The letter said this was because a leading UK charity needed information on the: “potential risks or benefits that a partnership with Nestlé, the global food manufacturing company, would present.”
We do have long experience of Nestlé trying to form partnerships with charities to divert criticism, undermine the boycott and promote its products. As the Chief Executive has said, support of charities has to benefit shareholders.
There were some peculiarities with the approach being made to us. Firstly, the consultants, AS Biss, contracted to conduct the interview. I will say more about my concerns later.
Secondly, this statement in the invitation: “Since the decision of the charity on whether or not to proceed with the partnership depends on the outcome of this study, they have wished to remain anonymous.”
This doesn't make much sense to me. Better information could be provided if I know the which charity and its area of work.
Why hadn't the charity made contact to ask me to participate in the study? How was I to know the approach was bona fide and my participating would help to protect infants rather than undermine the campaign?
This charity is, presumably, already in contact with Nestlé and seriously considering working in partnership. Knowing Nestlé is the most boycotted company in the UK, perhaps they want to develop a strategy to counter any adverse publicity. Might this not simply be an intelligence-gathering exercise, with the visit to the office and the interview set up to discover what resources and strategy Baby Milk Action might use, if a partnership deal is announced, to raise awareness of Nestlé’s corporate malpractice?
If it is a genuine study on the pros and cons of partnership, then what guarantees can I have about how the information will be presented and distributed if I did participate? If the partnership went ahead, everything may possibly end up in Nestlé’s hands, officially or unofficially.
With such questions in mind, I responded to the consultants as follows:
This does sound intriguing and we are very alert to the pitfalls of partnerships and, in particular, the way Nestlé tries to promote and exploit them. You may have seen cases documented on our website and be aware of past actions, such as our reporting a charity to the Charity Commissioners over the way it appeared to have been influenced in its public statements by accepting Nestlé sponsorship.
However, I am rather concerned by the anonymous nature of the request. You state: “Since the decision of the charity on whether or not to proceed with the partnership depends on the outcome of this study, they have wished to remain anonymous.”
I am unable to understand why the weight they put on the study has any bearing on whether they are anonymous or not. It would seem to make more sense NOT to remain anonymous – even if requesting full confidentiality – so our evaluation of the risks is appropriate to their area of operations.
Of more importance, however, is I do not know your organisation and only have your word that you are conducting the study for a charity.
I do not know who else you may have worked for in the past or may work for in the future who may wish to make use of any information we may make available to you.
Although I know nothing about your organisation, I do not doubt you pursue the highest professional standards of confidentiality. However, for all I know you could do contract work for corporate interests that we may see as presenting a conflict of interest.
Therefore, before I can say I will participate in the study, I request that you go back to the ‘leading UK charity’ and ask them to contact me directly to indicate your request is bona fide and they welcome my cooperation in the study.
While I may be willing to cooperate if they are not prepared to do this, I would prefer you put the request to them. You can do so by forwarding this email if you wish.
This request is not made flippantly. We have in the past had the experience of researchers having an undeclared corporate connection and so cannot take approaches such as this at face value, much as we may like to welcome you into our office and provide you with information.
I look forward to hearing from you after you have contacted the charity.
A little while later the response came. The charity was neither prepared to be named nor to contact me directly. The reason given: “I am sure you will appreciate that this is a very sensitive subject and that it is in the charity's interests to remain anonymous at this stage.”
The charity simply does not even want anyone to know that it is considering a partnership with Nestlé. It is not even prepared to tell another not-for-profit organisation in confidence.
That should really tell the charity all it needs to know. Nestlé is an embarrassment.
I responded to say I would not be meeting with AS Biss, though would still consider discussing the issues with the charity directly. Before doing so, we would need to discuss any confidentiality requirements they may wish to request and to reach agreement on how our information would be presented and distributed.
In past cases, for example, we have asked to see the write-up of our position so we can make any corrections required and sign this off. We have agreed if and how we will refer to the meeting and the outcome. Each case has to be treated on its merits. If the charity is to be anonymous, then none of this is possible. I am effectively being asked to trust that participating won't harm my work, but no trust is being shown to me.
However, I do want the charity to consider not only the risks to its own image and activities, but to the wider campaign.
We have documented how Nestlé throws money at charities, particularly those linked with children, to try to divert criticism of its baby food marketing activities and to undermine the boycott. I will write a blog rounding up this information shortly.
Ah, you may say, if this is going to be published in a blog, why not just meet with the consultants?
Certainly I will draw the blog and information in the public domain to the attention of the consultants, but will not have them in our office or take part in an interview. There are several reasons for this, aside from concerns over the anonymity of the charity.
The consultants have worked recently for Abbott. Here is the client list. This is one of the companies we target over its aggressive marketing of baby foods. We are currently campaigning against its involvement in the attack on the Philippines regulations. See our Campaign for Ethical Marketing action sheet.
The consultancy’s speciality is crisis-management. This is what it says it does on its website:
We help you to influence attitudes, opinions and mindsets - when it counts, where it counts. The objective is often a turnaround: to convert opinion leading indifference or antipathy towards your aims into support and positive actions which will help to achieve them. Come to us if you:
- face a business-critical threat, or a crisis that political intervention will help to resolve
- need to reposition your profile to improve relationships with officials, politicians, media, or the local community
- have a single issue on which you want to campaign
- see communications as integral to changing your internal culture
This choice of consultants, as I said in a message to be relayed to the anonymous charity, implies the study is about minimising risks to the charity rather than to infants, mothers and Baby Milk Action.
As it says on the AS Biss website: “What we have done for our clients, we can also do for you. We can help you to: Keep out of the headlines and away from the press pack.”
Another reason for being wary of allowing the consultants into our office is that we are currently campaign to strengthen UK baby food marketing regulations.
AS Biss says on its website, it works to: “Save you £ millions by spotting and stopping a legislative threat” and “Develop the case that persuades the regulator to think again.”
This is what they do. There are many professionals lobbyists working to achieve the goals of whoever contracts them. Not only corporations, but some government departments and non-profit organisations. That is the nature of the business. But is it our role to help them? I think not.
Should we have any concern that information gained through a visit to our office may be useful if the consultants are contracted by, oh, let's say Abbott to counter our Philippines campaign? Or by baby food companies currently lobbying to counter our UK law campaign?
No doubt AS Biss is professional and any information it gained from us would be kept confidential.
But perhaps not the experience it gains from meeting and questioning us.
The profiles of the consultants on the websites highlight experience gained in past employment.
And it invites potential clients to get in touch with questions like:
“This is my issue - what's your experience of something similar?”
Let them say their experience of Nestlé is it is an embarassment to be associated with it.
Far better to support the baby milk campaign by refusing to enter into 'partnership'. More on this soon.