Agenda-Setting in Response to Corporate Initiatives

A Web of Watchdogs: Stakeholder Media Networks
and Agenda-Setting in Response to Corporate Initiatives
Maria Besiou • Mark Lee Hunter • Luk N. Van Wassenhove
Received: 1 July 2012 / Accepted: 16 July 2013 / Published online: 20 November 2013
Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013
Abstract This article seeks to model the agenda-setting
strategies of stakeholders equipped with online and other
media in three cases involving protests against multinational corporations (MNCs). Our theoretical objective is
to widen agenda-setting theory to a dynamic and nonlinear
networked stakeholder context, in which stakeholder-controlled media assume part of the role previously ascribed to
mainstream media (MSM). We suggest system dynamics
(SD) methodology as a tool to analyse complex stakeholder
interactions and the effects of their agendas on other
stakeholders. We find that largely similar dynamics of
interactions occur among stakeholders in these cases, and
that the costs for managements of maintaining their agendas steadily rises. We conclude that the ‘‘web of watchdogs’’ comprises a powerful reason for managers to engage
in responsibility negotiations with their stakeholders.
Keywords Agenda-setting Media Stakeholder
Stakeholder media System dynamics
Introduction: The Emergence of Stakeholder Media
Prior to the emergence of Internet and social media
(including user forums, discussion groups and interactive
websites as well as Facebook or Twitter) as global phenomena, stakeholder claims on organisations and other
stakeholders were ‘‘channelled largely through the mass
media’’ (Koopmans 2004, p. 371). Activist stakeholders
were thus obliged to take account of the roles played by
mainstream media (MSM) in setting public agendas
(McCombs 2004, 2005). In particular, they were well
advised not to appear ‘‘threatening, dangerous’’ (Mika
2006, p. 921) to MSM ‘‘gatekeepers’’ who decided what
was fit to print (McCombs and Funk 2011; Shoemaker and
Vos 2009).
Within only a few years, online media have begun to
profoundly change this game. In an era of multiplying
media channels and lowered costs in creating and diffusing
content, it appears plausible, if not certain, that ‘‘traditional
media’s singular, one-way power over news creation and
dissemination is a past phenomenon’’ (Meraz 2011,
p. 108). A decline of capacity at MSM, in particular for
watchdog journalism (Lewis et al. 2005), appears as both a
symptom and driver of this shift. Stakeholders disappointed
by MSM representations of events can simply create their
own channels. These new channels fit the description of
‘‘horizontal media’’, which are ‘‘geared toward serving the
needs of more specialized interest groups’’ than those
served by the ‘‘vertical’’ MSM (Ragas and Roberts 2009,
p. 45). They also resemble ‘‘media of connection’’ that
offer members of self-interested communities a ‘‘particular
array of values—an agenda—upon which those who join a
group can match their own values’’ (Shaw et al. 1999, p. 7).
However we call them, these media involve focused and
purposeful content for self-selected users, allowing likeM. Besiou (&)
Kuehne Logistics University, Grosser Grasbrook 17,
20457 Hamburg, Germany
e-mail: [email protected]
M. L. Hunter L. N. Van Wassenhove
INSEAD, Europe Campus, Boulevard de Constance,
77305 Fontainebleau, France
e-mail: [email protected]
L. N. Van Wassenhove
e-mail: [email protected]
J Bus Ethics (2013) 118:709–729
DOI 10.1007/s10551-013-1956-z
minded people to share opinions, information and objectives. We will refer to them as ‘‘stakeholder media’’
(Hunter et al. 2008), defined as communication instruments
used by stakeholder communities to increase their resources and influence (Frooman 1999) vis-a`-vis organisations
and other stakeholders. We define a stakeholder community as a group ‘‘who can affect (or be affected by)’’ the
activities of a larger entity such as a firm (Freeman et al.
2004, p. 365), and whose members are ‘‘organised around
agendas’’ (Shaw et al. 1999, p. 7) that can affect or be
affected by that entity. In other words, a stakeholder
community exists because it has an agenda, and its media
exist to promote that agenda, whether it involves activism,
fuller enjoyment of a product or another common
Agenda-setting theory seeks to describe how media
impact our view of what matters, and how it matters, and
ultimately, what to do about it. Our first conceptual contribution in this article is to broaden agenda-setting theory
to account for the effects of stakeholder-controlled media,
particularly in today’s complex online networks, on management agendas. We also contribute to stakeholder theory
by providing a more detailed account of how contemporary
‘‘stakeholder agendas’’ (Ragas 2012, 2010) may exert
influence on management. A third contribution resides in
our use of system dynamics (SD) methodology to map the
salience of particular issues and objectives in the stakeholder networks of three multinational firms (MNCs)
involved in significant crises. We seek thus to capture the
nonlinear complexity of stakeholders, their media and their
effects. Though SD has been applied to analysis of the
onset of corporate crises (Tsuchiya 2003), to the best of our
knowledge, our article is the first effort to apply SD to
agenda-setting processes. We hope to illustrate the relevance of SD to agenda-setting, within the context of
stakeholder activism. Taken together, these contributions
might greatly improve the ability of organisational leaders
and other stakeholders to estimate which strategic initiatives might succeed or fail, and at what cost. Their
understanding of which media may best be used to build
their agendas, and how, might also improve. Finally,
managers may gain a different perspective on how, amidst
the ‘‘constant alarm and alert’’ of the contemporary
stakeholder environment (Holmstro¨m 2005, p. 503), they
can negotiate responsibility for and solutions to conflicts.
In the following passage, we review agenda-setting
theory, with particular emphasis on recent developments
that expand its scope to include stakeholder groups and
online media. Further on, after setting out research questions and hypotheses, we describe our application of SD
methodology. Next, we briefly review key events in our
three contemporaneous cases of corporate crisis. Finally,
we construct a preliminary model of stakeholder responses,
transmitted primarily through stakeholder-controlled
media, to the agendas of management and other stakeholders. In our discussion, we identify implications for
agenda-setting theory, directions for further research, and
practical implications for organisational leaders and
Literature Review: From MSM Agendas to Stakeholder
The central postulate of agenda-setting theory is that issues
which are rendered ‘‘salient’’ through media coverage will
also be considered important by the public and decision
makers (McCombs and Shaw 1972). At the first level of
agenda-setting, media influence the public perception of
what issues matter (Carroll and McCombs 2003; McCombs
2004, 2005). A second level of agenda-setting occurs when
content creators assign attributes to these objects (Ghanem
1997). The process of working through the media or a third
party to reach a given public has been called ‘‘agendabuilding’’ (Berkowitz and Adams 1990; Curtin 1999); the
merger of an individual’s agenda with a group’s agenda is
referred to as ‘‘agenda melding’’ (Shaw et al. 1999). Across
these various levels of effect and process, a central path
remains: ‘‘the transfer of salience from one agenda to
another’’ (Ragas and Roberts 2009, p. 46). In essence,
someone decides what matters, and what to think about it,
and seeks to engage others to do something about it. Media
are involved at every step of these processes, in collecting,
shaping and diffusing information and ideas.
As Stro¨mba¨ck and Kiousis (2010, p. 271) observe,
‘‘most of the agenda-setting research to date has focused on
the correlation between issues on the [mainstream] media
agenda and issues on the public agenda’’. In the past decade, the focus widened to include how MSM can serve to
promote or undercut corporate agendas, building on classic
research into social movements that used ‘‘showmanship
and display’’, transmitted through MSM to influential
‘‘reference publics’’, to drive change (Lipsky 1968,
pp. 1145–1146). MSM reports of stakeholder protests like
boycotts can impact a firm’s stock price (King 2008), or in
a general sense, its reputation, defined as its perceived
‘‘capability to obtain valuable outcomes for different
stakeholders’’ (de Castro et al. 2006, p. 362). Conversely,
just as activists can use MSM to promote their causes at a
firm’s expense, management press releases can influence
both the choice and the tone of subjects in major newspapers (Carroll and McCombs 2003), and serve to bolster
firm reputations (Kiousis et al. 2007). Here, stakeholdercontrolled media appear mainly as instruments of influence
on MSM, which retain power over public agendas. Similarly, Carroll (2010) found that firms’ public relations
710 M. Besiou et al.
releases have zero or negative agenda-setting effects if not
legitimated by the ‘‘third-party endorsement’’ of MSM.
The salience of issues in MSM may also be driven by
interest groups for whom those issues are of greater concern than for news media professionals or for a general
audience (Uscinski 2009). These groups include ‘‘stakewatchers’’ (Fassin 2009), who monitor organisations and
diffuse their findings, as well as ‘‘infomediaries’’, notably
corporate stakeholders, who transmit information to news
media in support of their own agendas (Deephouse and
Heugens 2009).
