Corporate organising draws on the traditions and methods of community organising in order to build communities of stakeholders that help in taking action for a more favourable operating environment.
Corporate political organising is sometimes called ‘grassroots corporate lobbying’, or even ‘astroturfing’ (as in faking grass-roots activity). The purpose of such corporate organising is political and financial, aimed at promoting a specific business agenda. This agenda might be to resist legislation aimed at protecting consumers from its products (as in the tobacco and sugar industries), to prevent regulations which are aimed at protecting workers e.g. laws to extend employment or tax laws in the so-called ‘gig economy’, or to block laws to protect health and wellbeing, such as legislation to phase out the use of oil and petrol to prevent climate emergency.
Corporate political organising takes different forms, from ‘user mobilisation’ where the customers, employees or ‘partners’ of a company are encouraged to participate in protest or lobbying, to donating to grassroots organisations in exchange for activism, to creating third-party associations or ‘front groups’ which engage in activity on behalf of the company.
Whichever form it takes, the risk of corporate ‘community organising’ efforts are that they are misleading and non-transparent ways of placing political pressure on politicians and legislators or influencing public opinion, because of regulatory threats to the business. Decision-makers and customers will respond as if to a real grass-roots campaign, rather than to a corporate lobbying effort.
There are many recent examples of this from digital ‘platform businesses’ including Airbnb’s ‘home sharing clubs’ where landlords in a city are invited to form associations, of which there are over 400 globally; Uber and Lyft’s efforts to organise drivers against initiatives to change employment law; and vaping company JUUL, who are collecting ‘stories’ of ex-smokers in the context of concerns about teen vaping. These companies employ ‘community organisers’ or ‘community strategists’ as part of their public policy teams.
Traditional industries have also resorted to this type of activity, for example a supposed grass-roots campaign to defend the oil industry in the U.S. called Energy Citizens was exposed as a front for the oil industry itself in 2012.
Sometimes other, more benign, corporate practices are also referred to as ‘community organising’, such as creating online forums for users to discuss their experiences and solve problems without drawing on company support resources. We would not call this activity community organising.
Corporate Political Organising deploys many of the core tools of community organising, including 1-to-1 conversations, stories or testimonials, small group or house meetings and online forums to connect people and build a sense of community, and the tools of non-violent direct action including protest, lobbying, town hall assemblies, media campaigns and lawsuits.
In one sense, the goal of corporate organising is to engage people in the democratic process through telling their stories and influencing decision-makers and power-holders. However, corporate organising is rarely or never directed at tackling injustice or inequality. Corporate organising tends towards lending further power to economic elites sponsoring them and their shareholders, who already have disproportionate political and economic influence, rather than supporting ‘everyone’s ability to act’, and shifting power, which emphasises the need to organise and mobilise those with the fewest resources.
Community organising in a corporate context raises a host of conflicts for the community organisers themselves – who can feel torn between the interests of the company that employs them and the people (customers, community members, workers) they are mobilising. Corporate organising is not transparent – politicians, the public and media often do not realise when community organisers and grassroots lobbyists are funded, trained and resourced by companies. True community organisers are paid by the people they are working for, through accountable people’s organisations.
In corporate organising, however, the agenda is ultimately set by the company according to its corporate needs, not by the people through listening to their concerns and hopes. The agenda may have positive effects for part of the wider community, but the intention of corporate community organising is not to seek social justice or transform communities for good.