Well known multimillion dollar brands now have a powerful new adversary to tangle with. Change.org is a website that hosts petitions to “empower anyone, anywhere to start, join, and win campaigns for social change." Using Change.org, average citizens can speak with one collective voice on a host of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) issues, including human rights, education, the environment, and global access to a sustainable food supply.
PepsiCo, for instance, recently announced the removal of brominated vegetable oil (BVO), which is used as a flame retardant, from its Gatorade sports drinks after 16-year old Sarah Kavanagh’s Change.org petition garnered more than 200,000 digital signatures. A similar campaign to get Coca-Cola to remove the same chemical in Powerade has garnered nearly 50,000 signatures, despite the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stated that BVO is safe for human consumption.
Thanks to Change.org, big brands such as Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and myriad others are finding themselves hurled into the center of high-profile debates about acceptable corporate behavior. The foremost reputational challenge is that these are not debates in which both points of view can be expressed. The website’s format does not allow companies and brands to defend themselves. In many cases, all a company in the crosshairs can do is watch as signatures multiply.
Change.org and similar petition sites are gaining prominence in a Digital Age when everyday citizens can leverage social media as force multipliers that amplify their concerns. But there is a catch where Change.org is concerned. The site charges groups for the privilege of sponsoring petitions that are matched to users who have similar interests. When signing up, users are given an option to “Keep me updated on this campaign and others.” When they opt-in for updates on certain issues, sponsors can then reach out to them directly via e-mail.
Importantly, it is not made clear that when a user checks this option, his or her email address is being sold to the sponsor, who in turn floods the user with a deluge or marketing emails shortly thereafter. With a “.org” domain, there seems to be an assumption that “Change” is a non-profit organization, and that it exists simply to level the playing field between corporations and the little guy fighting for the greater good. In reality, that isn’t the full the truth – but however the Change.org profits from its work, there is little doubt that the site is here to stay. Not only is it popular; it is a money-making machine that creates 15,000 petitions and gains two million members a month. As of this writing, total membership has reached more than 20 million people.
To combat the reputational onslaughts enabled by sites such as Change.org, brands must dominate the mediums where they can defend themselves. For example, Coca-Cola should be commenting non-stop in the blogosphere and other social media. It would even be well-advised to create microsites that support its stance and support those Web properties with cutting edge SEO and SEM strategies. Such activity not only ensures that the company’s voice is heard; it demonstrates that the company takes consumers’ concerns seriously and is willing to engage stakeholders in a transparent conversation about the issue.
In the coming months, Change.org warrants close monitoring from any brand large or controversial enough to attract activists’ attention – a wide swath of the corporate spectrum to be certain. As social activism continues to evolve for the Digital Age, anyone can affix a target to any company’s back. As such, every company needs to prepare as if it is the next in line.
Kara Flynn is a Vice President at LEVICK and contributing author to LEVICK Daily.
Vicky Vadlamani is a Director at LEVICK and a contributing author to LEVICK Daily.