Less attention has been given to whether and how media
controlled by stakeholders can drive public agendas without the support of MSM. That is largely because prior to
the online era and the advent of social media, many
stakeholders lacked the means to widely deploy their own
media; thus without the MSM, they could not reach their
potential supporters. A second issue is the difficulty of
investigating the influence and effects of individually
insignificant, but networked channels ‘‘in the new, interactive media age’’ (Meraz 2009, p. 683). There is nonetheless evidence that stakeholder-controlled media can play
a significant role in setting agendas at different levels and
for different publics. Prominent stakeholder organisations
like Human Rights Watch function as investigative news
agencies that define agendas for large activist communities,
using both traditional and new media channels (Bogert
2010). They may use, but also be used by, MSM: Political
blogs influence public opinion on certain issues as much as
MSM (Woodly 2008), and rather than MSM setting the
agenda for blogs, the reverse may also occur (Zhou and
Moy 2007). Political candidates can ‘‘permeate multiple
channels’’ outside MSM with their agendas (Tedesco 2001,
p. 2048), and the effect on other candidates’ agendas can be
stronger than the MSM version of what matters (Tedesco
2005a). Moreover, candidates who release the most material to MSM may have greater influence on the latter’s
agendas than their rivals (Tedesco 2005b). Like political
movements, other stakeholder groups may provide MSM
and their own communities with press releases, direct mail,
testimony, reports or online media content. These ‘‘information subsidies’’ (Gandy 1982) reduce content and search
costs for MSM (Berkowitz and Adams 1990; Turk 1985) as
well as other stakeholders (Ragas 2010). Other stakeholder
media influence consumers, notably through brand communities, in which stakeholders critique and promote the
products they use (Hunter and Soberman 2010; Ragas and
Roberts 2009).
At the juncture of agenda-setting, social movement and
stakeholder theories, a research stream is taking shape
around the effects of stakeholder agendas, transmitted
through stakeholder-controlled media, on other stakeholder
groups. Even before Internet attracted a wide public,
certain social movements and stakeholder groups used their
own media to determine hierarchies of importance (Dearing and Rogers 1996)—that is, to decide what mattered and
what to do about it—whether or not MSM gatekeepers
were involved. Sine and Lee (2009, p. 128) showed that in
the 1970s environmentalist organisations, ‘‘by constructing
and propagating the ‘problem’ of environmental degradation [and] the ‘solution’ of renewable energy’’ through
media such as newsletters, testimony, articles and public
meetings, supported the emergence of wind power entrepreneurs. Similar cheap but sophisticated media helped
build the climate change and anti-GMO movements decades before the MSM noticed them (Moser 2007; Schurman and Munro 2006). Stakeholder campaign letters and
news releases have been shown to be highly effective in
promoting their agendas to shareholders in corporate proxy
contests (Ragas 2010, 2012).
Stakeholder media appear as a structural feature of
recent agenda-setting models, albeit under different names.
In particular, Berger (2001, p. 114) evokes the use of ‘‘elite
media’’, which he distinguishes from ‘‘consumer media’’,
in conflicts over corporate agendas. By exposing conflicts,
objectives and interests, they ‘‘provide a levelling influence
on the relative power relationships of contending [stakeholders]’’. Similarly, Frooman (1999) and Hendry (2005)
found that ‘‘communication strategies’’ aimed at potential
allies by environmentalist NGO stakeholders were key in
pressuring managements to respond to their claims.
Though these authors do not specify the media employed
by stakeholders, environmentalist NGOs were innovators
in the development of both traditional and online media
outreach among stakeholder groups. (This is particularly
true of Greenpeace; see Bakir 2006). Meraz (2009, p. 701)
shows that blogs created by ‘‘citizen’’ public affairs journalists gain influence over time through an indirect
‘‘aggregate effect’’ in which the circulation of opinion
gathers increasing force. It thus appears that stakeholdercontrolled media can generate direct and indirect effects on
other stakeholders over time. The question here is if and
how this might occur in the context of conflict between
management and stakeholders of a firm.
Research Questions and Methodology
Research Questions and Hypotheses
The basic research questions of this article are: How do
stakeholders use their media to set and build their agendas
in conflicts with management (RQ1)? How does management react to these strategies (RQ2)? And what effects are
generated by stakeholder-controlled media along the way
A Web of Watchdogs 711
The first-level salience of a given issue can theoretically
be reinforced by either opposition or approbation for
stakeholders and their agendas, because ‘‘even the rejection
of a demand has to reproduce that demand and thereby
diffuses it further in the public sphere’’ (Koopmans 2004,
p. 374). Further, ‘‘private issues may become more public
when they become salient on the media agenda or when
other actors become involved in the conflict’’ (Berger 2001,
p. 99). The importance of media attention for adversarial
stakeholders is defined by Lipsky (1968, p. 1151) unambiguously: ‘‘If protest tactics are not considered significant
by the media…protest organisations will not succeed. Like
a tree falling unheard in the forest, there is no protest unless
protest is perceived and projected’’. Stakeholder-controlled
media, too, can make their owners and their moral claims
more visible to other stakeholders and the public (Hunter
et al. 2008). Thus, their claims become more ‘‘legitimate’’
and ‘‘urgent’’ for organisational leaders to address
(Mitchell et al. 1997; Neville et al. 2011). Simultaneously,
activist stakeholders typically seek to implicate other
stakeholders in conflicts with management (King and Pearce 2010). For all these reasons, if stakeholders successfully use their own media to make their claims more
salient, the result may be a momentum effect, in which
management finds itself under scrutiny and pressure from a
constantly growing number of stakeholder groups. This
effect will be even stronger if MSM report the conflict; the
additional media attention increases the power of adversarial stakeholders and attracts more stakeholders to
engage the issue (King 2011). RQ1 asks how stakeholders
use their media to set agendas. We derive the following
H1a Stakeholders who focus on an issue in their own
media make the issue more salient for other stakeholders
and management than it would be in the absence of that
H1b As an issue becomes increasingly salient, the more
other stakeholders are compelled to respond to it.
H1c The more other stakeholders respond to the issue,
the more they interact dynamically with each other,
including through their media.
The difficulty for management of satisfying stakeholder
demands has been observed to increase as the number and
diversity of such claims increases (Livesey 2001; Marshall
et al. 2007). Responses that satisfy one stakeholder group
may offend another; compromises may satisfy no one
(Newenham-Kahindi 2011; Reynolds et al. 2006). This is a
key reason why ‘‘corporate political actors prefer… to limit
the scope of issue conflict to policy agendas and policy
subsystems where they maximize power relations’’, notably by seeking to limit the number of stakeholders who
take part in agenda setting (Berger 2001, p. 99). We
therefore predict that if conflict with stakeholders continues, and a growing number of stakeholders are drawn in,
management will continually be obliged to address new
obstacles and competing claims. In consequence, realising
management’s agenda will require growing resources to
satisfy stakeholder demands. We thus predict diverse and
growing costs for the firm as conflict widens. RQ2 asks
how management will react to demands expressed in
stakeholder media. We derive these hypotheses:
H2a The more stakeholders interact dynamically with
each other on an issue, including through their media, the
greater the scope and scale of demands that will be posed to
H2b The greater the scope and scale of stakeholder
demands, the higher will be the costs for management of
satisfying stakeholder demands.
Firms and their managers also suffer negative impacts
on their reputation from crises, especially crises in which
‘‘the organisation is deemed responsible’’ (Coombs 2007,
p. 166). These effects are particularly pronounced when
firms previously enjoyed a good reputation with the public
(Dean 2004; King 2011), which applies to all three firms in
our study. Moreover, firms in crisis may experience losses
in key parameters of value, such as sales (Luders 2006),
market share (Klein et al. 2004) or stock price (Hunter et al.
2008; King and Soule 2007; Sohn et al. 2009). A crisis may
also cause damage to intangible assets like reputation and
legitimacy (Formbrun and Shanley 1990; Gamson et al.
1992; Hoffman and Ocasio 2001; King 2008). These
effects appear to gain strength as MSM attention to a crisis
augments (King 2011). RQ3 asks what effects will result
from stakeholder activism expressed through their own
media. We derive these hypotheses:
H3a As stakeholder claims and their salience increases,
and their dynamic interactions multiply, including through
their media, there will be a corresponding negative impact
on the reputations of management and the firm.
H3b The more stakeholders are disappointed by management’s agenda, the more the firm’s value, which can be
expressed through sales, market share or share price, will
Data Collection and Evaluation
Our data are drawn from three cases concerning publicly
owned firms from different industries (food, energy and
apparel). The cases were selected, first, because they are
documented in detail by the scholarly literature (we provide our sources in the ‘‘Summary of the Danone, BP and
712 M. Besiou et al.
Nike Cases’’ section). A second criterion is that all three
cases involve sustained crises, and hence overt and explicit
conflict between management and stakeholders. A further
criterion is that in all three cases at least one stakeholder
group was successful in obstructing management’s stated
agenda, and also in hurting the firm’s reputation, sales or
profits. We also chose cases in which adversarial stakeholder groups visibly interacted dynamically with other
stakeholders, in particular through their proprietary media,
ranging from print reports in the 1990s to websites and
forums in the past decade. Though we observed proprietary
media that supported the firms, we focused on adversarial
stakeholder media, precisely because we are interested by
their ability to counter management agendas. Moreover,
recent attempts by firms to use online social media most
often amount to ‘‘a marketing practice to convey messages’’ rather than an effective means to promote interaction with and among stakeholders (Colleoni 2013, p. 228).
In sum, we sought cases in which stakeholders used their
media, among other means, to exert influence on management. (We recognise that in other cases, involving
stakeholders using similar media, little or no effect might
be observed; we will treat this issue in our discussion.)
Two of the cases, focused on Danone SA and Nike Inc.,
feature union activism and consumer boycotts; the driver of
the third crisis, at BP PLC, consisted of environmentalist
NGOs in alliance with individual employees.
