Q&A with Jarol Manheim

An Expert on Communications and Media on his Groundbreaking Work on the Left's Communications Strategies

CEI’s Monthly Planet recently interviewed Jarol Manheim, Professor of Media and Public Affairs and of Political Science at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of Public Affairs, and author of The Death of a Thousand Cuts: Corporate Campaigns and the Attack on the Corporation (2000) and Biz-War and the Out-of-Power Elite: The Progressive-Left Attack on the Corporation (2004). In these two ground-breaking books, Professor Manheim analyzes the phenomoenon of corporate campaigns—mutli-faceted coordinated attacks upon companies by labor unions and advocacy groups seeking to advance an agenda. (Special thanks to Neil Hrab for his input on the interview questions.) Professor Manheim’s books are available from Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, www.erlbaum.com and Amazon.com.A shorter version of this interview appeared in the November issue of Monthly Planet. 

CEI: To give readers a better understanding of your area of research, please provide nutshell definitions of the central topics of your two books: corporate campaigns and biz-war. What constitute an anti-corporate attack campaign’s basic elements?

Jarol Manheim: My books look at the history, components, strategy, and evolution over the past 30 years or so of the increasingly sophisticated ways in which labor unions, environmentalists, and other activists bring pressure on companies to yield to their various demands.  I generally distinguish between two kinds of campaigns—corporate campaigns and anti-corporate campaigns—which differ less in their components than in their objectives.

A corporate campaign is generally one undertaken by organized labor to obtain some economic objective—usually union recognition, but sometimes a more advantageous contract with a unionized employer. An anti-corporate campaign is one undertaken by some other type of antagonist for a policy or ideological objective. The union campaigns are usually better funded and more elaborate, but also more constrained because ultimately the union hopes to come to terms with the company as an employer and source of members. Other advocates, however, generally have no particular interest in sustaining the viability of the target company, and some even see the demise of a specific company, or of the corporation per se, as a desirable outcome.

Regardless of label, these attack campaigns include various combinations of psychological, economic, regulatory, legal and political warfare against the company—essentially leveraging its reputation against it—all carefully planned and deployed. The diversity and integration of these attacks, and the manner in which they are often channeled through a series of alliances and surrogate groups, make them different in both degree and character from the demonstrations, boycotts, and the like of an earlier era. But the thing that really sets them apart is their grounding in what the anti-corporate activists term “power structure analysis.”

Power structure analysis is a process in which an antagonist identifies all of the key stakeholder relationships upon which a given company depends for its daily well-being, then researches each relationship with an eye toward identifying potential vulnerabilities. Examples of such stakeholders would be the company’s customers, suppliers, bankers and insurers, investors, principal regulators, the media, and the general public. The idea is to figure out ways of getting one or more of these stakeholders to act in his own self interest, and yet in ways that advance the interests of the antagonist and become points of pressure against the company. Every corporate or anti-corporate campaign starts from this basis.

CEI: How did you first become interested in studying strategic attacks as a conscious activist strategy?

Manheim: About 15 years ago, I was nearing the conclusion of a long-running study of the ways foreign governments tried to manage their news images in the U.S. in order to gain trade or foreign policy concessions. One of my students at the time was intrigued by some new communication techniques then being employed by the United Mine Workers. That was the first I had heard of these campaigns.  Not too long afterward, I began to hear about them from others as well. So it was, in a sense, fortuitous timing.

The thing that keeps me interested is the utter sophistication of corporate campaigns. Because they are carefully planned, long-running, often well-funded, multi-faceted efforts at persuasion and pressure employing many different kinds of organizations and institutions, these campaigns are very nearly a perfect laboratory for the study of image management in politics. 

CEI: Could you comment on the importance of Saul Alinsky’s 1971 volume Rules for Radicals for the post-Cold War Left? Does it include lessons for other movements?

Manheim: Rules for Radicals was Alinsky’s last book, written shortly before his death, and was, in many ways, a last will and testament in which he left the benefit of his experience to later generations of activists. He actually wrote the book because he thought that the “New Left” activists of the 1960s were losing their way, and in the process, putting at risk the opportunities their activism had created. As Alinsky himself put it (in the Prologue),

These words are written in desperation, partly because it is what they do and will do that will give meaning to what I and the radicals of my generation have done with our lives.

Anecdotally, it seems that Alinsky’s book is required reading for every would-be activist.  Empirically, the best evidence of its influence may be the fact that it is still in print, nearly 35 years after its publication and the death of its author, and still selling well.

