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The OCR Glossary

Naming and Shaming

Curtis Child & Tim Bartley

Shame is a deep, perhaps universal, human emotion that can motivate or alter behavior. Families, religious organizations, informal groups, and governments have long used shame to shape members’ actions. In recent decades, activists, executives, and scholars have started asking whether companies can also be motivated and regulated by something like shame. When companies value their reputations, they may be susceptible to “naming and shaming”—that is, a form of social control that uses negative publicity to threaten a social actor’s reputation in order to promote change in the actor’s behavior. In this entry, we will discuss the antecedents and sources of naming and shaming campaigns, the factors that make companies susceptible, and the consequences of naming and shaming corporations.

Some ideas about naming and shaming originated in the field of criminology, where a group of scholars argued that shaming offenders can be an effective mode of criminal justice if followed by efforts to solidify their connections to mainstream society. This overlapped with arguments about how industry self-regulation could be supported by informal naming and shaming processes, perhaps as an alternative to “command-and-control” regulation. Naming and shaming became a part of the repertoire of social movement organizations largely through human rights activism, such as Amnesty International’s shaming of governments with poor human rights records.

Most important for scholars of corporate reputation, over the past two decades, nongovernmental organizations and social movement activists have frequently named and shamed corporate targets. Typically, this means that activist organizations develop campaigns to publicize the links between a particular firm (or set of firms) and a major injustice, transgression, or other grievance. The hope is twofold—first, that publicizing the problem in this way will draw attention to it and, second, that the firm will respond in a meaningful way to protect its reputation or market share. The anti-sweatshop movement of the 1990s, for instance, came to prominence by taking successful, well-known companies—such as Nike or Gap—and showing that their products were made in dire conditions by underpaid, underage, and/or highly exploited workers. Environmental nongovernmental organizations have similarly shamed companies like Burger King, The Home Depot, and Victoria’s Secret over their links to deforestation. Other naming and shaming campaigns have been carried out by activists for peace, health, human rights, privacy, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) rights, and “family values.”

Naming and shaming possesses several qualities that make it an attractive strategy for activists. For one, it can be a way for corporate outsiders to quickly get the attention of—and possibly access to—top corporate executives. In addition, it can be an efficient way for resource-poor activists to amplify their message through the mass media. Moreover, because it is a form of “private politics,” pressure generated through naming and shaming can move more quickly than pressure that goes through governmental channels.

Research suggests that some companies are more “shameable” than others, for reasons besides the egregiousness of their actions. For instance, companies with major investments in their brand images and/or positive corporate reputations are more likely to be targeted than those that are less visible or less respected. In some settings, specific features of a corporate image have made companies good candidates for being “hoisted on their own petards.” For instance, Nestlé’s image of quality and purity was contrasted with its aggressive peddling of infant formula (as a substitute for breast-feeding) in Latin America in campaigns in the late 1970s. In addition, since activists often seek media attention, firms in the media spotlight are more likely to draw social movement pressure. Researchers have also consistently found that the sheer size of companies shapes their likelihood of being targeted.

What difference do naming and shaming campaigns make? Two things are clear from existing research. First, there are proximate consequences—that is, consequences for the markets, internal operations, and institutional environments of targeted firms. While some campaigns fall flat, several studies have found that activist campaigns can lower stock prices (at least temporarily), most likely because investors become skittish about bad publicity or expected future costs. Likewise, some studies find evidence of decreased consumer sales for particular types of firms, though these effects have been harder to gauge. Naming and shaming campaigns can also affect the internal order of companies, for instance, by threatening the image or status of particular executives and thus motivating them to action. External audiences in a company’s institutional environment can also respond to naming and shaming campaigns. Although a company’s general reputation with shareholders and consumers is rarely overturned completely, campaigns do often influence the judgments of more specialized arbiters of corporate reputation, such as entities that rate corporate social responsibility for investors.

Second, beyond these proximate consequences, naming and shaming spurs strategic responses from firms. While some companies simply ignore activist campaigns, most respond with some type of assurance that the practices are not as objectionable as they seem or that reform is forthcoming. Companies often adopt codes of conduct, seek partners in the nonprofit sector, and/or commit to supporting third-party verification or certification of sustainability, fairness, or integrity. When campaigns threaten the reputation of entire industries, not just particular firms, industry associations may create new self-regulatory initiatives. The debate then shifts to the credibility of these responses. A growing body of research on private regulation/private governance is beginning to assess how meaningful these various responses are. The findings are varied, but all agree that naming and shaming has made corporate reputation—and the steps necessary to maintain it—into a highly contested and rapidly evolving terrain.

Baron, D. P. (2003). Private politics. Journal of Economics & Management Strategy, 12(1), 31–66.

Bartley, T., & Child, C. (2014). Shaming the corporation: The social production of targets and the anti-sweatshop movement. American Sociological Review, 79(4), 653–679.

King, B. G., & Pearce, N. A. (2010). The contentiousness of markets: Politics, social movements, and institutional change in markets. Annual Review of Sociology, 36, 249–267.

Soule, S. A. (2009). Contention and corporate social responsibility. New York: Cambridge University Press.

See Also

Activist Campaigns; Codes of Conduct; Corporate Social Irresponsibility; Media Relations; Nonmarket Strategy; Organizational and Corporate Image; Reputation Capital; Reputation Rankings

See Also

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