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date: 17 August 2018

Social Movements and Their Impact on Business and Management

Summary and Keywords

Do the activities of social movements (e.g., public protest, shareholder activism, boycotts, and sabotage) impact businesses, and if so, how do they impact businesses? When confronted by activist demands, how do firms respond, and does this response vary depending on who the activists are and what their relationship is to the firm? Answering these questions is critical for businesses and activists alike, as we move into an era of heightened activism directed at firms. A growing area of research that is situated at the intersection of economic and political sociology, social movement studies, history, and organizational theory, tackles these questions, in an increasingly methodologically sophisticated and nuanced manner. As a result, a number of important articles and books have been published, and several high-profile, interdisciplinary conferences have been held. This body of research shows that social movements have both direct and indirect effects on businesses, and that these effects are amplified by media attention to activism. For example, we know that activism impacts the financial performance of firms, as well as their reputation. And, we know that the activities of social movements have consequences on firm policies and practices. In turn, businesses have developed a varied repertoire of ways to respond to activist demands. While some businesses ignore activists, others decide to retaliate against activists. Increasingly, businesses concede to the demands of activists in material ways by changing policies and practices that are criticized, while others devise symbolic ways to respond to activist demands, thereby preserving their reputation without necessarily changing their activities.

Keywords: social movements, boycotts, shareholder activism, protest, firm response to activism

Research on the important question of how the activities of social movements impact firms has grown by leaps and bounds over the past 15 years (see reviews in Briscoe & Gupta, 2016; King & Pearce, 2010; Soule, 2012, 2013; Soule & King, 2015). We have learned that social activism impacts firms’ financial performance (e.g., Bartley & Child, 2011; Epstein & Schneitz, 2002; King & Soule, 2007) and/or their images or reputations (e.g., Bartley & Child, 2011; Vasi & King, 2012). We know now that firms often respond to the demands of activists by agreeing to the concrete (e.g., Briscoe & Safford, 2008; King, 2008; Soule, Swaminathan, & Tihanyi, 2014) and/or symbolic concessions to activists (e.g., McDonnell, King, & Soule, 2015). Finally, we have learned that sometimes the symbolic concessions proffered by firms are made in an attempt to repair reputational damages incurred by protesters (e.g., McDonnell & King, 2013).

This research would not have been nearly as fruitful, nor would we have learned so much, if not for the willingness of organizational, economic, political, and social movement scholars to engage with each other, learn from one another, and borrow from one another. Additionally, the availability of new and rich data sources and sophisticated methods of analyzing these data (including, but not limited to, better ways to establish causality) have enabled us to say a great deal, with some degree of certainty, about the impact of social movement activities on firms. This article will review what we currently know about the impact of movements on firms by focusing on how we have conceptualized both activists and firm response to activists and on what we know about the mechanisms by which movements may matter to firms. Finally, the article describes the factors shown by empirical work to impact the magnitude of the effect of activist influence on firms.

Conceptualizing Movement Activity Directed at Firms

In a recent and insightful review of the literature, Briscoe and Gupta (2016) suggest a compelling way to think about activists and firms. Specifically, building on the work of earlier scholars (e.g., King & Pearce, 2010; Soule, 2009; Soule, McAdam, McCarthy, & Yang, 1999), Briscoe and Gupta suggest that scholars consider where activists are situated in relation to firms that they target, noting that activist relationships to the firms(s) that they target deeply impact their level of knowledge about the firm(s), as well as their dependence on the firm(s) for resources. In turn, the strategic choices of activists are impacted by their both their level of knowledge of, and resource dependence on, the firm(s). Thus, Briscoe and Gupta (2016) suggest that we conceptualize activists as falling along a continuum from those inside firms to those outside firms, noting that there are many cases in which activists fall somewhere in between, in what they call “intermediary” positions (see Figure 1).

Social Movements and Their Impact on Business and ManagementClick to view larger

Figure 1. Conceptualizing social movements directed at firms.

