How Should Restaurants Handle Activist Demands?

activist demands

Op-Ed article contributed by Rick Berman, Executive Director of the Center for Consumer Freedom

Restaurants have come under pressure from animal rights activists in recent years over the meat and eggs they serve. McDonald’s and large chains are especially popular targets, with the Golden Arches facing an ad campaign this year over its chicken. And with one foundation handing out $3 million in grants this summer for more corporate campaigns over the next three years, the tactic isn’t going away.

What should a restaurant do if targeted with activist demands? I’ve spoken with a number of food industry executives about their experiences and picked up a few observations.

Typically, the initial approach is for animal rights activists to ask for a meeting to discuss a restaurant’s animal protein suppliers for a particular producte.g. porkeggs. If a restaurant accepts, the representative will give a presentation in which a mafia-like ultimatum is very clear: Change the kind of animal protein you serve, or we will attack you as supporting “animal cruelty.”

If you agree to their activist demands, you’re locking yourself into higher-cost animal protein. You’re also putting yourself on the shortlist for future demands. While animal rights groups campaign on chicken today, they will campaign on pork or beef tomorrow. And if you’ve caved in once, they’ll know they can go back to you with new demands. You’re guaranteeing yourself future harassment, even if you get the activists to go away today.

Further, you commit to uncertainty. Many of the products these groups demand companies purchase are in short supply because consumers typically don’t buy them. Cage-free eggs are only a sliver of the egg market because they cost considerably more. Agronomists believe there won’t be enough cage-free eggs to supply the retailers and restaurants who have pledged to buy only cage-free by 2025—and that supply shortage could drive costs up even more for those retailers who committed to offer them for sale. 

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Saying no—or simply ignoring the overtures in the first place—seems to carry risk as well: The risk of brand damage. Anecdotally, executives we’ve spoken with who have held out against animal-rights pressure say that it’s annoying at first, but that the groups move on. The activists are looking for low-hanging fruit.

Meanwhile, our research on social media finds that these activist demands are more bark than bite. Most of their campaigns amount to little more than online slacktivism. A few tweets. A couple comments. Maybe some negative reviews.

Mercy For Animals activists were instructed to tweet out the anti-fishing #bandeathnets hashtag on August 13th. The instructions were delivered via email to activists who had signed up for a Mercy For Animals email list. Eight people tweeted it out, spamming a grand total of less than 50 tweets to a handful of lawmakers. Not a single post was retweeted or liked.

These numbers are the norm for these mass email “action alerts.” Indeed, 50 posts is on the high side. An analysis of a month’s worth of action alerts from Mercy for Animals and The Humane League reveals most of these can’t crack 25.

activist demandsAnother recent campaign against UberEats for carrying McDonald’s food—the activists want McDonald’s to buy higher-priced chicken—also fell flat. Many of the Tweets in this campaign were simply from the animal rights organization and its employees. Even then they could only muster about 150 Tweets.

Further, the groups threatening attacks don’t represent many people or customers. They preach total veganism, meaning these folks are out of the mainstream—about 99% of Americans are not vegan—and they will not buy or endorse any company’s meat, eggs, or dairy products, no matter how they are produced.

Overall, the best course of action is to totally ignore animal rights activist demands. Do not engage them. Even a polite reply of disinterest will only invite more meeting requests.  This is not to say restaurants should never make changes in their policies. Like any business, there’s always room for improvement. Restaurants should be making their changes based on providing what their customers want, rather than giving self-appointed activists what they demand.

Rick BermanRick Berman is the Executive Director of the Center for Consumer Freedom and is also President of the Washington, DC-based public affairs firm Berman and Company, which specializes in research, communications, and creative advertising. Berman has founded several leading non-profit organizations known for their fact-based research and their aggressive communications campaigns.

To Berman, consumer freedom in part means that “people should not be lead around by the nose with bad information,” as he told “60 Minutes” co-host Morley Safer. It also means getting people to understand that certain messengers aren’t as credible as their name suggests. Watch Rick’s interview with “60 Minutes” here: