Many harmful corporate strategies rely on a narrative that separates the company from the harmful impacts, and therefore from responsibility and accountability. Dismantling corporate narratives can be useful for civil society to counter harmful strategies and draw attention to the responsibility of companies for human rights and environmental abuses.

Companies sometimes build untrue or misleading narratives by disseminating distorted information to tell a seemingly credible story. They also use harmful but legal strategies to construct deniability, such as by hiding behind complex supply chains and outsourcing high-risk activities.

Multinational companies may deny they knew about or had any control over the activities of a subsidiary company. They may also claim they were unaware of human rights abuses committed by state agents in connection with their business and bear no responsibility for them. Big retail brands at the top of garment or food supply chains often argue that they have limited influence to improve their suppliers’ behaviour.

In some cases, companies make statements of apparent fact that deny the accounts of the victims. These can range from denying that something happened to providing an alternative account of how an event or harm occurred, or claims that the victims have exaggerated the level of harm. And while in some cases the company’s statements may be correct, years of work by lawyers and civil society have exposed how frequently they are misleading, if not completely false, and how companies rely on huge information asymmetries (that is, having far more information than is publicly available to others) to obstruct justice.

Too often, regulatory authorities or courts accept corporate versions of reality, especially when the people complaining have no evidence to counter the corporate claims. Providing rebuttal research, with evidence that directly challenges the corporate claims, can be critical to achieving justice. Alternatively, or additionally, reframing corporate claims to expose how the company’s claims are themselves problematic can help activists and affected people regain the initiative when seeking remedy.