In the empirical literature, we have many cases of insider activists, who have, throughout the years, been conceptualized as “tempered radicals” (Meyerson, 2001), “bureaucratic insurgents” (Zald & Berger, 1978), or “insider activists” (Soule, 2009). In a prescient (and underutilized) article, Zald and Berger (1978, p. 825) describe three key forms of insider activity: insurgency, mass movements, and coup d’état, noting that “much conflict in organizations occurs outside normal channels . . . [as] ‘unconventional opposition.’” As an example, Soule (2009) describes the case of the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers’ Movement, which consisted of employees of Polaroid, who in the early 1970s discovered that Polaroid film was being used in “passbooks” in apartheid-era South Africa. Distressed that the products of their company could be used to support this racist system, the employees formed a protest organization with the goal of encouraging Polaroid to stop selling their products to the government of South Africa. More recently, Briscoe and Safford (2008) and Raeburn (2004) talk about employee activism around domestic partnership benefits at US companies (see also Briscoe & Safford, forthcoming). And, of course, as noted by Soule (2009), the literature on employee strikes, walkouts, and attempts at collective bargaining with companies all deal with the subject of insider activism.

There are also many empirical treatments of the impact of outsider activists on firms. In their influential study of the impact of protest on firm stock prices, King and Soule (2007) study public protest events across many different movements, all directed at US publicly traded firms. This landmark study found that protest is associated with negative abnormal stock price returns, suggesting for the first time that protest can, in fact, impact the financial outlook of firms. Related, Chasin (2001) and King (2008) both argue that another form of activism, the consumer boycott, similarly also impacts firms, but in this case by encouraging firm response to concrete demands by activists.

There also has been some scholarship on corporate campaigns, or “coordinated, often long-term, and wide-ranging programs of economic, political, legal, and psychological warfare usually, but not exclusively, initiated by a union or by organized labor in general” as a form of outsider activism (Bennett, 2003; Mannheim, 2005). Finally, some scholars study outsider activists’ use of collective legal maneuvers to target corporations. For example, Eesley and Lenox (2006) examine 144 civil lawsuits regarding environmental infringements filed against US companies in the 1971–2003 period.1

While this important work examines how outsider activists influence the specific firms that they target, a recent line of research examines “osmotic mobilization,” or mobilization that is not necessarily directed at firms, markets, or industries but nonetheless inspires mobilization within firms (Ferguson, Dudley, & Soule, 2017). In other words, this research examines the impact of outsider activism on insider activism by looking at the relationship between protest in American cities and subsequent support for union organizing in establishments in these very cities. A key finding in this research is that osmotic mobilization is greater when there is greater ideological overlap between the protest events and the unions organizing a particular drive in an establishment (Ferguson et al., 2017). A related line of inquiry argues that social movements influence corporate social initiatives at least in part by leading managers to support social causes (Georgallis, 2017).

In terms of activists who are neither fully outside nor fully inside firms, shareholders who mobilize to try to change some policy or practice at firms are a good example of an intermediate case. The most common way for shareholders to mobilize is via shareholder resolutions, the roots of which date back more than 60 years to efforts to improve corporate governance. Early activist investors fought vigorously for increased company transparency (e.g., independent audits) through shareholder resolutions at annual meetings (Marens, 2002; Rao, 2009). Eventually, socially conscious shareholders adopted the tactic, as in 1950 when activists submitted a resolution to Greyhound in an attempt to encourage desegregation (for overviews of socially oriented resolutions, see McDonnell et al., 2015; Proffitt & Spicer, 2006; Rao, 2009; Soule, 2009).2 Today, socially oriented shareholder resolutions are commonplace. According to the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (one of the main organizations tracking these resolutions and the source used by many academics studying resolutions), the year 2016 was a record year for socially oriented shareholder resolutions, with issues about the environment and political spending of corporations dominating the agenda. At times, shareholder resolutions are filed by individual shareholders, but increasingly these are filed by coalitions of social movement organizations that have procured stock in various companies with the explicit goal of exerting leverage over these companies (Soule, 2009).

In addition to conceptualizing activists as falling along the insider-to-outsider continuum, it is important to consider the way in which firms (or key leaders therein) themselves sometimes mobilize for change. Sometimes firms mobilize for change via their lobbying activities (e.g., Bonardi, Holburn, & Van den Bergh, 2006; Hansen & Mitchell, 2000; Keim & Zeithaml, 1986; Vogel, 2005); sometimes they mobilize collective action among corporate elites (e.g., Davis & Thompson, 1994; Vogus & Davis, 2005). Companies also sometimes join activist movements against other companies, for example, when Nordea Bank joined a boycott by environmental activists by banning its traders from buying Volkswagen shares after the automobile company was found to be rigging emissions on some of its vehicles (Bradshaw, 2015).

