Failure to Engage: The Dakota Access Pipeline Missteps and What You Can Learn From It

December 5, 2016

By Bill Coletti, CEO, Kith

Critical Takeaways

  • Failure to engage with NGOs caused backlash and project failure for those involved with the Dakota Access Pipeline
  • The protests and subsequent negative media attention could have been neutralized or avoided entirely
  • Engagement with NGOs is no longer optional


During our last web workshop, I presented my concept that NGOs always win. By winning, I mean corporations, industries and/or governments are forced to do something they wouldn’t have otherwise done if left to their own devices. (You can view the workshop and read the related blog post here)

This week, we’ve been given another example of NGOs winning with the Army Corps of Engineer’s announcement it will halt construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline. The news comes after months-long, highly visible protests by members of the Sioux tribe and their supporters. While it’s possible this construction stoppage is temporary, it’s still a significant development for all parties involved.

To us, it’s another supporting point to our theory that NGOs always win. In this instance, the NGO on the winning side is the Sioux tribe and its supporters. The losers are the proponents of the pipeline’s construction. A win for the NGO was always in the cards (remember, NGOs always win), but the supporters of the pipeline were doomed to lose long before a single protest sign was raised.

You see, in addition to concerns over the pipeline threatening their water supply and sacred sites, the Sioux tribe said they were not adequately consulted on the Dakota Access Pipeline project. Back in July, the Standing Rock Sioux and the nonprofit Earthjustice sued the Army Corps of Engineers in federal court, arguing that the agency had wrongly approved the pipeline without adequate consultation. The protests began shortly after the lawsuit was filed.

Not engaging with the Sioux tribe effectively has proven to a be critical moment that created much of the current issues. Because of their failure to engage appropriately, those involved with the Dakota Access Pipeline have and will continue to face backlash from stakeholders including consumers, government officials and the media.

By adopting the theory that NGOs always win, we at Kith believe a situation like this could have been neutralized, if not avoided entirely, by preparation and proactive engagement. When activists attack, the risks to your organization’s reputation and even your bottom line are higher than ever—that’s why its critical to engage. Failure to engage strategically with NGOs can lead to a loss of reputation, financial turmoil or, as those involved with the creation of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a complete derailment of business plans.

You can learn more about NGOs and Kith’s recommendations on how to engage them here.

Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.