategy backfired because the company did not conduct any background research on the activists, thus just deciding to utilize one-way communication to argue its side.


E. McDonald's faces the consequences of its actions

As a result of McDonald's attempt to stop the print and distribution of the leaflets, the exact opposite happened. Since the writs were served to the activist group, over 2 million leaflets have been handed out in the United Kingdom. Protests and campaigns against McDonald's also continue in over 24 countries, McLibel Verdict Backgrounder (1997). Additionally, the McSpotlight internet site was launched in 1996. This site is a on-line library tool that provides over 10,000 separate files. These files include the original leaflet, full transcripts of the trial and other McLibel campaign material.

As a result of McDonald's legal action to suppress print and distribution of the leaflet, the company spent $16 million on the case. This in turn, generated large amounts of bad publicity for the company. Many newspapers accused the corporation of bullying, and mocked the company for turning a "molehill of a problem into a mountainous public relations nightmare."

Many public relations professionals felt that McDonald's had done itself more harm than good as a result of pursuing the legal action. Stephen Brocklebank-Fowler, managing director of London public relations company Citygate Corporate said: "McDonald's has scored one the most extended own-goals in the recent history of public relations."

However, McDonald's felt justified in the legal action it took against Morris and Steel. According to the president of McDonald's UK Paul Preston, "This is about reputation..."

In the September 16, 1999 issue of Marketing, a weekly UK trade magazine, an article on the case exerts the fact that no matter what McDonald's does, it will "always be a bad guy in the eyes of pressure groups which don't like multinational capitalism, particularly when its well marketed.


F. PR solutions to dealing with activist publics

There are several solutions that public relations practitioners can and should consider when dealing with activists publics. According to Murphy and Dee (1992), many public relations practitioners generally assume that the solution to dealing with activist publics lies in negotiation and compromise:

The solution is a redefinition of the relative roles in a non-adversary climate, no matter what is takes. The rule makers are not evil, capricious, unthinking people, but more likely hardworking public servants. They can, with some sense of community, engage in a dialogue...(to) balance the conflicting needs of employment and the environment. (Schnancht, cited in J.E. Grunig & Hunt, 1984).


This type of solution is based on the two-way symmetrical model of public relations. It is here that organizations uses communication and research in order to cooperate with activists publics, instead of trying to persuade them. This model seeks to promote mutual understanding and respect between the organization and the activist public(s).

Another type of public relations solution that practitioners may use in resolving conflict with activists publics according to Rose (1991) is to consider the following options:

1. Know who you're up against. Activists of the 1990s are of a different bred. Public relations practitioners must do research to find out "if the group you're dealing with has a large grassroots membership base or just a few important sounding names on the letterhead." Organizational public relations should find out if the group has public relations professionals that they can deal with in order to more effectively deal with the conflict.

2. Be an advocate for alternative solutions to the problem. When an organization is caught in a struggle with an activist, it should think long and hard about something that it may be able to advocate that will demonstrate the organization's responsiveness to the activist(s) concerns.

3. Put a face on the issue. Although facts and figures are always necessary to support the organization's point of view, personal stories bring issues alive while simultaneously capturing the attention of the media and policymakers. It is important to talk in terms of what the issue means to the activists, instead of solely focusing on the organizational bottom line.

4. Put your words in someone else's mouth. Research has shown that business and industry are not always held in high esteem in the eyes of the public. Oftentimes when an organization attempts to advocate a good image, it is not supported or accepted by the public because it knows who the organization is. Organizations must realize that they are not immune from potential credibility problems. In realizing this, organizations must seek the help of other credible institutions to re-establish its credibility.

Lesly (1992) noted that an organization must have expertise in five areas which are: (1) knowing the situation and the climate, (2) knowing your people, (3) knowing your adversaries, (4) knowing what to do, and (5) knowing how to do it. It is here that Lesly (1992) established a list of guidelines to carry out the function of "coping with opponents:

        Establish a process for monitoring what is developing among the publics that may have an impact on the organization.

        Establish liaison with public-interest groups and the public.

        Get the highest caliber of input from one or more experts outside the organization.

        Set up a process for watching the general media to see what subjects arise and show signs of becoming issues.

        Set up guidelines to make leaders of the organization accessible and knowledgeable for the media.


Finally, Ryan and Martinson (1983), felt that responsible corporations must sometimes give up some profit in order to protect the well being of the public. By honestly doing so, the public usually perceive the organization as being more socially responsible.

It is hear that the authors suggest that organizations should, "Represent the public to your management, and the management to your public. Corporations hire public relations practitioners to act as the social conscience for the organization. Thus, it is important that the public relations person is allowed enough freedom to act as the "corporate conscience" in order to do the job properly. This job usually entails getting complete information to the public(s).

IV. Conclusion/Implications for future research

Throughout this research, it was constantly asserted by many authors that although the two-way symmetrical communication model is rarely practiced, it is the best way to deal with activists publics. According to L.A. Grunig (1992) there are six propositions that deal with the aspects of two-way symmetrical communication as a way of dealing with activism.

P1: Organizations need two-way communication to learn the consequences of what they are doing on all of their relevant publics -- not just their owners, their employees, and their associates.

P2: Organizations need two-way communication to tell the publics what they are doing about any negative consequences. This means that public relations practitioners should be flexible and consider adopting new strategies or new messages in order to effectively deal with activist groups. These new strategies/messages should be made depending on the need and predispositions of the activists opposing the organization(s). "Involving the public relations staff in a joint organization-activist committee also would help transform the perception of public relations from corporate mouthpiece to advocate for understanding."

P3: Continuous efforts at communicating with activists are necessary to contend with their shifting stances. The two-way symmetrical approach to public relations is an on-going process. It has been shown that interest groups are willing to trust organizations but at other times, they appeal either to the government or the media for satisfaction.

P4: An on-going, balanced and proactive program of constituency relations must acknowledge the legitimacy of all constituent groups - regardless of their size. Organizations should never underestimate the power an influence an organization has, based on its size. Studies show that smaller organization are able to get more done versus medium or large ones.

P5: Conducting a two-way symmetrical communication programs hinges on employing people with the necessary background and education.

P6: Organizations must learn to measure their effectiveness in terms of more than simplistic, short-term gains or losses...

This means that public relations persons should implement a continuous program of evaluation. Analyzing piggyback questions from polls, counting clips and media impressions, and profit increase provide minimal evidence as to how the publics perceive the organization. Thus, it is important that public relations utilizes environmental scanning and two-way communication in order to effectively monitor the public's perception of the organization.

Another implication of this research as noted by Murphy and Dee (1992) is that corporations and activists groups seldom succeed at resolving disputes between them, as was exemplified in the McLibel case. The authors feel that this lack of closure is simply "an inevitable outcome of each side's incompatible strategy for dealing with conflict," a characteristic of game theory. Grunig (1989a) found that "activists groups help to create constraints on organizational autonomy that are the major reason for public relations problems and programs to solve them."


Anderson (1992) cited that weaknesses in most case studies of activism is that similar case studies should be conducted that examine activism from the perspective of both the organizations and of the activists groups, which is applicable to this study of the McLibel case. In my research, I came across must more literature and disseminated information from the small activist group of London Greenpeace versus the large multi-national corporation of McDonald's. This study also points to the need of more studies that examine the special problems of international communication. The actions of a single U.S.-based multi-national corporation (McDonald's) triggered activist conflict not only in London, but in 24 other different countries as well.

"If public relations practitioners are to assess issues successfully and identify publics that are likely to become active on those issues, they must look beyond the confines of their own culture and beyond the borders of their own country," Anderson (1992).