March 2014

Web Activists Have Companies ‘Reading Tea Leaves’ to Predict Future Reputation Risks

Web Activists Have Companies ‘Reading Tea Leaves’ to Predict Future Reputation Risks

Companies see social media as the biggest threat to their business model due to fears of what web activists can do to corporate reputations.

Guinness, Heineken and Samuel Adams all recently withdrew their sponsorship of St Patrick’s Day parades in New York and Boston after the organisers fell into dispute with gay and lesbian paraders who were refused the right to identify themselves.

Whilst in the past companies might have felt this controversy was nothing to do with them, threats by ‘clicktivists’ threatening to disrupt business was enough to convince these brands to withdraw.

In a recent article in the Financial Times, Professor Daniel Diermeier, described this incident as being part of a wider shift in companies being dragged into the world of private politics.

He identifies two key features:

  1. First, activists, not governments, are leading the push for change.
  2. Second, companies cannot isolate themselves from public debate and are now expected to take positions on all manner of issues, even if they are only tangentially related to their businesses.


He goes on to say, “All this leaves companies feeling “rattled” and notes that protests can emerge without warning or planning. “They are asking themselves nervously ‘are we ready?’ And the answer is often ‘no’.”

The beer brands in question discovered the complexity of such issues when Rupert Murdoch and Bill Donoghue of the US Catholic League reacted to their withdrawal by calling for a Catholic ban of their products, describing the companies as bullies that “have nothing but contempt for the constitutional rights of Irish Catholics”.

Understanding the complexity of reputation risk and helping steer companies through such issues requires detailed understanding of stakeholder groups’ concerns as well as their influence and impact.  Something that is increasingly possible through big data analysis of social media – a chance for companies to read the tea leaves.

We’ll be focusing on this at our upcoming training courses on reputation risk, planned for the UK and Australia.  Places are available for courses in May and November.