Stakeholder and management claims expressed through
various media varied significantly among these cases. We
forgo content analysis of those claims, and so we did not
code their contents. We do so partly to avoid ‘‘implying the
tautology that those who won employed the most resonant
framings’’ (Benford and Snow 2000, p. 626). More
important, we ‘‘emphasise the constraining and facilitating
role of structural contexts’’—the interactions among
stakeholders—rather than ‘‘put agency at the centre of
analysis and emphasise the purposive mobilisation of
material resources and symbolic frames as the driving
force’’ (Koopmans 2004, p. 378). We seek to understand
whether a common pattern of stakeholder interactions
exists across these three cases, and whether it generates
common strategies and effects, regardless of specific
claims or frames. We do so by mapping these interactions
using SD analysis, as we explain below.
System Dynamics Methodology
Understanding stakeholder influence requires ‘‘including a
structural component in stakeholder analysis’’ (Frooman
1999, p. 192). In parallel, management dilemmas may be
usefully viewed as ‘‘arising from within a system with
interdependent elements, subsystems, and networks of
relationships and patterns of interaction’’ (Werhane 2002,
p. 33). One appropriate tool for comprehending such
objects is SD, introduced by Forrester (1961) as a modelling and simulation methodology for management problems. His initial goal was to capture the interaction of
different stakeholders in a system, at a time of increasing
complexity in organisational objectives and outcomes. SD
originates from systems theory, as a method for understanding the dynamic behaviour of complex systems. SD
was subsequently used to obtain insights into problems of
policy resistance and change management (Coyle 1979,
1996; Sterman 2000). The methodology focuses attention
to the effects of a decision on the responses of different
stakeholders within a system over the long term. A particular concern in SD is why ‘‘our best efforts to solve
problems often make them worse’’ (Sterman 2001, p. 8).
Whereas optimisation applies very well ‘‘whenever the
problem to be solved is one of choosing the best from
among a well-defined set of alternatives… and if the system to be optimised is relatively static and free of feedback’’ (Sterman 1991, p. 216), SD can be usefully applied
in unstable, changing environments.
The goal of the method is to identify points within the
system that can most effectively be influenced by decision
makers. The methodology renders more visible delayed and
indirect effects of decisions, as well as of stakeholder
counter strategies or resistance. SD also helps us to avoid a
known risk of agenda-setting and framing studies, namely
‘‘locking [the events and discourses under study] in place, as
though they were not part of a larger conversation, serving
particular interests, and undergoing changes over time’’
(Reese 2007, p. 149). The features of SD models include
time lags, information acquisition and exchange among
stakeholders, and complex linkages of action and influence
that render outcomes nonlinear (and hence less predictable).
These phenomena appear in various forms in all of our
cases—dispersion of agendas, a growing number of stakeholders and actions, and changes over time in the scope and
scale of effects. For example, when management sets an
altered agenda for a firm, its implementation takes time.
Within this time period, the firm’s various stakeholders each
adopt a stance towards the agenda, and seek to act accordingly. The effect on the firm may not immediately be evident
to management. There are time lags when decisions are
prepared, made and communicated, when actions are
implemented, and when impacts begin to appear.
Dynamic complexity also results from the many interactions of stakeholders with one another. In SD terms,
these interactions are called feedbacks. As with time lags,
their effects are nonlinear, because different stakeholders
are affected differently (or not at all) by specific feedbacks
at different times. (For example, an investor in a firm may
neither share nor act upon the outrage of a downsized
worker. But if the worker’s outrage leads to a strike, and
A Web of Watchdogs 713
the strike impacts the firm’s stock price, the investor may
well respond.) They also respond to those feedbacks in
different ways, at different times.
SD seeks to capture and model feedbacks among the
different components of organisational systems. As a first
step, the model’s objectives (or else the research goal) must
be defined—in this article, to understand the cumulative
effects of stakeholder responses to change in a management agenda. Next the interactions among stakeholders,
and the consequences of their diverse activities for each
other and the firm, are mapped. Then, causal-loop diagrams
are abstracted from these events. Causal-loop diagrams
play two important roles. First, during model development
they serve as preliminary sketches of causal hypotheses.
Second, they describe the major feedback mechanisms of
the system (Coyle 1996; Sterman 2000). In sum, the diagrams are used to construct a conceptual model of the
system and the interaction of its components.
Feedback loops are components of causal-loop diagrams, and key mechanisms in the modelling process. A
feedback loop is a succession of causes and effects, and it
is captured by a circular arrow. A particular variable (say, a
plan to increase profits) is affected by a stakeholder or
event. The changed variable travels further through the
system, encountering other stakeholders or events, and
comes back to affect its own initial state. (For example, a
profit-making plan is opposed by investors, with negative
impact on the stock price, and management revises the
In causal-loop diagrams, influence lines represent the
relations among variables (such as a firm’s agenda, profits
and image). The direction and sign, (?) or (-), at the end
of each influence line explain the effect of the variables on
each other. This effect can be balancing (-) or reinforcing
(?). In a reinforcing effect, the variable at the beginning of
the influence line and the variable at the end of the influence line change in the same direction. Thus, if the
beginning variable increases (for example, profits grow),
the ending variable also increases; if the beginning variable
decreases (profits fall), the variable at the end of the line
also decreases. When the effect is balancing, the variables
at the start and end of the line change in opposite directions; if one increases the other decreases, and vice versa.
The same logic and language apply to feedback loops,
which contain more than one influence line. A loop’s
overall polarity is obtained by the algebraic product of the
balancing (-) or reinforcing (?) effects that it contains. In
a balancing loop (symbolised by ‘‘B’’), the initial position
of a variable is reversed; growth becomes loss, or vice
versa. Put another way, after a disturbance, the system
seeks to return to equilibrium. Conversely, in a reinforcing
feedback loop (symbolised by ‘‘R’’), initial effects are
strengthened; growth becomes more growth, losses lead to
more losses. Balancing feedback loops can neutralise such
effects: For example, workers go on strike, and management offers them indemnities, which end the strike and
stabilise the system.
In this article, we build causal-loop diagrams based on
events from three cases, involving the publicly owned
multinational firms Danone SA, BP PLC and Nike Inc., in
which stakeholders advanced particular agendas. Our goal
here is to build a generic model that applies well to the
cases, thus demonstrating the relevance of SD for agendasetting. We proceed by treating each successive step in the
cases as a subsystem with its own inputs and feedback
loops. As we advance, we combine subsystems previously
diagrammed, extending their effects to successive feedback
loops. (We note each step in all the feedback loops in
Appendix) We also draw connections to our hypotheses. A
first result is to confirm the complex, nonlinear character of
interactions among stakeholder agendas. To avoid adding
to that complexity, we reserve full analysis of our findings
for the concluding discussion section.
The specific content of stakeholder media and actions—
that is, the detail of what someone said or did—is
abstracted into reinforcing or balancing stimuli in successive diagrams and the cumulative model. Every event
abstracted into the diagrams is detailed in footnotes. In
other words, the diagrams map the footprints of stakeholder
actions and media, while their content is captured in notes.
In the next section, the broad outlines of each case and
sources for footnotes are presented.
Summary of the Danone, BP and Nike Cases
The Danone Boycott
In January 2001, the revelation through a leak to a major
newspaper that Danone SA, one of France’s most successful
and admired firms, intended to downsize biscuit operations
in its home market led to what observers called an unprecedented ‘‘political boycott’’. The firm refused comment, but
let it be known through proxies that restructuring was necessary to improve margins and please investors; financial
analysts unanimously approved. Danone’s offer of a humane
and relatively generous termination program for workers did
not succeed in calming public outrage that a profitable firm
was shedding jobs. In April, unions launched a nationwide
boycott. MSM generally predicted the boycott’s failure.
However, activist online media promoted it, diffusing lists of
Danone brands. Rumours that the boycott was succeeding
began circulating in May, panicking some investors, but
were dismissed by the firm’s CEO at a Shareholder General
Assembly. Management’s denials were accepted by the news
media, which largely abstained from further coverage of the
714 M. Besiou et al.
boycott and labour protests, and the stock briefly recovered.
The following autumn, financial analysts reported that the
boycott had indeed hurt Danone’s sales and market share,
and that continuing labour action was further impacting
operations, sales and growth across Danone’s three main
product lines. An investors’ flight was accelerated by the
events of 11 September 2001. The firm’s market share in the
biscuit division and stock price remained depressed for
several years. This summary and page references for footnotes concerning Danone are drawn from Hunter et al.
The Beyond Petroleum Campaign
The announcement that BP PLC, the world’s second-largest
oil firm, was branding itself as ‘‘Beyond Petroleum’’ in 2000
generated widespread scepticism in MSM. However, MSM
soon accepted BP’s claim that it was contributing to environmental progress. In contrast, Greenpeace’s website
redefined BP as ‘‘burning the planet’’. Its members occupied
one of BP’s arctic drilling operations, and sought to organise
BP’s activist shareholders against management. The main
threat to BP’s operations, however, came from within, as
employees at the firm’s Prudhoe Bay field in Alaska seized
on the high ethical standards proclaimed by ‘‘Beyond
Petroleum’’ to attract attention for their claims that BP was
failing to meet its own safety and environmental benchmarks. A series of accidents at Prudhoe Bay, publicised first
by activists operating their own media online, and then by
news media, drew the attention of regulators, who ultimately
posed a serious threat to BP’s operations in Alaska. Early in
2005, a catastrophic accident at BP’s refinery in Texas City
and an oil spill in Alaska validated the charges of BP’s
stakeholder critics. This summary and page references for
footnotes concerning BP are drawn from Hunter et al. (2011).
