17 Oct 2014

They are constantly circulating on social media or being pinged into our inboxes but what impact are e-petitions actually having?

We are currently experiencing a resurgence in petitions and, while many have welcomed this, others have claimed that they can in fact be damaging to a cause. Cynics claim that e-petitions are resulting in laziness from formally active members of society, with many believing that simply signing a petition is enough. And in some ways they are right; one person signing a petition is not enough to apply pressure on large corporations and facilitate change. Thousands of people and a social media campaign and the exposure of widespread dissatisfaction however, do arguably, have the ability to be successful.

Over the past few years large corporations have been forced to react to e-petitions and the traction behind them. In order to avoid a reputational crisis, companies have to realise the power and potential longevity of e-petitions and their ability to create a mass following. Many companies are already implementing changes to address this.

Last week, Lego announced that it will be terminating its relationship with Shell, following a lengthy campaign from Greenpeace. Whilst the e-petition, which reached its target of 1.25 million signatures, was not the only form of pressure applied to the toy maker, the sheer volume of response could not be ignored. The e-petition provided Greenpeace with a shareable entity, which encouraged public engagement and created an environment where its message became viral. You need only search for the news on Google to see that high ranking media sources have been reporting the NGO’s victory. With public backing via the petition, as well as sharing of social media pages, campaign videos and traditional protest methods, Greenpeace were able to take a multipronged approach towards its campaign, garnering extremely high levels of support.

The FMCG sector has seen a number of cases where petitions and campaigning have had a direct impact on a company altering procedures. Earlier this year, Coca Cola made the decision to remove BVO, a chemical found in flame retardants, from all of its drinks. Change.org’s 2012 campaign, which gained over 200,000 signatures and was started by a Mississippi-based teenager, questioned why the controversial ingredient was being used by Coca Cola and PepsiCo in the US, despite being banned for consumption in the EU and Japan. While the petition alone is unlikely to have been the only reason for Coca Cola’s decision, the BBC reported that it resulted from the traction the petition gained.

Following a campaign by popular blogger Food Babe, Subway announced that it would remove the chemical Azodicarbonamide, also found in yoga mats and soles of shoes, from the ingredients of its bread in the US. The inclusion of the ingredient created significant online backlash and nearly 100,000 people signed the petition. Subway claimed that it was already in the process of removing the ingredient before Food Babe’s campaign. However US Today reported it had been “feeling pressure from the uproar”. If Subway had been in the process of removing Azodicarbonamide, the volume of consumers reacting negatively would have likely expedited the process.

E-petitions have also influenced regulatory bodies where companies have been asked to implement changes. In 2012, the ASA banned Ryanair’s ‘Red Hot Fairs & Crew!!!’ advert, following complaints that it was sexist. While the organisation received only 17 complaints through traditional methods, the online petition it received featured over 11,000 signatures.

The public sector has seen few examples of successful online petitions directly resulting in change. Persons sceptical of petitions note only limited occasions where those reaching the 100,000 signatures target set by the UK government have led to policy change. However, this unfortunately misses the point somewhat; the awareness a petition creates by being circulated among thousands of people offers an opportunity for a message or concern to be widely shared in a way that has previously not been possible.

Corporates are slowly realising that e-petitions cannot be ignored and have begun reacting, in order to limit reputational damage. E-petitions have given non-profits, NGOs and the general public a platform to share a message and gain support with limited financial resource needed. With 70 million users of Change.org, corporates and leaders can no longer ignore the voice of signatories. And, against popular belief, not all publicity is good publicity.

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Sophie O’Donoghue

Content Manager

Sophie’s experience of the sector includes roles at a national magazine, a PR firm and a marketing agency. She started her career in account management at a leading menswear supplier. Sophie is also a regular contributor to an international affairs think tank, as well as various politically focused blogs.

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