When companies make statements of apparent fact that deny the accounts of victims, rebuttal research can help to prevent others’ acceptance of the corporate narrative. Rebuttal research is distinct from research into the harms that corporations cause. It looks specifically into what the company claims are the reasons why it is not responsible for harms.
Rebuttal research can be an effective strategy for civil society actors dealing with several harmful corporate strategies, including denial of the facts, reliance on false or distorted information, or attempts to hide behind complex corporate structures or supply chains. When a company tries to divert complaints to company grievance mechanisms, rebuttal research can also show the substantive and procedural flaws that make the company’s redress system ineffective.
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Rebuttal research may require innovative investigative approaches. Finding the right kind of expertise to rebut company claims is critical. You may need the help and advice of an accountant, a toxicologist, or a whistleblower, for example. Visual forms of evidence, such as satellite imagery, can also strengthen rebuttal research. For example, the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development in Nigeria and Amnesty International used satellite images to challenge oil giant Shell’s claims about the scale of oil pollution damage in the Niger Delta.
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It can also be helpful to search company reports and financial statements, including annual reports, and learn how to read these. These reports can provide valuable information to challenge company claims, particularly on parent company ownership and control over subsidiaries or other associated companies, and claims that companies cannot afford to take necessary action (such as improving labour conditions).
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Predicting from the start the company’s probable responses to allegations of harm can help shape your rebuttal strategy, and it is also important to consider your audience. If the company is denying responsibility for corporate harms, identify which audience the company is saying this to: their customers, their shareholders and investors, or the courts via a legal process – or possibly all three? Rebuttal research should resonate with the same actors. The kind of information that will persuade customers that a company’s actions are problematic is not necessarily the same as the evidence that will convince a court examining specific legal points (see deploying legal counter-strategies).