The Nike Anti-sweatshop Movement
Nike Inc. is well-known not only for its shoes, but as one of
the most controversial and crisis-ridden corporations
(McHale et al. 2007). Beginning in the 1970s, Nike outsourced nearly all its production to Asian suppliers who
employed low-skilled, low-wage labour (Lim and Phillips
2008). This strategy proved highly profitable, and Nike
became a model for its industry. However, throughout the
1990s labour activists and NGOs reported wage law violations, child labour, excessive overtime, physical abuse of
workers and unsafe working conditions among Nike’s
suppliers. In June 1996, Life magazine showed a 12-yearold boy surrounded by the pieces of a Nike soccer ball that
he would spend most of a day stitching together for the
grand sum of 60 cents. In October 1996, the CBS news
program ‘‘48 Hours’’ reported mistreatment of workers in
developing countries by Nike (Basin 1996). Both MSM
(Cherin 1999; Gevirtz 1996; Ikram 1996; Klein 1997;
Manning 1996; Melville 1997; Read 1997) and activist
groups and their media (including Global Exchange,
UNICEF, Canadian Catholic Organization for Development, Sweatshop Watch, Citizen Action and Peace and
Free The Children) supported union and NGO protests with
further revelations. Student groups supported by university
websites, newspapers and radios joined in the campaign in
the late 1990s (Duncan 1997; Saunders 1997; Stancill
1997; Wilson 1997). Their calls for a boycott of Nike
generated response from consumers and regulators (Collins
et al. 2004; McHale et al. 2007; Palazzo and Basu 2007).
Nike moved from denying the charges to approving routine
independent inspection of its subcontractors (Holt 2002),
and establishing a code of conduct on labour and environmental practices (Cropanzano et al. 2004; Graham and
Woods 2006; O’Rourke 2006). Adversarial stakeholders
continue to monitor the firm and promote protest actions
through online media at this writing. Sources concerning
Nike are cited in the footnotes and included in references.
Modelling Management and Stakeholder
Agenda-Setting Interactions
Our analysis has identified multiple feedback loops
underlying agenda-setting events in the Danone, BP and
Nike cases. Of course, not all such loops can be of equal
importance for organisational leaders or their adversaries;
we will address that issue later. However, first we must
understand the structure of the loops. Readers who find this
process fastidious may wish to skip to Fig. 5.
In this section, we model the feedback loops in our
cases. Two different types of lines are included: communication lines (in which stakeholders transmit information
to others), and lines that show the deployment of resources.
The information can concern the altering of an agenda,
news about movements like boycotts or strikes, opinions or
demands, and it can be transmitted through websites,
reports or other media. The resources can include monetary
or other capacities, and can be tracked through sources
such as the stock value, investor briefings or annual reports.
Moreover, different stakeholders are included (management, investors, workers, media, society and regulators), to
capture their interactions. When a line starts from one
stakeholder but ends with a different one, then the actions
or the decisions of the initiating stakeholder affect the
stakeholder where the line ends. While lines have starting
points, feedback loops do not necessarily begin or end with
a specific variable. (For example, a firm’s management
may alter an agenda because its value has decreased, or
because management expects a future decrease. In the first
A Web of Watchdogs 715
case, the loop begins with a decrease in value; in the second, it begins with an altered agenda.) In the text, variables
appear in italics to emphasise their significance; regular
typefaces are used in diagrams.
Firm’s Value and Interaction of an Altered
Management Agenda with Workers: A General Case
Figure 1 depicts the following general dynamic: The vast
majority of firms aim at improving their value (Firm’s
Value), measured principally in profits and stock price. For
example, Danone’s margins and stock price were at risk
because of overcapacity in the biscuit sector,1 BP’s management aimed to increase its sales2 and Nike’s management wanted to reduce its cost by producing overseas.3 The
firm’s Profits increase through sales or market share, which
depend in part on the Firm’s Image. These lines capture the
deployment of resources, especially financial resources.
In order to improve the Firm’s Value, management
announces an Altered Agenda that involves changes in the
firm’s extant operations (such as improving the firm’s
processes, capacity or quality of output), for the benefit of
various stakeholders. This move appears in the diagram as
a communication line from the Firm’s Value to the Altered
Agenda. The Altered Agenda may take the form of
restructuring, as in the Danone case, or of perceived
alterations in corporate priorities or operating standards,
both of which affected BP, or of contracting with suppliers
that employ low-wage labour, as in the Nike case. In all
these cases, management perception of a potential decrease
in the Firm’s Value drives the Altered Agenda. Through the
Altered Agenda, the Firm’s Value is expected to increase.
In SD terms, an initial decrease in the Firm’s Value
eventually leads to an increasing effect of the Altered
Agenda on the same variable, identifying a balancing
feedback loop (B1). This loop is evident in all three cases.
However, the announcement of changes (communication line) may decrease Worker Trust in management’s
decisions. A further decrease then occurs in the Firm’s
Image, which is impacted both internally and externally by
the protests of workers. The initial decrease in the Firm’s
Value will be reinforced by declines in Worker Trust and in
the Firm’s Image, as in loop R1. This feedback loop
appeared at Danone when workers learned of the planned
closing of factories and went on strike.4 In BP it appeared
when workers grew concerned about safety at the Prudhoe
Bay oil fields.5 At Nike, workers at subcontractors made
contacts with unions to defend their rights.6
In all three cases, management seeks to demonstrate
responsible behaviour and reduce damage to the Firm’s
Image by announcing the provision of Indemnities (such as
benefits for displaced workers or safety inspections at
production sites) to workers.7 This creates the B2 (balancing) feedback loop, which neutralises loop R1.
Firm’s value

Indemnities +
+ –
Fig. 1 Firm’s value and interaction of an altered management agenda
with workers: a general case
1 Danone had more biscuit capacity than any other firm in Europe;
p. 337.
2 BP’s CEO Browne wanted to increase BP’s retail sales; p. 16.
3 In 1970s Nike outsourced almost all its production to Asia (Lim and
Phillips 2008).
4 Danone management’s plans to close factories in France were
leaked to the press, and its refusal or inability to confirm or deny
reported information led immediately to strikes and other labour
action; p. 337.
5 The announcement that BP was moving ‘‘beyond petroleum’’
generated visible unease among its core business employees, which
was acknowledged in a subsequent news report by a firm executive;
p. 18. Also, like all the major oil companies, BP was under
considerable pressure to improve its margins. This led to the
accusation by workers, cited in the press, and true or not, that the
firm was economising on safety and staffing in order to control costs;
pp. 29–30.
6 See Firoz and Ammaturo (2002) and Lim and Phillips (2008). As
early as the 1980s, Nike was criticised for sourcing its products in
factories and countries where low wages, poor working conditions
and human rights problems were usual. Then, during the 1990s, a
series of public relations nightmares—involving underpaid workers in
Indonesia, child labour in Cambodia and Pakistan, and poor working
conditions in China and Vietnam—became news. Nike initially
denied responsibility for workers at these factories since they were
not Nike employees (Locke et al. 2007).
7 In the sense we are using the term, ‘‘indemnities’’ applies to
management efforts to address worker concerns caused or perceived
to be caused by change. In that sense, the announcement by BP
management that ‘‘safety will be our number-one priority’’ at the
Prudhoe Bay field in January 2003 represented such an indemnity;
p. 32. In March 2001, Danone proposed a series of ‘‘social’’ measures
for restructuring that went far beyond compliance with those
demanded by French law; p. 337. Nike’s first ‘‘indemnities’’ included
asking Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business to investigate wages
paid to contract workers, a prelude to involving NGOs in the firm’s
communications strategies (Ziek 2012, p. 76).
716 M. Besiou et al.
Media Enter the Game
Distrustful workers can leak or openly volunteer information and counter-agendas to stakeholders who control their
own media (referred to in Fig. 2 as SHM, for ‘‘Stakeholder
Media’’). In our cases, these media included tracts, online
articles, financial analyst reports, blogs and pro-worker
websites.8 The support of Adversarial SHM Reports reinforces the decrease in Worker Trust (see loop R2, which
appears in all cases).
Through Adversarial MSM Reports, news media cite or
echo Adversarial SHM Reports. Likewise, Adversarial
SHM Reports cite Adversarial MSM Reports in support of
the stakeholders’ cause. The result is an increase in the
overall number of reports, and hence in the salience of the
pertinent issues (as predicted in H1a and H1b). This reinforcing feedback loop, R3, appears in all three cases.
As Worker Trust further declines, workers provide
increasingly damaging information on the firm to MSM,
leading to more Adversarial MSM Reports (in loop R4,
which appears in all cases).9 These reports negatively
affect the Firm’s Image.10 Thus, are created two reinforcing loops (R5, including Adversarial MSM Reports, Profits,
Firm’s Value, Altered Agenda and Worker Trust, and R6,
including Adversarial SHM Reports influenced by workers
as well as the variables of R5). Because workers may
receive indemnities at some point, two balancing loops
(respectively, B3, involving Adversarial MSM Reports,
Profits, Firm’s Value, Altered Agenda, Indemnities and
Worker Trust, and B4, involving the same variables plus
Adversarial SHM Report) are also created. R5 is neutralised by B3, and R6 by B4. All of these loops appear in the
BP and Nike cases.
