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Digging the dirt

Corporate Watch provides the rundown on researching corporations
October 2009

If you're campaigning against a company, success or failure will depend on the information at your disposal. Whether you want to pay its offices a visit, target directors and shareholders, or produce a hard-hitting leaflet, you will need to know how to do your research first.

Know what you want
Before you start, be clear about what kind of information you need. If you don't think it through, you might spend hours gathering reams of information that's very interesting but of no real use.

Look around first
Start with a quick search of the web and library catalogues to see what work other researchers and campaigners have already conducted on your target. Asking other informed people for tips and suggestions is always helpful. At this point, you are looking more for leads than actual information: publications, websites, contacts - note everything down, you'll come back to it.

Structure your research
Prioritise your leads and draw up a research plan. Think about how much time and effort you want to spend on each area, and what you expect to get.

Organise your sources
Your sources will vary in reliability, whether they are Wikipedia entries or specialist libraries. Always question your sources - don't simply accept what they say. Broadly speaking, sources of information about a company can be grouped into the following categories: the company itself (annual reports, accounts); industry sources (trade journals, business directories and databases); government sources (relevant departments, regulators, parliamentary questions and reports); and the media (The Financial Times can be particularly useful). Relevant trade unions and NGOs might also have useful information or leads.

Follow your leads
Always check the source of your information and follow it up. For example, if the source is a newspaper article, talk to the journalist. The information might be outdated by the time you've found it, so always double check it!

Do interviews
Whether you're interviewing the company's manager, staff or clients, you should always be prepared. Know your facts and what information you're looking for (not that you always have to ask directly for it) as well as your interviewee's background. Being polite, friendly and respectful will yield better results.

Use freedom of information laws
The Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations are powerful tools, allowing access to a vast range of information held by public authorities. Although many government agencies are reluctant to reveal information about companies to protect their 'commercial confidentiality', freedom of information requests are still useful. For more on how to use the laws and appeal against withheld information, see yrtk.org and cfoi.org.uk

Get a basic overview of the company
Whatever you're planning to do with your research, it's a good idea to have a basic overview of your target company. This will mostly comprise publicly available information: industry sectors, market share, financial assets, owners, subsidiaries and so on. If you intend to use this information, make sure it's up to date as these things change a great deal.

Find the company's details
These include the company's addresses and contact details, directors, shareholders, clients and so on. Getting some of this information might be as easy as simply checking what the company has filed with Companies House - or it might not be.

Dig the dirt
Good places to start finding out about a company's wrongdoings are activist news websites such as Indymedia. Individuals or NGOs such as the Campaign Against the Arms Trade and CND might also be helpful. There are also a few dedicated anti-corporate research groups, such as Corporate Watch and Multinational Monitor - check them out and ask if they know anything. If no one else has done any research on your target company, things will be more difficult to find. But you'll often find bits of information that might lead to interesting discoveries once you pull them together. Some researchers go as far as ransacking companies' rubbish bins, but be careful - it can be illegal!

Information on lots of companies can be found at www.corporatewatch.org.uk


 

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