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This article first appeared in Dutch in ‘Ambitie in Communicatie’ October 2011

Her ambition led her to explore all aspects of the profession until she made a complete turnaround and transferred from an oil company to Greenpeace International. In her position of Communications Director, Inge Wallage is now, among other things, engaged with creative confrontation: mobilizing the world through fun campaigns via social media.

by Marike van Zanten image Yvonne Kroese and Mark van der Zouw (photo)

During the last two and half years lots of plants, a wooden floor and here and there pieces of brightly colored design furniture form Inge Wallage’s natural habitat. No, we are not talking about her own house but the Greenpeace International offices in Amsterdam, seen by Inge as her second home. ‘I feel as though I have returned home’, she says. ‘Sometimes I wonder how I endured the corporate environment for eighteen years. Now IQ and EQ are much more balanced than in the male dominated corporate environment that I worked in for all that time. Here I can operate much more from the gut.’

That communicative instinct originates from her youth. ‘My father was a holocaust victim. He couldn’t talk about his experiences during the war and this led me to truly believe that communication is essential. I want to build bridges to bring people together.’ Following her ambition, after completing her studies she moved criss-cross through the communication branch: after international positions at Motorola and Philips she transferred to the directorship at Burson Marsteller Nederland, after which she left office life once again to work for P&O Nedlloyd in London and StatoilHydro in Norway. ‘Everything at international office networks is concentrated on double digit growth’, she recollected. ‘Really, I am people-orientated and want to be able to contribute.’ Her transfer to P&O Nedlloyd proved to be short-lived. She worked there for two cold months when the company was taken over by the Danish Maersk. ‘After the press conference the JP Morgan banker said triumphantly: We’re done now. I said: It’s just beginning. Now you have to go and tell all the employees that have been working here for years. Fortunately, the CEO who brought me in also thought that we shouldn’t emphasize the financial aspect but the interest of the clients and employees.’

Ultimately she looks back with satisfaction at the communication process of the takeover, but she did not feel at home in the new culture. ‘Above all, I had to take a step back from corporate to business unit level’, she added ambitiously. When an international communication position at the Norwegian oil company came her way, she reacted fast. But the cultural fit was not there: ‘I am extrovert and spontaneous. That clashed with the Norwegian’s reserve and conservatism. Moreover, I had to communicate that the more barrels of oil we pumped out of the ground the better it was and that was becoming more and more difficult for me.’ Her breaking point was when working on an international advertising campaign with the pay-off: We deliver more energy. ‘I said to my colleague: but the world can’t cope with that!’

On the front page

When a recruiter approached her for Greenpeace she also said yes, ‘I wanted to be able to look at myself in the mirror, knowing that I had done my best to make this planet more habitable.’ The news of her transfer came as a bombshell. She became front page news in Norway: ‘Statoil-director defects to arch-enemy.’ At the Christmas party one of her colleagues let slip that she was leaving and the press picked up on it. At first she kept herself in the background. ‘I didn’t want to add insult to injury but later I did do an interview for the Norwegian press because Greenpeace Norway wanted me to profile myself more. Again, that led to strong publicity’. At first there was also skepticism at Greenpeace herself: ‘my boss was summoned: what are we supposed to do with someone from the business world let alone someone from an oil company?’

The briefing from the Greenpeace-top was twofold: bring more stability in the communication function, but at the same time work on a change of the worldwide communication policy. ‘Now that natural resources are becoming more depleted, we are at a cross-road between disruption in the form of wars over food and water, or a peaceful transition to a more sustainable society. In order to reach the latter we need to work together more. The problems are too big for Greenpeace, Amnesty or Human Rights to handle alone. That is why I am contacting other NGO’s and organizations like the UN, think tanks etcetera. We also want to increase and widen our target groups. Environmental concern cuts straight through all generations and nationalities, but those public groups have to be mobilized in different ways. Tactics also vary per country which forms an interesting area fraught with tension: as a worldwide name, how do you remain consistent without becoming dogmatically religious? In The Netherlands we archaically chain ourselves to power plants but also communicate in a gentle and positive way, just like with our North Sea campaign. In China or India we plug into local culture with more entertaining activities such as sit-ins and fashion shows. We want to address the youth and other new groups, without alienating our traditional supporters. Social media is particularly effective in playing that game between old and new.’

Stimulating public groups

For example, Greenpeace campaigned against Nestlé’s use of palm oil with a You Tube film where a Kit-Kat bar turns out to be a gorilla’s finger. And last spring we started a worldwide campaign against Mattel with a film where Ken finishes with Barbie because she is wrapped in packaging for which a rain forest was felled. Within 3 weeks the film was watched 1.3 million times and mobilized the engagement of supporters: 240 000 people sent emails to the Mattel’s CEO. In addition, Greenpeace campaigned online against Nike and for the preservation of an unspoiled Antarctica. The Greenpeace strategy creative confrontation also translates itself in creative communication aimed at specific target groups, Wallage explained. ‘We want our communication to be stimulating. That distinguishes us from other NGO’s such as the World Wildlife Fund.’ Although just one stimulating film is not enough, she emphasized. The Kit Kat campaign was not just a viral; it was supported by research, a traditional underground campaign and a dialog with the company. ‘We noticed that if you do it this way then you win different public groups.’ Social media appears to be a good way for Greenpeace to regulate their radical image. The monitoring of social media has shown that hard action, such as the recent blockade of nuclear waste transport, shocked people and led to a negative sentiment. ‘We are a campaign organization’ Wallage responded. ‘We will always seek confrontation but never use violence. Our core value is non-violent direct action: volunteers that do not conform to this are told that they are only allowed to peacefully partake in our activities. We just need to communicate more effectively why and especially how we campaign.’ Greenpeace is also often reproached for operating in a populist way, like exaggerating alarming research results. For example, after the nuclear disaster in Japan, a Greenpeace employee expressed the measured radiation levels in microsieverts. As this is a factor 1000 times smaller than the customary millisieverts, it came over as much more threatening. How integer is Greenpeace’s communication? ‘The expression of radiation levels in such a term is driven by the knowledge our employees have’, Wallage responded. ‘We have to translate specialist language to human language. It has to been comprehendible for 7 year olds. But we have always been open, transparent and integer in our communication’.

Green consumerism

Multinationals are falling over each other at the moment in their attempts to communicate their efforts with regards to sustainability. How ethical does Wallage think the CSR communication of her colleagues is? ‘I hope that companies place their CSR policy as a goalpost, as something that they strive towards. Unilever are strongly active. Let’s hope that CEO Paul Polman really means it and is not using it as a way to propagate ‘greenwash’, because I don’t believe in that. No more than I believe in a car that has ‘eco’ on it. I appeal to my colleagues not to justify what is unjustifiable, as that is what is done. And no advertising of things that humanity doesn’t need, like lots of cosmetics, because green consumerism is badly needed. Communication professionals should challenge their organizations more on these issues. You don’t always need to go conform to the system, you can make individual choices.’ She was a good example herself with her transfer to Greenpeace, also knowing that she had burnt some bridges during the transition. An international position in communications at a company like Shell or Nestlé is no longer evident. ‘By taking this step I have closed certain doors ‘, she admitted. ‘But I don’t have any regrets. I experience less stress, yet I work harder than ever. But now I work hard for a good cause: a better world.’ I no longer need to work for a company that does things that I cannot support. The stress that involves has gone. I can look my kids straight in the eye.’

Inge Wallage speaks on November 10th during ‘De Wereld van Communicatie’ (The World of Communciatie) about ‘Verantwoorde communicatie’ (responsible communication). https://congres.communciatieonline.nl/programma.asp

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