Subsequently, Adversarial MSM Reports may moderate
management’s determination to execute the Altered
Agenda as originally planned.11 This creates two reinforcing loops that incorporate previous reports, management’s agenda, indemnities, worker trust and further
reports (loops R7, including Adversarial MSM Reports,
Indemnities and Worker Trust, and R8, involving Adversarial SHM Reports as well as the variables of R7). In the
eventual absence of indemnities, two balancing loops
emerge: B5, through Worker Trust, Adversarial MSM
Reports and Altered Agenda, neutralises R7; B6, through
the same elements plus Adversarial SHM Reports, neutralises R8). These loops appear in all three cases.
Interaction with Society
New stakeholders appear in response to the attention
afforded to the conflict by media. Adversarial SHM
Reports increase the Mobilisation of adversaries, which can
lead to a Social Movement (in the Danone and Nike cases,
this dynamic preceded MSM coverage).12 These changes
SHM reports
– –
R7/B5 R4
Firm’s value

R5/B3 R6/B4

Fig. 2 Media enter the game
8 Danone workers sought to support their boycott movement by
distributing tracts listing all brands owned by Danone, p. 339. BP
workers provided information to stakeholder media (such as The
Project on Government Oversight, concerning the
firm’s Prudhoe Bay operations, in concert with a self-defined
‘‘workers’ advocate’’, Charles Hamel, who was widely quoted by
anti-globalist and anti-industry sites, pp. 27–28. Workers from Nike’s
suppliers provided information to the activist website among others (Firoz and Ammaturo 2002).
9 The daily newspaper Libe´ration reprinted union tracts providing
lists of Danone brands, and the ensemble of French newspapers
closely reported the conflict between management and Internet-based
adversaries. Likewise, protestor websites cited supportive and hostile
news coverage of their actions; pp. 338–340. Articles based on
information from Charles Hamel and BP workers appeared in The
Financial Times and were subsequently reprinted by numerous
environmentalist websites; pp. 28–29. In Nike, news of workers’
strikes were published in the MSM and then were reprinted to labour
websites; CBS television reports in 1996 helped to mobilise a
transnational anti-Nike network, including Global Exchange (U.S.),
Justice. Do It Nike! (U.S.), Press for Change (U.S.), Vietnam Labor
Watch (U.S., Vietnam), Nike: Fair Play? (Netherlands), and Let’s Go
Fair (Switzerland) (Lim and Phillips 2008).
10 Not only accidents and worker protests at Prudhoe Bay, but also
shareholder protests (pp. 23–25) against BP were widely reported. At
Nike, workers in a Jakarta factory told Global Alliance researchers
that female employees were asked to trade sexual favours for jobs
(Luh 2002).
11 While Danone did not abandon its plans, it did alter their content in
an attempt to appease public opinion, which was massively hostile to
the restructuring; p. 337. BP withdrew from the industry trade group
Arctic Power and announced that ‘‘safety will be our number-one
priority’’ at the Prudhoe Bay field; pp. 30, 32. While Nike did not stop
contracting with Asian suppliers, the firm created the position of Vice
President for Corporate Social Responsibility in part to monitor them.
12 The boycott of Danone spread from workers to Left politicians of
numerous towns, other unions, and a national consumer boycott
A Web of Watchdogs 717
decrease the Firm’s Image,
13 Profits and the Firm’s
14 which supports hypotheses H3a and H3b.
The introduction of Mobilisation and a Social Movement
creates two new reinforcing loops, respectively, R9
(involving Adversarial MSM Reports through Firm’s
Image, Profits, Firm’s Value, Altered Agenda, Worker
Trust and Adversarial SHM Reports) and R10 (which
contains the same elements, minus MSM reports). The
dynamic interaction of workers, MSM and SHM across
these loops, with each feeding and reinforcing the other,
supports hypothesis H1c.
In the event of Indemnities, two balancing loops are
created. B7, which includes Firm’s Image, Profits, Firm’s
Value, Altered Agenda, Indemnities, Worker Trust,
Adversarial MSM Reports, Adversarial SHM Reports,
Mobilisation and Social Movement, neutralises R9; and B8,
which contains the same variables except for MSM reports,
neutralises R10. These loops appear in the Danone and
Nike cases. In another loop, the Social Movement openly
supports workers15; Worker Trust in management further
decreases. This conjunction of forces creates two reinforcing feedback loops (R11, including Worker Trust,
Adversarial MSM Reports, Adversarial SHM Reports,
Mobilisation and Social Movement, and R12, which combines the same elements minus MSM reports). They are
evident in all three cases (Fig. 3).
Interaction with Regulators
Mobilisation can lead to judicial retaliation by the firm’s
management against stakeholder activists,16 or conversely,
to regulatory intervention or lawsuits on behalf of stakeholders who believe their interests are affected by the Altered
Agenda. Such Judicial/Regulatory Action can further hurt
the Firm’s Image.17 We thus see two new reinforcing loops:
R13, which includes Firm’s Image, Profits, Firm’s Value,
Altered Agenda, Worker Trust, Adversarial MSM Reports
and Adversarial SHM Reports, and R14, containing the same
variables except for MSM reports. They are driven by the
effect of Mobilisation on Judicial/Regulatory Action. They
are neutralised when management provides Indemnities18 in
the balancing loops B9 and B10. These four loops are evident
in all the cases, and support hypotheses H2a and H2b, which
predict rising costs of satisfying stakeholder demands as
more of them join the fight.
Different drivers create different loops: Judicial/Regulatory Action may also support the agenda of the Social
Movement.19 This leads to four new reinforcing loops: R15
and R16 both include Worker Trust, Adversarial SHM
Reports, Mobilisation, Judicial/Regulatory Action and
Social Movement, and the former also includes Adversarial
Footnote 12 continued
movement, supported by a network of Internet sites; pp. 338–340; the
boycott of Nike products spread from workers and activists to university students (Firoz and Ammaturo 2002).
13 Danone pursued its Internet-based critics for libel in a series of
civil actions; pp. 340–341. See Klein et al. (2004) for further insight.
BP faced widening criticism from shareholders and increasingly
hostile attention to its Prudhoe Bay operations as a consequence of
employee-generated publicity; pp. 23–24. Nike suffered from damaged brand image and reputation because of subsequent consumer
boycott but realising the potentially punishing force of consumer
opinion (Brunk and Blu¨melhuber 2011).
14 During the most active period of the boycott, Danone’s sales in its
home market of France declined by approximately 10%. Labour
action also impacted Danone’s logistics across product lines. Danone
reported a decline of about 3% in its market share for biscuits in
France, the centre of the crisis, in the year following these events;
pp. 341–342. See also Danone (2004, p. 26). In 1997, Nike’s sales
dropped 8% in the company’s third quarter, and footwear sales in the
U.S. were down 18% (Saporito 1998).
15 Danone’s online critics demanded reinstatement of workers even
before they were downsized; p. 339. BP shareholder activists
explicitly demanded resolution of safety issues at Prudhoe Bay that
were widely reported in news and stakeholder media; pp. 23–24.
Concerning Nike, on 9 January 2001, workers in Atlixco de Puebla,
Mexico went on strike to obtain recognition of their union and
rehiring of colleagues who were illegally fired. They were supported
by their parents (most of the workers were young women from rural
villages) and by unions from the Volkswagen plant in the nearby city
of Puebla. January 17 saw a day of protests on campuses across the
country. See Global Exchange (2001).
16 Danone filed lawsuits against online critics, which led to sustained
hostile publicity and negative judicial consequences for the firm;
pp. 339–340. Following the announcement of ‘‘Beyond Petroleum’’,
Greenpeace activists occupied a BP barge at the Northstar site in the
Arctic to dramatise their claim that BP stood for ‘‘burning the planet’’.
The occupiers were arrested and charged in Federal court, generating
further publicity hostile to BP; p. 23. Concerning Nike, on 12 January
2001, Puebla police attacked striking workers, thus inciting student
demonstrations the following week; see p. 15.
17 Following the initial leak of Danone’s restructuring plans, the
French government, at the time on the Left, threatened legislation to
ban firings at profitable firms; p. 337. State and Federal regulators of
BP responded to workers’ charges by intensifying inspections and
demands for documentation at Prudhoe Bay; p. 31. In April 1998,
California attorney Marc Kasky filed a lawsuit (California Business
and Professional Code, n.d.) against Nike for ‘‘unfair and unsafe
practices’’ prohibited by California statutes based on truth in
commercial communication (McHale et al. 2007). The Clinton
Administration sought to harvest political capital by convening the
Apparel Industry Partnership (AIP), which included Nike and other
major companies as well as labour, human rights, religious and
consumer organisations (Lim and Phillips 2008).
18 Danone offered downsized workers compensation beyond legal
requirements; p. 337. BP declared, following repeated accidents, that
safety would be its ‘‘number one priority’’ in Prudhoe Bay; p. 27.
Nike indemnities also included raises in wages (Firoz and Ammaturo
19 A powerful example from the Danone case occurred when a
Trotskyite elected official had himself named a union representative
so that he could legally militate against the firm inside its plant at
Evry; p. 337. The expectation of Prudhoe Bay workers and their
stakeholder allies that regulatory action would work in their favour
was demonstrated by their avid attempts to persuade regulators in
Alaska to intervene against the firm; pp. 31–32.
718 M. Besiou et al.
MSM Reports. R17 and R18 contain Firm’s Image, Profits,
Firm’s Value, Altered Agenda, Worker Trust, Adversarial
SHM Reports, Mobilisation, Judicial/Regulatory Action
and Social Movement, with the addition of Adversarial
MSM Reports in R17. We also see two new balancing loops
in the event that Indemnities are offered; B11 neutralises
R17, while B12 neutralises R18. All six new loops appear
in the Danone and BP cases.