While less of a subject of academic inquiry, there are a number of recent examples of firms (or key leaders therein) taking political stances on issues, and this should be the subject of future academic inquiry. For example, in 2016, Paypal decided against building a global operations center in North Carolina in protest over the so-called “bathroom bill,” which stopped anti-discrimination measures against LGBTQ individuals (Kamp & Bauerlein, 2016). Paypal joined a slew of other companies (e.g., Lowe’s, American Airlines, Google, and NBC) similarly criticizing the law in an effort to get the North Carolina lawmakers to reconsider the law (American Airlines, Apple, NBA denounce NC law ending LGBT, n.d.). More recently, in the wake of the inauguration of American President Donald Trump, company leaders have taken political stances on the president’s travel ban of people from several Muslim countries, women’s rights issues, and environmental issues (Cooper, 2017).

Firms also hire professional grassroots lobbying firms (PGLFs) to organize and mobilize people around the political goals of the firm (Soule, 2012; Walker, 2014). Referred to by many as “astroturf” movements, critics argue that people are tricked into grassroots mobilization on behalf of firms. While it is tempting to think of this as a modern-day phenomenon, it has actually been around for quite some time. Lee (2010) discusses the case of Public Cup Vendor Company (now the Dixie Cup Company), which helped to mobilize a massive public health campaign in the United States in 1909 and 1910 to encourage people to use disposable drinking cups, rather than the then-common shared metal cups. The campaign was ostensibly about reducing the spread of disease, however it also was geared toward increasing the sales of disposable drinking cups.

Finally, institutional investors, such as unions, insurance companies, banks, and pension funds, sometimes sponsor shareholder resolutions around social issues. Because institutional investors own large amounts of stock, they tend to be more successful at winning concessions from firms than are shareholder resolutions sponsored by individuals and/or other kinds of organizations (Davis & Thompson, 1994; Gillan & Starks, 2000; Proffitt & Spicer, 2006).

Conceptualizing Firm Response

The extant literature on firm-directed movement activity indicates that firms respond in a variety of different ways to social movement activity. We might usefully think about firm response as falling on a continuum from retaliation or repression to concrete concessions (see Figure 2).

Social Movements and Their Impact on Business and ManagementClick to view larger

Figure 2. Conceptualizing firm response to social movements.

On one end of this spectrum of firm response, some scholars discuss instances of firm retaliation or repression against activists. For example, Soule (2009) discusses the response of Polaroid to the activism by the employees active in the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers’ Movement, noting that the company responded by firing the organizers of the movement. Firms can also respond to activism by hiring their own security forces, as described in Soule (2012), or by demoting employee activists (King & Pearce, 2010).

Companies, of course, can choose to ignore activists, as is the case in many shareholder resolutions. As described by McDonnell et al. (2015), one frequent response to socially oriented shareholder resolutions is to simply take no action on the resolution (rather than conceding to the resolution, or challenging it at the SEC). For firms, this means allowing the resolution to go to shareholders for a vote, but most companies know that few shareholders actually vote on resolutions, and firms are often willing to risk the potential of reputational damage of a vote rather than enter into dialogue with shareholder activists or challenge the resolution at the SEC level. In terms of ignoring outsider activism, this was the strategy of many companies during the Free Burma Movement on the 1990s (Soule, 2009; Soule et al., 2014). A particularly recalcitrant firm was Unocal, which continually refused to divest from Burma despite mounting activist pressures and threats of sanctions.

Sometimes firms attempt to partner or collaborate with activists, sometimes as a way to silence them, and sometimes as a way to learn from them. For example, Hoffman (2001) describes the way in which corporations collaborated with activists to reframe environmentalism as sustainability; a frame that was much more favorable to firms. Chasin (2001) describes the process by which many firms historically worked with major LGBTQ activist groups in an explicit attempt to cater to what they then saw as a population with a great deal of disposable income.

