We all love a good protest, but eschewing confrontation can give activists a greater say in corporate policies

July 29, 2012

Here’s perhaps the most intriguing observation I came upon in my five years of fieldwork on responsible investment. Sitting in an elegant whitewashed office in New York, curated African art on the walls, a white-haired financier explained to me why he took to responsible investment. “In the 1960’s,” he explained, “if you wanted to communicate with Bank of America, one way was to stand outside the corporate headquarters and throw a rock at the building.” By contrast, nowadays corporations such as Wal-Mart sit down with responsible investors to discuss their labor, environmental or governance policies.

Movements, the gentleman seemed to imply, could now leverage capitalism’s own mechanisms to reshape the system. Too good to be true?

A symposium in the upcoming Academy of Management in Boston explores precisely this issue. That is, the non-confrontational tactics that movements deploy to reshape the corporate agenda. It is organized by Fabrizio Ferraro, Brayden King and myself. And it will benefit from the comments of Huggy Rao (author of Market Rebels).

Here’s the session description from the official conference site:

Social movements have recently focused their activity on direct influence over corporations by targeting consumers and investors. Most studies of this trend have emphasized confrontational means such as protests and boycotts. But confrontation is not the only way to exert influence. The proposed symposium explores alternative tactics movements deploy. One is shaping the public discourse, such as shifting management attention towards more sustainable technologies. Another is shareholder engagement, which provides opportunities for activists to express their voice. A “big tent” approach could also be deployed to gain legitimacy for the emerging field of responsible investing. And last, corporations are also becoming active agents in supporting boycotts of competing firms, thus borrowing from the repertoire of movements.

And the list of presenters:

Influence of Non-confrontational SMO Tactics on Technology Adoption in the Energy Sector
Presenter: Shon R Hiatt; Harvard Business School;

Bringing Voice Back in the Market: A theory of shareholder engagement
Presenter: Fabrizio Ferraro; IESE Business School and Daniel Beunza; London School of Economics;

Tactical Mimesis in Private Politics: Companies’ appropriation of a contentious social movement
Presenter: Mary-Hunter McDonnell; Northwestern U.;

The Big Tent: Enacting demand for responsible investment
Presenter: Daniel Beunza; London School of Economics and Fabrizio Ferraro; IESE Business School;

The Impact of a Corporate Culture of Sustainability on Corporate Behavior and Performance
Presenter: Ioannis Ioannou; London Business School;

And the details:

Program Session #: 1789 | Submission: 13927 | Sponsor(s): (OMT, SIM, BPS)
Scheduled: Tuesday, Aug 7 2012 3:00PM – 4:30PM at Sheraton Boston Hotel in Republic A

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