Judicial/Regulatory Action also informs and intensifies
coverage in Adversarial SHM Reports20 (reinforcing loop
R19, including Mobilisation,) and in Adversarial MSM
Reports21 (reinforcing loops R20, containing Adversarial
SHM Reports, Mobilisation and Judicial/Regulatory
Action, and R21, which also includes Altered Agenda,
Indemnities, and Worker Trust). The absence of Indemnities will create balancing loop B13, which neutralises R21
through Adversarial MSM Reports, Altered Agenda,
Worker Trust, Adversarial SHM Reports, Mobilisation and
Judicial/Regulatory Action. These four loops are evident in
all our cases (Fig. 4).
Interaction with Investors
A decline in the Firm’s Value impacts its Investors’ Trust,
decreasing the Stock Price. After a time delay, falling
investor trust likewise decreases the Firm’s Value (Fig. 5).
These variables create the reinforcing feedback loop R22,
which appears in all the cases. Support for hypotheses H3a
and H3b is confirmed. (In fact, investors often react to
rumours or reports of a decline in profits before that news is
officially announced by a company.) Criticism of management by financial analysts or other investors (Investors’
Trust) attracts Adversarial MSM Reports, further decreasing Investors’ Trust,
22 and creating reinforcing loops R23,
Mobilisation +
SHM reports
– –
Firm’s value


R11 R12
Fig. 3 Interaction with society
20 Web searches demonstrate this intensification. Forty-one separate
websites published all or part of the legal documents in Danone’s case
against its online adversaries. Moreover, nearly 1,800 separate
‘‘articles’’ including the terms ‘‘boycott’’ and ‘‘Danone’’ appeared in
Google groups as of July 2009; p. 340. Greenpeace’s initial protests
against BP, and subsequent judicial action against the protestors, were
widely reported by environmentalist and anti-globalist online media;
p. 23. (See, for example, ‘‘Help Greenpeace confront oil giant BP in
the Arctic’’ on the site of Cruelty Free Living, http://www.crueltyfree., accessed July 2009.) For Nike, Kasky’s
lawsuit generated significant stakeholder coverage (for example,
‘‘Nike v. Kasky: Corporations Are Not Persons’’., 4
May 2003).
21 This dynamic appears with new angles in a crisis. Thus, Danone’s
lawsuit against online adversaries was widely covered in the French
press: pp. 339–340. The intervention of regulators at Prudhoe Bay
against BP was closely covered at the Financial Times; p. 13.
(McNulty 2002, 2003). Kasky’s lawsuit also generated copious MSM
coverage, including Associated Press (2000).
22 In January 2003, a leading UK ethical investment fund made news
by announcing that it was selling its BP holdings because of safety
and environmental incidents in Alaska. It was soon followed by the
World Wide Fund for Nature, which likewise announced that it was
selling its BP holdings for the same reasons, and likewise became
news; p. 31.
A Web of Watchdogs 719
including Firm’s Value and Altered Agenda, and R24,
involving Firm’s Image, Profits and Firm’s Value. These
loops appear in the BP case.
The loss of Investors’ Trust also generates Adversarial
SHM Reports,
23 which further influence the Investors’
Trust. Thus, all our cases show the reinforcing loops R25
(including Firm’s Value, Investors’ Trust, Adversarial
SHM Reports, Adversarial MSM Reports and Altered
Agenda) and R26 (including Firm’s Image and Profits
along with the variables of R25 but excluding Altered
Agenda). The reinforcing loop R27, involving Investors’
Trust and Adversarial SHM Reports, also appears in all
Management may seek to forestall further loss of
Investors’ Trust due to a decline in the Firm’s Value and
Stock Price by denying losses in sales, market share or
quality resulting from protests, as occurred in the Danone
case.24 In SD terms, this equates to trying to balance the
system; hence we now see balancing feedback loop B14,
including Firm’s Value, Rumours’ Denial, Investors’ Trust
and Stock Price. The Rumours’ Denial appears in SHM
such as analyst reports as well as MSM. This creates balancing loops B15 (Firm’s Value, Rumours’ Denial, Investors’ Trust, Adversarial SHM Reports, Adversarial MSM
Reports and Altered Agenda) and B16 (similar to B15, with
Firm’s Image and Profits in the place of an Altered
Agenda). The denial also surfaces in MSM that quote only
management. The result is balancing loops, B17 and B18,
which resemble the previous pair but do not include SHM
However, even if management denials initially succeed,
eventually a public firm must acknowledge a genuine
decline in sales.25 The admission will negatively impact
Investors’ Trust, captured in reinforcing loop R28, which
includes Firm’s Value, Rumours’ Denial, Correct Information, Investors’ Trust and Stock Price. The Correct
Information also appears in analysts’ SHM; the result is
reinforcing loops R29 (Firm’s Value, Rumours’ Denial,
Correct Information, Investors’ Trust, Adversarial SHM
Reports, Adversarial MSM Reports and Altered Agenda),
and R30, in which Firm’s Image and Profits take the place
of Altered Agenda.
Finally, we note that exogenous events occurring in
parallel with the Altered Agenda can trigger Adversarial
MSM Reports as well as Adversarial SHM Reports that
impact the firm. Such events may thereby obscure or
override management attempts to resolve conflicts that
affect the firm’s agenda. An example occurred in the Danone case, when the brutal closing of a major retailer in
Paris overshadowed the firm’s attempts to appear responsible.26 Exogenous events create impacts but not loops in
our cases, because there is no way for stakeholders to
influence the source of such events.
From the above analysis, we observe that in all our
cases, management’s announcement of changes compelled
different stakeholders (workers, stakeholder and news
media, society, regulators and investors) to advance alternate agendas. Management and stakeholder agendas are
shaped in a total of 34 lines (counting the lines only the
first time that they appear). Of this total, six lines show the
deployment of resources and 28 are communication lines in
which stakeholders transmit information. Concerning the
latter, we note that SHM reports appear in eleven loops in
the absence of MSM reports (while MSM reports appear in
eight loops without SHM reports). In other words, stakeholders are not necessarily dependent on MSM in order to
inform or influence each other. This insight reinforces
hypotheses H1a and H1b.
However, there is no common sequence of events across
the three cases. For example, in the Danone and Nike
cases, workers were the first to oppose the firm’s Altered
Agenda, while for BP the first opposition was expressed by
MSM and environmentalist SHM. Therefore, the order in
23 The key stakeholder-controlled media in the Danone case, aside
from the Internet-based protestors previously mentioned, were
financial analysts. In mid-summer 2001, a consensus existed among
analysts that Danone management had successfully weathered the
boycott. That consensus flagged at summer’s end, when first half
results showed discernible effects that management had previously
passed over, and the stock began to decline. By early winter, a new
consensus among analysts took shape as they warned investors away
from the stock; p. 341. A similar dynamic figured explicitly in activist
strategies to counter BP. Greenpeace not only reported on investor
conflicts with BP management over environmental and safety issues,
but actively promoted such conflicts by organising shareholder
protests. See pp. 23–24. In the Nike case, as with Danone, key
stakeholder-controlled media included financial analysts who initially
supported management to investors starting warning investors [See,
for example, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter (1997)].
24 At Danone’s General Shareholders Assembly on 29 May 2001,
management announced that the boycott had no effect on group sales
worldwide, omitting mention of its effects in France, and declared
that ‘‘the storm is over’’; p. 340.
25 Danone’s provision of successive quarterly results demonstrating
the ongoing effects of the boycott and social movement, and
Footnote 25 continued
countering management reassurances, preceded a sharp and sustained
decline in Danone’s share price; pp. 340–342.
26 In March 2001, the announcement of an exemplary set of
compensatory measures for Danone workers, which management
had expected would end the crisis, was overshadowed by the sudden
closing of a Marks & Spencer store in Paris and the firing of its staff.
Public outrage confounded the two cases, and the boycott of Danone
began immediately thereafter; p. 338. In the spring of 2005, an
explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery killed 15 men and unleashed a
firestorm of hostile public, judiciary, regulatory and legislative
attention on the firm. A side effect of the disaster was to legitimate
critics of the firm’s operations in Prudhoe Bay, where a subsequent oil
spill unleashed a similar storm, overwhelming any positive impacts of
the firm’s efforts to make safety ‘‘our number one priority’’; p. 34.
720 M. Besiou et al.
which stakeholders and feedback loops are presented above
does not define a temporal order. It indicates that certain
feedback loops will emerge, but not exactly when. In
practice, feedback loops take time to actualise; specifically,
feedback loops containing more stakeholders and interactions require more time to actualise than ‘‘shorter’’ ones.
One implication is that the more actors enter the scene, the
less likely it is that major outcomes of their actions will be
immediately obvious. We will return to this point in our
Comparison of the Model with Full Cases
Our generalised model illustrates the complex nature of the
agenda-setting effects generated by the multiple stakeholders who act in each case and the different goals that
they pursue. Though built using cases from three different
industries and involving different contents, it exposes
common structural characteristics, such as the similarity of
stakeholder strategies, amplification of feedback among
different actors, and the inability of management to address
complexity. However, in each case different effects are
activated (or not). In the Danone case (Hunter et al. 2008)
two effects sketched in the generic feedback loop diagram
do not appear entirely valid. Specifically, Adversarial MSM
Reports did not affect the Firm’s Image. Moreover, the
decline in Investors’ Trust was not fully reported in
Adversarial MSM Reports. In particular, MSM did not
make a connection between management’s delayed and
partial acknowledgement of the impacts created by protestors and workers, and the subsequent flight of investors
from Danone’s stock. In contrast, financial analysts at this
point repeatedly warned that Danone management information was not sufficiently ‘‘visible’’. Therefore, the Danone case contains 42 feedback loops compared to the 48
feedback loops found in the generalised model.