Firms sometimes respond in symbolic ways to social movements, frequently as a means for managing their image and reputation. For example, McDonnell et al. (2015) describe the way in which firms use a variety of symbolic management devices, such as issuing corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports or implementing CSR committees, as a way to respond to boycotts, noting that this has the (presumably) unintended consequence of opening firms up to subsequent activism in the form of shareholder resolutions. In a related study, McDonnell and King (2013) find that firms respond to social movement activity by issuing prosocial claims, an effect that is amplified by media attention to the boycott. These authors suggest that prosocial claims are an attempt to distract attention from negative information, which is frequently broadcast by activists (above and beyond any media attention for the wrongdoing itself). One recent example of this is when during the aforementioned case of environmental activists calling for a boycott of Volkswagen for its emissions scandal, the company responded with a high-profile auction of a pink Beetle designed to raise money to fight breast cancer (Hard, 2016).

Research and recent examples suggest that some firms respond to activism by increasing their donations to philanthropic causes, which may or may not be directly connected to the activists’ issue(s). Zhang and Luo (2013) show that an online campaign effectively shamed multinational firms working in China into donating to earthquake relief during the tragic 2008 Sichuan earthquake. A recent working paper by Horvath (2017) finds that environmental shareholder resolutions are associated with companies’ use of their corporate foundations to donate money to large environmental organizations. A recent example of this, while correlational, is Google’s decision to donate $2.35 million to the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of a media campaign designed to call on Google to increase black representation within its managerial ranks (Google to Provide $2.35 Million in Funds for Black Lives Matter Activism, n.d.).

Finally, firms sometimes respond with concrete concessions—actions typically considered as indicative of their own success by activists. The empirical literature has found many such cases. For example, King (2008) finds that boycotts lead firms to concede to activists’ demands and that this effect is amplified by the media attention to the boycott. Soule et al. (2014) find that protest leads multinational firms to divest from Burma, an effect that is amplified by the political environment in the home country. Similarly, a number of studies have found that LGBTQ activism is associated with firm adoption of domestic partnership benefits (Briscoe & Safford, 2008; Raeburn, 2004) and that anti-sweatshop activism on campuses is associated with termination of contracts with some apparel companies (Briscoe, Gupta, & Anner, 2015). Others have found that environmental activism leads firms to adopt voluntary emissions controls (Fineman & Clarke, 1996), and environmental shareholder resolutions lead to a reduction in benzene emissions, presumably because firms cleaned up their production processes (Lee & Lounsbury, 2011).

Mechanisms of Impact

Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in research on the impact of activism on firms is the belief that any influence of activism is due to the way in which it poses a threat to the firm. There is of course some debate about the exact nature of that threat and also what factors tend to amplify the level of threat, but most models of social movements’ impact on firms assume that if movements matter to firms, it is because they pose some kind of threat to firms.

Some of this empirical work focuses on the threat of financial loss to the firm, and there is mounting evidence that social movement activity can indeed have a negative impact on the financial performance of targeted companies. King and Soule (2007), for example, found that stock returns were 1% lower than expected at firms targeted by public protest in the 1962–1990 period, and Bartley and Child (2011) found that returns were 1.5% lower for firms targeted during the anti-sweatshop campaigns of the 1990s. Researchers also examine the effect of protest and boycotts on sales (Bartley & Child, 2011; Epstein & Schneitz, 2002; Tiesl, Roe, & Hicks, 2002), finding fairly dramatic effects. Others (e.g., Luders, 2006), examine the impact of protest on overall firm profits, finding declines in the wake of protest.3

Other research focuses on the way in which activism impacts the ratings of firms by agencies such as MSCI-KLD. Bartley and Child (2011), for example, find that apparel industry firms targeted by anti-sweatshop protesters were more likely to receive “concern” ratings from MSCI-KLD. This is important because MSCI-KLD ratings are linked to financial performance of firms. Similarly, Vasi and King (2012) find that protests, boycotts, and shareholder resolutions are associated with an increase in the perceived risk of a firm (and a subsequent 2% drop in market value of a firm).

Some researchers posit that the mechanism by which activists might influence firms is through the negative impact they have on firms’ reputations. For example, King (2008) argues that the reason that boycotts lead firms to respond with concrete concessions is that firms fear that boycotts might damage their reputations.4 And finally, other researchers suggest that the mechanisms by which boycotts may matter is by inducing political risk for firms: boycotted companies are more likely to have their political contributions returned and/or to lose political contracts (McDonnell & Werner, 2016).

