'Shock Jocks' versus
consumer activism
Sometimes it seems politicians are more likely to listen to what shock jocks have to say than take notice of protests. However corporations can be swayed by the volume of lobbying they receive and this can make a difference.

by Martin Oliver
Australia is familiar with the stereotype of the talkback radio 'shock jock.' This small coterie largely consists of middle-aged or older men, including Ray Hadley, Alan Jones, and Kyle Sandilands who broadcasts with co-host Jackie O. Regularly in trouble for making remarks that have an offensive impact, these shock jocks are largely a Sydney phenomenon. Nobody quite knows why they haven't translated well into the Melbourne radio market, but this might be due to cultural differences.

Of the three, Alan Jones has probably received the most attention. Currently 78 years old, he began his radio career back in 1985, and in 2002 moved to 2GB, where he has remained ever since. Politically well to the right, his largely conservative audience is heavily skewed towards older people, with around half being at least sixty years old. As a prominent climate denier, he has helped mould public opinion against urgent climate action. His views are amplified beyond radio, with regular columns published in the Murdoch press and a weekly show on Sky News Australia.

Alan Jones is well-known for nurturing an image of someone willing to speak his mind and challenge what he sees as a damaging political correctness. To his credit, he is prepared to be outspoken in criticising some LNP government policies. A past example is coal seam gas and coal mining on agricultural land, and a current concern is the need for more drought assistance to farmers. Jones' influence over politicians from both major parties is well known, and he is considered to have prompted policy shifts on a diverse range of issues.
Over the years, Jones has demonstrated a tendency towards violent or offensive remarks connected to women. He had a particular issue with Julia Gillard, Australia's first female Prime Minister, whom he said in 2011 should be put in a chaff bag and thrown in the ocean. In a 2018 interview, he was aggressive towards the CEO of the Sydney Opera House, Louise Herron, over her reluctance to project racing ads onto the building's sails. Spreading misogynistic values is obviously not consequence-free, with than an average of more than one Australian woman murdered by her partner every week.

In August 2019, Scott Morrison attended the Pacific Islands Forum, which includes very low-lying countries such as Tuvalu that are at risk of becoming uninhabitable due to future sea-level rises linked to climate change. The event put Australia on the spot as a leading global coal and gas exporter with a poor record of tackling its own emissions. The three core requested commitments for the communiqué were: no more coal-fired power stations or coal mines, taking action in line with a global temperature rise of no more than 1.5 degrees, and developing a strategy for zero emissions by 2050. Morrison declined to agree to any of them.

New Zealand Premier Jacinda Ardern later strongly hinted that Australia should play a stronger climate role. This prompted Jones to suggest that Morrison should 'shove a sock down her throat' and get 'tough here with a few backhanders.' Both remarks were read by many as endorsements of violence, and after a public controversy he later apologised in writing to Ardern.
Russell Tate, chairman of 2GB-owner Macquarie Media, issued a statement warning that if Jones made one more misstep he would be fired.

Previous offensive comments by Jones had led activists to tackle the issue via the hip-pocket, lobbying companies advertising on his show to cancel their contracts. This time around, the same occurred. Two Facebook groups in particular were active in circulating advertiser lists with phone numbers and email addresses. In a separate protest, socks were mailed to Peter Costello, head of Nine Entertainment, which at the time was majority owner of Macquarie Media and 2GB.

While there is no exact figure, this time somewhere between fifty and a hundred advertisers cancelled, some on Jones' show, and others going further and cancelling ads across the station. His general response was to convey an image of indifference, saying that he was confident the station would find other advertisers.

Despite all of this, Jones' audience figures were undamaged by the scandal, with his July-September ratings rising to 19% of Sydney's breakfast audience, representing an increase of 2.1%.
“When controversies are involved, corporations are often swayed by the volume of lobbying they receive, and act to preserve their reputations.”BUSINESS AND ETHICS
It is inspiring when companies take strong ethical positions simply because they consider it to be the right thing to do. However, inevitably they sometimes want to be seen to align themselves with values strongly held by a majority of the community. When controversies are involved, corporations are often swayed by the volume of lobbying they receive, and act to preserve their reputations.

Some businesses are increasingly speaking out about issues with little bearing on economics and regulation, usually taking progressive positions. A recent opinion poll by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia found that nearly eighty per cent of Australians supported corporations being vocal on social and political issues, but more than half believed that this is based on self-interest.

In September, Ben Morton, whose role is Assistant Minister to Scott Morrison, made a speech in which he raised concerns about big business taking up 'activist' issues, while neglecting to promote the government's agenda. He warned about corporations being seduced by 'noisy elites' in the form of progressive Australian lobby group GetUp! and activist shareholders. As Morrison indicated in ovember, he wants business to listen instead to its 'quiet shareholders', a term that appears to refer to investors who are uninterested in acting on ethical priorities at a time of environmental crisis.

The same month, the CEOs of Qantas (Alan Joyce) and Virgin Australia (Paul Scurrah) held a joint press conference at the National Press Club in which they stated an intention to continue expressing opinions. As Joyce said, 'We’re not going to pull back on what we say on social issues, because that’s important to our employees, our customers and our shareholders.'
Alan Joyce came out in favour of gay marriage during the 2017 referendum, and made a $1 million donation to the campaign. Interestingly, he said that talking about the issue was not only morally right but also in Qantas's business interests.