Likewise, in the BP case (Hunter et al. 2011) some
impacts sketched in the generic feedback loop diagram are
not reflected in events, so far as we can discern from firm
announcements, news and stakeholder-controlled media.
Specifically, we note that the Social Movement did not
affect the Firm’s Image. The difference here from the
Danone and Nike cases may be due to the fact that MSM
coverage of worker protests in Alaska was largely restricted to the business press, and in particular The Financial
Times. Thus, stakeholders who do not follow business
news had little opportunity of being exposed to worker
agendas, unless they followed certain environmentalist and
left-wing political websites. Hence, in the BP case there are
36 feedback loops.
Finally, in the Nike case (see ‘‘The Nike Anti-sweatshop
Movement’’ section) we also find that some impacts
sketched in the generic feedback loop diagram are not
reflected in events. Specifically, we note that unlike Danone, management at Nike did not find itself obliged to
deny and then confirm ‘‘rumours’’ that cast the firm in a
bad light. Nor did Judicial/Regulatory Action support the
agenda of the Social Movement. Finally, as in the Danone
case, news media did not correlate decreases in Nike’s
stock price with stakeholder protest mobilisations. In fact,
news media eventually gave Nike credit for a good faith
effort to end abuses in its suppliers’ plants, at a time when
other leading apparel manufacturers likewise moved their
production to Asia and faced similar accusations. Therefore, the Nike case contains 32 feedback loops.
We note that specific loops cannot always be designated
as responsible for a given outcome, because certain influence lines appear in multiple loops. Thus, for example, any
or all loops containing impacts on sales or stock price may
affect a rise or fall in those variables. This makes it more
difficult to control outcomes, a point we will return to below.
We conclude that the model can be used as a dynamic
foundation that one can customise by adding pertinent
factors. For example, Tsuchiya (2003) found that explicit
ethical concerns and whistle blowers play a larger role than
in our model, reflecting her case studies and their Japanese
cultural context. We thus confirm that SD can help to
weigh what can and should be done in the face of complex
issues (Pruyt and Kwakkel 2007), including stakeholder
How Stakeholder Agendas Prevail
We began with three questions: How do stakeholders use
their media to set agendas? How does management react?
And what effects result? Our main objective was to widen
agenda-setting theory to a dynamic and nonlinear networked stakeholder context, in which stakeholder-controlled media assume part of the role previously ascribed to
MSM. In effect, our diagrams describe a generic process
through which stakeholder groups intervene to counter
agendas, set their own and compel management to negotiate responsibility for conflict.
The process begins with a management agenda that aims
at making the firm more profitable for its investors. However, certain stakeholders resist a change that they view as
contrary to their own interests. They engage in protest
actions, and use their own media to publicise those actions.
Thus, H1a is validated. Whether or not MSM take note
immediately, the stakeholder resistance is noticed and
amplified by at least some other stakeholders. Our model
captures that, as the social movement literature shows,
A Web of Watchdogs 721
stakeholder claims gather the most attention from media
and other stakeholders when they are accompanied by
action such as strikes, boycotts, etc. (Amenta et al. 2009).
As H1b predicted, new stakeholders appear in the conflict.
They include most of those identified by Ragas (2010) as
actors in corporate proxy fights: management, shareholders, analysts, unions, workers, suppliers, government, customers, MSM, courts and regulators. All of these actors are
structural elements of the business environment, and the
noise from other stakeholders alerts them to situations
requiring their attention. They also begin to pay attention to
each other, as H1c predicts.
H2a predicted that once stakeholders get involved, they
formulate their own demands, and Figs. 4 and 5 capture the
resulting thicket of dissatisfaction that enfolds management. H2b predicted that in trying to satisfy those multiplying demands, management would also face rising costs.
Our model shows two specific mechanisms that raise them:
indemnities and regulatory sanctions. The indemnities
required to satisfy workers and regulators may be very
disappointing to investors. That is one reason H3a, which
predicted a negative effect on management reputation,
likewise appears supported: Rising costs make investors
worry that management cannot succeed. There is also a hit
on the firm’s value, as predicted in H3b: The circle of
resisting stakeholders eventually includes customers whose
purchases support the firm’s profits. The consequent fall in
stock price further alarms investors and confirms H3a.
The result is that harassing management becomes a
common agenda for stakeholders as diverse as investors,
regulators and protestors. Management is surrounded by a
web of watchdogs, who closely monitor its moves and
rapidly sanction any future misstep.
Watchdogs are hardly unique to the stakeholder environment; they are also a prominent feature of high-quality
MSM news operations. In analysing six cases of investigative journalism reports that drove positive change, Protess
et al. (1992) discovered two explanatory models of their
effects. The first, ‘‘mobilisation’’, occurs when public
response to journalistic revelations is so outraged that policy
makers leap to placate it. The famous Watergate affair is
cited as an example: Reporters revealed successive truths
until a public backed by honest officials forced the President
to resign. The second model, ‘‘coalition’’, takes place when
journalists assemble a diverse stakeholder constituency to
promote their revelations to policy makers. A common element in both models is that to maintain pressure for change,
watchdogs must constantly widen their circles of influence to
new allies and observers, using their cumulative responses to
drive a first-level agenda (‘‘this affair is important’’).
Our feedback loops show another way in which contemporary stakeholder watchdogs drive outcomes. As
before, stakeholder groups (in our cases, workers) initiate
opposition to management, and other groups are affected,
who affect still others. However, unlike the coalition or
mobilisation models, in our diagrams stakeholders gain
influence not only by building coalitions or alerting
potential allies, but also by compelling stakeholders who
are not in the same camp to press their own claims on
management. The web of watchdogs eventually widens to
include not only adversarial stakeholders, but also management’s putative supporters. In the worst case (as
occurred to Danone and BP), management is isolated, its
credibility is weak, and its initial agenda is effectively
moribund. Though the media employed to this end may be
‘‘social’’, the general concern of stakeholders is hardly to
be ‘‘liked’’ by anyone else in the network. Investors
rejected the goals of the ‘‘alters’’ whose websites drove the
Danone boycott, but the former punished management very
effectively for denying that the boycott worked. Agendasetting strategies are evolving in this new, complex era by
embracing stakeholders whose motivations and objectives
may vary hugely.
What drives this dynamic is that initiating stakeholders
diffuse information that even non-allied stakeholders must
take into account. These information subsidies may be
appropriated by MSM, as in the BP case, or not, as in the
Danone case (where MSM never reported that analysts
sanctioned management). However, in our three cases,
stakeholder media were quite sufficient to disturb the system through new information.
The first key providers of that information to stakeholder
media, in every case, were workers. This phenomenon is
intuitively logical: Workers may enjoy privileged access to
information about a company, they may have strong reasons for revealing it, and they may not enjoy privileged
access to MSM, at least in comparison to management. Our
model captures how these factors can combine with
stakeholder media to shift some power from MSM and
management to stakeholders. Specifically, it shows that
even stakeholders with limited resources can drive feedback loops that raise management costs to unsustainable
levels. What is an appropriate management response to this
new reality?
Management Responsibility in an Age of Stakeholder
In each of our cases management seeks to act responsibly
first by proposing a strategy to increase the firm’s value.
When opposition arises, management displays responsibility by offering indemnities to key stakeholders. In all
three cases, the tactic fails to resolve the issues. One possible explanation is that the stakeholders who were directly
affected by the strategy considered the indemnities as
merely symbolic gestures, woefully disproportionate to the
722 M. Besiou et al.
Mobilisation +
SHM reports
– –
Firm’s value

Regulatory action




Fig. 4 Interaction with
SHM reports
reports +
Firm’s value

Regulatory action



B17 B18

Fig. 5 Interaction with investors
A Web of Watchdogs 723
real needs created by management’s agenda. They
responded by seeking to disrupt the agendas, notably by
pulling other stakeholders into the conflict. In that case,
what is management’s further responsibility?
In every case, management behaved as though it were
vital to maintain their initial agenda, regardless of growing
costs. Nike did not shift production to higher-cost environments. Danone management proceeded with restructuring. BP continued with environmentally and physically
risky operations. Stakeholders changed the circumstances,
but management did not take those changes into account
quickly, or at all. It could be argued that these managers
believed their plans were vital to the future of their firms.
However, in two out of three cases, rising costs overwhelmed potential gains of the strategy. It could thus also
be argued that by failing to heed the watchdogs, managers
failed to protect value for all their stakeholders, and in
particular investors. Even from a shareholder value perspective (Friedman 1970), this makes little sense.
