Divide And Conquer: Dealing With The 4 Types Of Activists

Written by Greg Brooks. Posted in Blog

Over at the weird, encyclopedic Everything2, I found this entry under “The four types of activist.” Good stuff, even if the quoting source is the otherwise lunatic screed, Toxic Sludge is Good For You. I’ve summarized the post, which is itself a summary of a 20-year-old speech to the American Cattlemen’s Association, below.

Back in the day, I helped defeat several slow-growth movements on behalf of the National Association of Homebuilders; from that experience, I’d say this summary is right on the money.

The short version: There are four basic types of activists — radicals, opportunists, idealists and realists. Dealing with movements antagonistic to your clients involves dividing the different types, using different tactics for each group:

  • Isolate the radicals.
  • Get the opportunists on the payroll if needed, or ignore them.
  • Cultivate/educate the idealists and convert them to realists.
  • Co-opt the realists into agreeing with industry.

Radical activists have socio-political motives for subverting the system. They see multinational corporations as inherently evil, and do not trust the government to protect the people or the environment from the interests of big business. Their larger goals can be characterized as “social justice and political empowerment.” Radicals cannot be converted. Therefore, they must be isolated. Their credibility must be destroyed through conversion of the other factions or by personal attacks.

Idealists can be the most difficult activists to deal with. Idealists tend to want a perfect and ethical world. Typically they have nothing material to gain from their beliefs. This, combined with altruism, gives them great credibility and disproportionate influence over the public and the media. Idealists must be dealt with by education, for they will change their positions if it can be shown that their policies cause harm to others. However, the education process can be intensive and difficult, requiring great sensitivity to the issues concerning the idealist.

Opportunists are those who engage in activism for their own gain. They may be after power, increased visibility, or even money. Opportunists can be easily dealt with by providing them with at least the perception of a partial victory.

Realists are the key to most PR campaigns. They are the ones who are willing to work with trade-offs, and their pragmatism makes them the ones most open to negotiation. They will work within the system, often being willing to enter into partnerships with the business concerns that PR firms represent. Once these relationships have been established, the opportunists are always willing to share the credit, and the radicals will lose credibility and be neutralized.

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