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The OCR Glossary

Activist Campaigns

Frank G. A. de Bakker

Activist campaigns involve a combination of tactics applied in opposition to or support of a cause. From sweatshops to shale gas, from tax evasion to genetically modified organisms, many corporate activities nowadays are heavily scrutinized. Issues of corporate social responsibility (CSR) have received a lot of attention, as have activists’ campaigns to try and influence CSR issues and practices. These campaigns often target companies’ image, trying to influence corporate reputation and legitimacy.

CSR has become a prominent theme, both in theory and in practice. As Western nation-states appear to retreat from many markets, or at least significantly alter their approaches toward regulation on themes such as CSR, issues of governance are increasingly debated: How could and/or should corporate conduct be governed, and who should do so? Activist groups, also referred to as civil society organizations, protest groups, or secondary stakeholders, try to play a role in governing corporate conduct. In dealing with issues of CSR, both firms’ initiatives and activists’ campaigns often aim to have an impact on corporate reputations. This entry focuses on activist campaigns surrounding the broad area of CSR. How do activists try to influence firms over issues of CSR? How do firms respond to these pressures? And what exactly is the link to corporate reputation? First, attention for activist campaigns and tactical repertoires from a social movement perspective is discussed. Then some forms of activist campaigns relating to CSR are presented, focusing on the importance of interests, identity, and ideology. The entry concludes with the implications of activists’ tactics and campaigns for corporations and some areas for further research.

How do activists try to influence firms over issues of CSR? Activist campaigns have been studied a lot in the domain of social movement studies. Important streams of work within this field highlight resource mobilization approaches and political opportunity structures. Underlying these different approaches to social movements and the ways they attempt to achieve their objectives, work also emerged on activist strategies, tactics, and campaigns: the so-called tactical repertoires of social movements that basically consist of the tactical toolkit activists can draw on to try and evoke change in societal norms. A wide variety of tactics have been developed, from boycotts to marches, from petitions to lawsuits. Three essential features of protest events are contestation, intentionality, and the construction of a collective identity: That is, intentionally, change in power relations is pursued (or prevented) through contestation, and in doing so solidarity and a collective identity are created and maintained among activist participants.

Translated into activist campaigns on issues of CSR, these features imply that campaigns aim to evoke (or prevent) institutional change. Activists try to influence the norms and standards firms need to adhere to in order to be regarded as acting socially responsibly. Next to pursuing their interests and maintaining and reinforcing their identity, the ideological nature of activist groups also plays an important role in their selection of tactics and campaigns. After all, ideology denotes a set of beliefs on what a group considers problematic and what would be regarded as viable solutions to the perceived problems. More reformist activist groups dealing with CSR are likely to work with firms to improve their performance, even though they consider firms as part of the problem. Meanwhile, more radical activists will not view firms as part of the solution, as their conception of the problems surrounding CSR are more fundamental and systemic. They will opt for more confrontational tactics and campaigns.

Apart from interests, identity, and ideology, when looking at activist tactics and campaigns, it is also useful to consider a typology Donatella della Porta and Mario Diani suggested. They distinguished several logics that could influence the effectiveness of tactics and campaigns: a logic of numbers, a logic of damage, and a logic of bearing witness. The first logic argues that a large number of supporters can strengthen acts of protest; the second notes that if protest includes a threat of causing harm, it can increase the effectiveness of the protest, whereas the logic of bearing witness involves showing dedication and commitment to a particular cause by running some risk. The combination of the logic of numbers and the logic of damage is especially helpful to understand the different tactics deployed by activists from different ideological stances. The way CSR is shaped can be seen as a process in which firms and a variety of other actors are involved, for instance, in defining what responsibility exactly entails and how it should be implemented, monitored, or sanctioned.