Leaders, especially, are supposed to prevail; yet they
must also accept the facts when their strategies cannot
succeed. In all of our cases, to a greater or lesser extent,
management instead displayed a typical response in crisis
situations: denial (Coombs and Holladay 1996; D’Aveni
and MacMillan 1990). The problem was someone else’s, or
under control, or did not exist except in the minds of certain stakeholders. At an extreme, firms (like Danone) may
deny that activist protests impact financial performance,
even if they do. Certainly, sometimes this management
stance is justified. Stakeholder activism does not always
target urgent issues, or materially impact a firm’s operations or sales. (In fact, this was the case at BP, until successive safety disasters severely damaged the firm’s image
with regulators and the public.) Nor do stakeholders always
attract support from others: Shareholder activists’ proposals to management are more often than not defeated.27
The underlying and key issues are whether and how
management must respond to stakeholder claims. We can
add two criteria that may help managers decide when those
claims are legitimate and urgent. The first is the density and
depth of feedback loops around an issue—that is, the
number of other stakeholders who respond to one group’s
initial claims. When response appears among stakeholders
who are not allied to protestors, it is a sign that feedback is
spreading into an ‘‘ambiguous, legitimizing environment’’
(Holmstro¨m 2005, p. 503) where management’s influence
will continually decline.
The second criterion is the quality of information that
circulates in these feedback loops, and particularly in
stakeholder media, which often surpass MSM in the early
stages of a conflict. Other stakeholders cannot always judge
for themselves if a particular issue raised by protestors
(such as inadequate safety or environmental precautions at
an installation) is valid. Management, however, either has
the means to verify such claims, or is failing to run this
aspect of the firm. In the latter case, denial may lead to
disaster. In the former, indemnities can be targeted and
scaled to effective solutions for stakeholders, and the
feedback loops that carry information and opinions damaging to the firm can thereby be transformed into balancing
forces. Alternatively, management can identify and address
other players in the same loops—one way to do so is by
monitoring stakeholder media—to find an acceptable
solution (Henisz et al. 2011). In any or all of these cases,
management is responsible for taking into account the
information made available through stakeholder media.
Managers who persist with an agenda in the face of
widening and diversifying stakeholder feedback loops are
engaged in a high-risk strategy. In confrontations with
expanding stakeholder networks, where the underlying
issues pose a ‘‘dichotomy of risk versus danger, of decision
taker versus victim’’ (Holmstro¨m 2007), time is not on
management’s side. Adversaries do not need to score a
decisive victory; they need only continue to raise the
marginal costs for management of pursuing its agenda, in
order to change the agendas of other stakeholders towards
the firm. Even if one is not interested in SD or modelling,
this key message should be clear. Leaders in an age of
stakeholders networked through their own media are only
one node in a complex system they cannot totally control,
in which actions and reactions can come back like a boomerang. Whatever the final outcome, management will not
determine or impose it alone.
Further Directions for Research
We acknowledge that relying on a relatively small number
of case studies, while appropriate for opening a new line of
research, limits the general applicability of our findings.
For example, family owned firms may display very different stakeholder dynamics from publicly owned ones. It
would also be instructive to apply our model to cases where
activist stakeholders do not prevail in whole or part—for
example, where the costs to management created by
opposition are trivial. Our proposed models must be further
validated through case studies in circumstances that differ
substantively from the three cases shown here.
The following foundation steps must be undertaken:
first, formulation of a simulation model with estimations of
parameters and initial conditions, which can be fine-tuned
by adding more cases and data, including theoretical and
empirical material from the literature. An integrative
approach is required. SD can be used to identify the most
27 See
724 M. Besiou et al.
interesting kinds of loops, and then to guide more quantitative research. Actual cases could be followed in real time,
to predict what is likely to happen next and propose more
options for action (Sterman 2000). The evolving model
should be tested by extreme condition cases, to explore its
limits and verify its quality. Finally, the effects of different
policies or actions on the system should be evaluated by
conducting simulations. Probability sampling and quantitative longitudinal data should be used to validate or falsify
resultant models. Eventually, robust SD models may
enable us not only to better dissect the paths of stakeholder
feedback, but also to foresee and resolve the underlying
issues behind it.
Feedback Loops of the Generalised Model
Tables 1 and 2.
Table 1 Reinforcing feedback loops
Loops Parameters
R1 Firm’s image ? Profits ? Firm’s value ? Altered
agenda ? Worker trust ? Firm’s image
R2 Worker trust ? Adversarial SHM reports ? Worker trust
R3 Adversarial SHM reports ? Adversarial MSM
reports ? Adversarial SHM reports
R4 Worker trust ? Adversarial MSM reports ? Adversarial SHM
reports ? Worker trust
R5 Firm’s image ? Profits ? Firm’s value ? Altered
agenda ? Worker trust ? Adversarial MSM
reports ? Firm’s image
R6 Firm’s image ? Profits ? Firm’s value ? Altered
agenda ? Worker trust ? Adversarial SHM
reports ? Adversarial MSM reports ? Firm’s image
R7 Adversarial MSM reports ? Altered
agenda ? Indemnities ? Worker trust ? Adversarial MSM
R8 Adversarial SHM reports ? Adversarial MSM
reports ? Altered agenda ? Indemnities ? Worker
trust ? Adversarial SHM reports
R9 Firm’s image ? Profits ? Firm’s value ? Altered
agenda ? Worker trust ? Adversarial MSM
reports ? Adversarial SHM
reports ? Mobilisation ? Social movement ? Firm’s image
R10 Firm’s image ? Profits ? Firm’s value ? Altered
agenda ? Worker trust ? Adversarial SHM
reports ? Mobilisation ? Social movement ? Firm’s image
R11 Worker trust ? Adversarial MSM reports ? Adversarial SHM
reports ? Mobilisation ? Social movement ? Worker trust
R12 Worker trust ? Adversarial SHM
reports ? Mobilisation ? Social movement ? Worker trust
Table 1 continued
Loops Parameters
R13 Firm’s image ? Profits ? Firm’s value ? Altered
agenda ? Worker trust ? Adversarial MSM
reports ? Adversarial SHM
reports ? Mobilisation ? Judicial/Regulatory
action ? Firm’s image
R14 Firm’s image ? Profits ? Firm’s value ? Altered
agenda ? Worker trust ? Adversarial SHM
reports ? Mobilisation ? Judicial/Regulatory
action ? Firm’s image
R15 Worker trust ? Adversarial MSM reports ? Adversarial SHM
reports ? Mobilisation ? Judicial/Regulatory
action ? Social movement ? Worker trust
R16 Worker trust ? Adversarial SHM
reports ? Mobilisation ? Judicial/Regulatory
action ? Social movement ? Worker trust
R17 Firm’s image ? Profits ? Firm’s value ? Altered
agenda ? Worker trust ? Adversarial MSM
reports ? Adversarial SHM
reports ? Mobilisation ? Judicial/Regulatory
action ? Social movement ? Firm’s image
R18 Firm’s image ? Profits ? Firm’s value ? Altered
agenda ? Worker trust ? Adversarial SHM
reports ? Mobilisation ? Judicial/Regulatory
action ? Social movement ? Firm’s image
R19 Adversarial SHM reports ? Mobilisation ? Judicial/
Regulatory action ? Adversarial SHM reports
R20 Adversarial MSM reports ? Adversarial SHM
reports ? Mobilisation ? Judicial/Regulatory
action ? Adversarial MSM reports
R21 Adversarial MSM reports ? Altered
agenda ? Indemnities ? Worker trust ? Adversarial SHM
reports ? Mobilisation ? Judicial/Regulatory
action ? Adversarial MSM reports
R22 Firm’s value ? Investors’ trust ? Stock price ? Firm’s value
R23 Firm’s value ? Investors’ trust ? Adversarial MSM
reports ? Altered agenda ? Firm’s value
R24 Firm’s value ? Investors’ trust ? Adversarial MSM
reports ? Firm’s image ? Profits ? Firm’s value
R25 Firm’s value ? Investors’ trust ? Adversarial SHM
reports ? Adversarial MSM reports ? Altered
agenda ? Firm’s value
R26 Firm’s value ? Investors’ trust ? Adversarial SHM
reports ? Adversarial MSM reports ? Firm’s
image ? Profits ? Firm’s value
R27 Adversarial SHM reports ? Investors’ trust ? Adversarial
SHM reports
R28 Firm’s value ? Rumours’ denial ? Correct
information ? Investors’ trust ? Stock price ? Firm’s
R29 Firm’s value ? Rumours’ denial ? Correct
information ? Investors’ trust ? Adversarial SHM
reports ? Adversarial MSM reports ? Altered
agenda ? Firm’s value
R30 Firm’s value ? Rumours’ denial ? Correct
information ? Investors’ trust ? Adversarial SHM
reports ? Adversarial MSM reports ? Firm’s
image ? Profits ? Firm’s value
A Web of Watchdogs 725
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reports ? Mobilisation ? Judicial/Regulatory
action ? Firm’s image
B10 Firm’s image ? Profits ? Firm’s value ? Altered
agenda ? Indemnities ? Worker trust ? Adversarial SHM
reports ? Mobilisation ? Judicial/Regulatory
action ? Firm’s image
B11 Firm’s image ? Profits ? Firm’s value ? Altered
agenda ? Indemnities ? Worker trust ? Adversarial MSM
reports ? Adversarial SHM
reports ? Mobilisation ? Judicial/Regulatory
action ? Social movement ? Firm’s image
B12 Firm’s image ? Profits ? Firm’s value ? Altered
agenda ? Indemnities ? Worker trust ? Adversarial SHM
reports ? Mobilisation ? Judicial/Regulatory
action ? Social movement ? Firm’s image
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reports ? Mobilisation ? Judicial/Regulatory
action ? Adversarial MSM reports
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