Examining the Conflicting Consequences of CEO Public Responses to Social Activist Challenges Academic Article uri icon

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abstract

  • While the notion that CEOs have a general influence over their firms’ stakeholder strategies is well accepted, little attention has been given to how CEOs can actively and performatively manage social activism in and around their firms. I seek to develop an initial understanding of this phenomenon by examining some of the critical consequences of CEOs’ public responses to social activist challenges. Drawing on instrumental stakeholder theory and social movement theory, I recognize the dualistic nature of CEOs’ public responses to social activist challenges; that is, a single response can influence both the direct pressure received from the focal social activists confronting the firm as well as the potential pressure the firm could face in the form of additional challenges. I argue that a CEO’s accommodative public response—seen by social activists as a sign that the CEO and firm are aligned with their beliefs, values, and motivations—will be negatively associated with the focal social activists’ willingness to punish the firm. At the same time, however, a CEO’s accommodative public response sends a broader signal—reflective of the CEO and firm’s relative openness to social activism and social issues—that will be positively associated with the perceived attractiveness of the firm’s corporate opportunity structure for social activism, increasing the potential for the firm to receive additional social activist challenges. I conduct a laboratory experiment based on a real-life case and find support for my arguments. The results yield important implications for research on strategic leadership, stakeholder strategy, and social movements.

publication date

  • October 8, 2020