Mike Cannon-Brookes, founder of the technology company Altassian, has been outspoken on a range of issues including immigration, education, and gay marriage. Critical of the government's lack of action on climate change, he has committed the company to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2025, and net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Mining giant BHP has a mammoth carbon footprint, and CEO Andrew Mackenzie recently announced a US $400 million (AUD $580 million) investment program to reduce the carbon emissions from its own operations as well as those generated from the use of its resources. He has also advocated for an Indigenous voice in the Australian constitution.

Patagonia is a sizeable global outdoor clothing company with a long-held activist orientation. It has been active on campaigning for World Heritage protection for the Tarkine rainforest in Tasmania. On the day of the September climate strike it shut its stores, and took out full-page climate ads in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald 
When consumers get annoyed, one possible outcome is a boycott, and large companies are most at risk. Consumer choice is one among a very limited number of areas where people have clearly defined power. However, it is easy for a personal boycott to be lost in the 'noise' of general buying patterns, unless you inform the company that you are boycotting them, and why.

Successful boycotts usually utilise a range of strategies, and targeting a brand is usually more powerful than attacking a bottom line. This can involve spoof videos designed to subvert a corporate image, with one example being a series of ads by the activist network SumOfUs targeting Pepsi over the palm oil used in Doritos corn chips.

More strategically powerful than a boycott is a boycott threat, where if a company goes ahead with a particular course of action, numerous customers pledge to avoid doing business with them. If a company is already being boycotted, it doesn't have a lot to lose by going ahead with a disliked proposal.

Two current examples in Australia relate to new fossil fuel infrastructure. About half of the Northern Territory is at risk from shale gas and oil fracking, and Origin Energy is a major player in these plans. An indigenous climate group called Seed is targeting Origin's four million customers with a 'pledge to switch from Origin in 2019' unless the company cancels its fracking proposals. Meanwhile, AGL is planning a floating gas import terminal at Westernport Bay in Victoria. Environment Victoria is running a similar pledge campaign targeting the company's 3.6 million customers.

A secondary boycott strategy is being pursued against Adani's zombie Carmichael coal mine that never seems to die. The campaign largely involves putting pressure on contractors to disassociate themselves from the project due to reputational damage. This type of coal-related secondary boycotting has been described as 'indulgent and selfish' by Scott Morrison who is looking at ways to ban it. A crackdown in this area could put at risk all boycott rights, despite this being deeply undemocratic.

A boycott is a fairly blunt instrument, and over the decades activists have increasingly been fashioning and using more sophisticated tools. The Internet, and especially social media, have made a huge difference in enabling groups to spread information and connect large groups of people together for a common cause. While their activities are often described as 'clicktivism', they are often complemented by offline actions such as protests outside corporate HQs with innovative costumes and props, and a view to attracting media attention.
Particularly striking over the past decade or so has been the rise of shareholder activism as a means of pushing for specific reforms. Motions are put up to be voted on at annual general meetings, and large institutional investors are asked to support them.

The cautious end of shareholder activism is concerned with issues such as excessive executive pay and poorly performing boards, and is largely focused on the financial bottom line. More cutting-edge, and arguably more urgent, are environmental and human rights issues. A recent motion at Qantas addressing its refugee deportations on behalf of the government attracted about 24 per cent support, while a BHP vote to resign membership of any industry body not in alignment with the Paris climate goals received more than 22 per cent. Where such a motion is lost, but where there is a significant minority support, it sends a message that cannot easily be ignored.

Last but not least is the increasingly common 'league table' strategy, focusing on a specific issue of some importance. Often as part of a broader campaign, company performance is researched, evaluated, and ranked for the public's attention. This downgrades the corporate image of low achievers, while shedding a favourable light on better performers. To turbocharge a league table, it is common for such a ranking to be republished multiple years running, giving companies a chance to improve in a bid to achieve a better placing. For consumers, it provides detailed information and creates transparency in areas that are difficult to research.

Over the past several years, Greenpeace league tables have targeted plastic use by supermarkets, toxics in clothing production, supermarket seafood environmental performance, tuna sustainability, tech firms and decarbonisation of server power supplies, and greener electronics. Probably Australia's most well-known activist-oriented corporate ranking is the Green Electricity Guide, a joint project between Greenpeace and the Total Environment Centre. Another very recent example is a Wilderness Society beef retailers' deforestation scorecard that is attempting to enable consumers to get a handle on landclearing.
None of this consumer activism would receive a stamp of approval from Alan Jones, who grew up in an earlier era when values were very different, no environmental crisis had yet been acknowledged, the foundations of capitalism were looking more secure, and corporations could better rely on governments to lead with the national interest in mind.


1. Origin pledge – https://nt.seedmob.org.au/pledge_to_switch
2. AGL pledge – www.environmentvictoria.org.au/action/make-acomplaint-to-agl
3. Green Electricity Guide –www.greenelectricityguide.org.au
4. Wilderness Society beef– www.wilderness.org.au/deforestationoff-the-menu

About the author:
Martin Oliver is based in Lismore, and writes on a range of environmental, health and social issues. He takes the view that sustainability is about personal involvement, whether this involves making our lives greener, lobbying for change at a political level, or setting up local eco-initiatives.

Image: Shutterstock
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