Timothy Coombes & Sherry Holladay

Cooperation, Co-optation, or Capitulation: Factors Shaping Activist-Corporate Partnerships

One reframe echoing in public relations is the need for organizations and their publics to work cooperatively together. A prime example is the idea of co-creation of meaning between organizations and publics. We find the cooperation theme woven throughout writings on corporate social responsibility (CSR) as well. Organizations need to understand how their publics define CSR if they are to effectively be viewed as socially responsible. Effective CSR is defined largely by publics and integrated into organizational policies and behaviors—CSR is co-created.

Partnerships between organizations and activist groups are a prime method for cooperation and the co-creation of meaning for CSR. Activists supply insights into a specific responsibility topic and help organizations adapt to these new societal demands. It sounds easy, an activist group and an organization work to address the same concern. However, there are a variety of pressures that work against activist-corporate partnerships. In this paper we explore those pressures and implications for public relations’ involvement in CSR.

From the activist side, the main concern is co-optation. The fear is that by working with a corporation, the activist group will begin to see the world from a corporate rather than an activist perspective. While perspective taking is essential in a partnership, it does not have to result in co-optation. Still, there are those from the activist side that resist partnerships because of co-optation. It may be called “selling out” or “being tainted” but the idea is the same, the activists’ belief systems become corrupted from corporate contact. Activists will forget their mission and stop efforts to reform the corporation. Some in public relations have facilitated this skepticism by arguing that partnerships are a means of co-opting and silencing activists.

Corporations are reluctant to partner with activists because it is a sign of weakness as they capitulate to the demands of stakeholders. Again, some in public relations argue that corporations must remain strong. Signs of weakness will just result in activists making more demands. Activists will come to run the corporate agenda. The end result is that both corporations and activists encournter criticism from partnerships. Public relations is a key element in managing organizational-public relations. Therefore, public relations should be able to find ways to facilitate partnership rather than discourage them through “aggressive” public relations approaches.

The first part of the paper will explore in more detail the forces working against activist-corporate partnerships and possible alternatives public relations can provide. Power will be an essential part of the discussion. Any detailed discussion of organization-public relationships must consider the role of power. As our earlier discussion suggests, power is what is driving the two sides a part. The second half of the paper will be shaped by the following questions: What should be some key characteristics of pragmatic activist-corporate partnerships? What are some of the situational factors that shape pragmatic activist-corporate partnerships? How might public relations facilitate pragmatic activist-corporate partnerships?

W. Timothy Coombs wtcoombs@eiu.edu
Sherry J. Holladay sjholladay@eiu.edu
Communication Studies
Eastern Illinois University
Charleston, IL USA

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