Amplification of Activism’s Impact on Firms

Regardless of the mechanism(s) by which activism may impact firms, researchers have also focused on a variety of different factors that appear to amplify the impact of social movements on firms. One such factor has to do with the signals sent by activists to company and political leaders, as well as the general public. In general, research shows that stronger signals—indicated by large, frequent, and vociferous events—tend to matter more to company response than do weaker signals (Fassiotto & Soule, 2017). This is especially true when the activities of social movements are well covered by the media (King & Soule, 2007; McDonnell & King, 2013).5

Other research points to the fact that some tactics are more likely to win concessions from firms than are others. While early research compared a variety of different tactics (e.g., Eesley & Lenox, 2006) across many events, more recent research has attempted to more clearly establish causality. For example, Briscoe et al. (2015) examine the Rein in Russell Campaign launched by the United Students Against Sweatshops, which brought workers who were impacted negatively by sweatshops to some, but not all, college campuses in the United States. The idea behind the tactic was that if students could actually meet sweatshop workers and hear their testimonials, they would be more forceful in their claims against their colleges and universities, who would then terminate their apparel contracts with Russell Athletics. Briscoe et al. (2015) are able to compare similar campuses with, and without, this “evidence-based” tactic and conclude that those campuses that experienced this particular tactic were more likely to terminate their contracts. Similarly, in a study by Broockman and Kalla (2016), transgender rights activists were able to encourage people to gain empathy with the difficulties of the transgender community, and this led not only to changes in opinion about transgender people but also to behavioral changes in voting. Broockman and Kalla (2016) are able not only to establish causality of this particular tactic and behavioral changes, but also to show that the reduction in transphobia endures beyond just short-term changes in opinion and behavior.

Still other research shows that firms with positive track records on social issues, when targeted, seem to suffer more from the wrath of activists than do those that do not (Bartley & Child, 2014). The impact of activism on firms that are perceived to be hypocritical on social issues is greater, in other words (Vogel, 2005). In fact, some have found that firms actually understand this and adopt a stance of “strategic silence” regarding their positive environmental record or environmental certification status, lest they become targets of activists (Carlos & Lewis, 2017).

And finally, researchers show that some firms are, at a base level, simply more receptive to activists’ demands and are thus generally more likely to concede to them (McDonnell et al., 2015). Firms with leaders that are sympathetic to more liberal causes (as indicated by their individual donations to the Democratic Party) are more likely, for example, to respond favorably to LGBTQ activists (Briscoe, Chin, & Hambrick, 2014).

Conclusion

In a relatively short period, scholarship on how social movements impact firms, markets, and industries has grown to produce quite a corpus of research, with much of the published work making its way into top journals and the best publishing houses. Not only has this work grown more methodologically sophisticated over time, it has also gotten much better in recent years at establishing causality between activism and response. The research has drawn on economic and political sociology, as well as on organizational and social movement studies, and its growth has been aided by academic brokers who span disciplinary departments (mainly sociology departments) and business schools. As such, this research area, and those that have contributed to it, might serve as a model for academic inquiry in other disciplines and fields.

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Notes:

(1.) Eesley and Lenox (2006) also compare the impact of a number of different outsider tactics (e.g., protest, boycotts, letter-writing campaigns, and these lawsuits) directed at firms.

(2.) Whereas corporate governance resolutions focus on issues such as compensation (e.g., executive compensation, stock options), external governance (e.g., takeover provisions, poison pills), and internal governance (e.g., director tenure, separation of the ECO and chairperson roles), socially oriented resolutions focus on corporate social responsibility issues (e.g., codes of conduct, human rights monitoring) or the environment (e.g., reduction of pollution, development of renewable energy).

(3.) A recent example of this is the reported drop in market value and profits of the fitness apparel retailer, Lululemon, in the wake of a widespread boycott against the company for the negative remarks from their CEO, Chip Wilson, about women’s bodies (Founder Chip Wilson Loses Millions in Lululemon Stock Rout, 2017).

(4.) For a summary of this line of research, see the commentary in Fortune Magazine (King, 2017).

(5.) Scholarship on the impact of activism on congressional response shows that in addition to signal strength, signal clarity is also important (Fassiotto & Soule, 2017). Signal clarity in this research is measured by the number of different issues raised by protesters and/or the number of different groups present at protest events.