At the start of this process of trying to develop, change, or maintain norms and standards on CSR, activist groups are likely to opt for tactics that rely on limited numbers of participants and that aim for symbolic damage or gain: gathering and spreading information or engaging in a legal procedure. After all, if the use of limited resources already suffices to instigate (or prevent) a change, then it makes little sense to invest in more demanding tactics. Yet if these initial tactics do not lead to the desired change, and the target firm’s response is considered to be insufficient, activists will change their tactics. Depending on their ideological position, they will either try to exercise influence over firms to change their practices by involving larger numbers of people, for instance, through marches, (online) petitions, or boycotts, or they will start to use tactics that aim for a material impact rather than a symbolic one, such as blocking gates, sabotage, or hacktivism. The more reformist activist groups will focus on involving larger numbers of supporters, whereas the more radical activists will rely on more direct confrontation or, alternatively, on campaigns aimed at proving the viability of alternative norms, standards, or systems as they call the current economic order into question. This latter tactic could include the propagation of alternative business systems, such as sharing economies. In many of these tactics, corporate reputations are involved, for instance, in “naming-and-shaming” campaigns, where activists publicly name and shame corporations, and their executives, for engaging in conduct the activists deem undesirable.

How about corporate responses to activism? Although social movement studies have been an important starting point to consider activist campaigns and tactics, other fields have examined their influence as well, such as organization studies, political science, public relations, and communication studies. Jarol B. Manheim, for instance, has examined so-called corporate campaigns, documenting the variety of tactics applied by activists, such as trade unions, against corporations. Building on insights from strategic political communication, he takes a corporate perspective and aims to unravel different tactics and campaigns and possible corporate responses.

Manheim argues that over time activists begin moving from confronting organizations to seeking regulatory action, to communicating directly with organizations in a more cooperative fashion. Corporations have anticipated these tactics and have, for instance, strengthened their public affairs functions to try and maintain close contact with key stakeholders, to monitor their environment and potential adversaries and conflicts, and to maintain contacts with regulators and policymakers, all in an attempt to facilitate the smooth running of their organization’s operations. Not surprisingly, the more radical and critical activists view this development with great suspicion, fearing corporate spin and greenwashing.

Another corporate response, especially to the more reformist activists’ claims, is to intensify interactions with stakeholders, including reformist activist groups, through participation in business roundtables and debates over codes of conduct or certification schemes. Through active involvement in such “private politics,” both corporations and activists can have an impact on how such codes or schemes are being shaped. Oftentimes, some third party is involved as a moderator; the more radical activist groups will not be keen to participate in such initiatives. Taking an active role in such initiatives and making them visible can add to corporate reputation but can also be risky if such an initiative is seen as an attempt at window dressing or trying to avoid parts of a problem.

This takes us to reputation. Overall, corporate reputations are an attractive target for activist campaigns as these reputations symbolize a firm or a wider industry and are a valuable (and therefore vulnerable) asset for firms; firms will want to avoid damage to their reputation and thus will feel obliged to respond to activists’ campaigns, even though impression management techniques might not always work out well. In further research, attention to corporate counterstrategies against activist campaigns would be an important contribution. It is also through the interaction between activists and firms that societal norms on corporate conduct change (or not). Knowing more about both sides of this interaction process is important; looking beyond a social movement perspective and integrating insights from other disciplines are thus helpful. Finally, it is important to study these activist campaigns and the ways they are influencing corporate reputations in different geographical spheres, as in today’s globalized society reputations are also made, and targeted, worldwide.

Della, Porta D., & Diani, M. (2009). Social movements: An introduction. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons.

Holtzhausen, D. R. (2012). Public relations as activism: Postmodern approaches to theory and practice. New York: Routledge.

den Hond, F., & de Bakker, F. G. A. (2007). Ideologically motivated activism. How activist groups influence corporate social change. Academy of Management Review, 32(3), 901–924.

Manheim, J. B. (2001). The death of a thousand cuts: Corporate campaigns and the attack on the corporation. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

McDonnell, M.-H., & King, B. (2013). Keeping up appearances: Reputational threat and impression management after social movement boycotts. Administrative Science Quarterly, 58(3), 387–419.

Taylor, V., & Van Dyke, N. (2004). “Get up, stand up”: Tactical repertoires of social movements. In D. A. Snow, S. A. Soule, & H. Kriesi (Eds.), Blackwell companion to social movements (pp. 262–293). Oxford: Blackwell.

Wu, Y. (2004). The impact of public opinion on board structure changes, director career progression, and CEO turnover: Evidence from CalPERS’ corporate governance program. Journal of Corporate Finance, 10(1), 199–277.

See Also

Corporate Social Irresponsibility; Corporate Social Responsibility; Stakeholders

See Also

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