CEI: In The Death of a Thousand Cuts, you mention sociologist C. Wright Mills as a guiding light of the New Left, which laid the foundations for the corporate campaigns that organized labor would later adopt as a favorite tactic. In addition to Mills and Alinsky, what other writers have influenced the rise of coordinated reputational attacks as a tactic for pushing an agenda?

Manheim: There are several ways to answer that question. As a general influence, many of the more sophisticated campaigners have probably studied Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. More specifically, David Vogel’s Lobbying the Corporation (1978) provided a solid basis for understanding the nature of the pressures advocates could generate, not only on companies, but through them, on public policy. I am not sure that Vogel is widely read today, but his work is highly insightful and had a clear influence during the formative years of anti-corporate campaigning.

Sociologist G. William Domhoff, in a series of books but most notably in Who Rules America?, picked up where Mills left off, and is both active and widely read within what is now known as the “Progressive Left.” Then there are many how-to manuals, either general guides to activism like Randy Shaw’s The Activist Handbook or more specific guides to research and activism like the World Resources Institute’s book, Leveraging the Environment, which lays out a differentiated strategy for attacking the various parts of the financial services industry.

CEI: What role has the news media played in the rise of corporate campaigns?

Manheim: Here’s an area where the corporate campaigners have learned a lot from those who manage elections or steer public policy initiatives. I tend to be very cynical about the media. I believe that they work hard to maintain a mythology that affords them a privileged position in our society, but that they are far less independent-minded than they would have us believe, and far more easily guided toward one story or frame or toward another. Moreover, the ethos of journalism is itself somewhat anti-corporate—journalists speak of their role in comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable—and may journalists are themselves union members, a fact that in my view plays out, not in the form of overt bias, but rather through the more subtle lens of the overall perspective they bring to their work.

All of this makes the media susceptible to influence by corporate campaigns because the campaigners have a similarly cynical view, and because the campaigns themselves are designed in large measure to generate the kinds of pseudo-events, official-looking reports, political theater, litigation and other bad-news generators that are the stuff of news as the media define it. As a result, the media tend to come along as willing, and uncritical, purveyors of corporate campaign attack messages. That, in turn, adds to the pressure on the target companies. What the media seldom do is try to understand and tell the story of the campaign itself.

CEI: What lessons could people in the corporate world learn from your research findings? What do you think of the argument that John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge of The Economist put forth in their book, A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Promise of Globalization, that corporate managers today are too technocratic to be able to confront attacks, that they are more likely to take the easy way out by trying to appease anti-corporate activists than try to defend their enterprise?

Manheim: A corporate campaign is often designed to come at a company indirectly, carried forward by a large number of the company’s own stakeholders who may not even realize they are being “played.” In such a circumstance, it is essential to understand the breadth and nature of the attack, and, especially, to recognize the real antagonist, whose identity may be masked through a variety of allies, surrogates, and intermediaries. That can help in designing defenses, or perhaps on occasion even in turning the tables on the antagonist.

We need to realize that companies are generally organized for the purpose of doing business, presumably with some efficiency. They deal with competitors, they deal with stakeholder interests, and from time to time they deal with crises of one sort or another.  All of that is normal and predictable. But companies are not organized to wage war. They are not generally prepared to confront an antagonist whose true objective may be to drive them out of business, and who, in any event, is fully prepared, not only to generate a recurring series of crises, but to respond to, and attempt to undermine, their efforts to respond. Corporate campaigns are wars.  So it is not, in my view, that technocracy drives complaisance or appeasement, but rather that corporate cultures were simply never intended or designed for hand-to-hand combat. Corporate campaigners count on that for their edge.

CEI: Which groups do you believe have been especially successful in their use of corporate campaigns? Which specific campaigns do you consider to have been particularly successful?

Manheim: It is difficult to answer questions regarding success or failure, whether they focus on the campaigns themselves or on companies’ defenses against them. As an outsider, one can seldom know what the real objectives of either party were or, for that matter, what the real outcomes were.

There are some obvious examples of success. For example, after an organizing campaign by the Service Employees International Union at Catholic Healthcare West in which the union successfully pitted the National Council of Bishops against the nine orders of women religious that own the company over the meaning of the Church’s social teachings, the company, a major healthcare provider on the West Coast, not only agreed to facilitate the unionization of its employees, but formed a sort of policy alliance with the union. And there are obvious examples of failure.

Teamster organizing efforts at Overnite Transportation included a personal commitment by union president James Hoffa to stay the course until the company yielded. In the end, the union conceded defeat and moved on. But most—like the campaign against Microsoft by an alliance of open-source software advocates, consumer advocates, the Communications Workers and even some competitors—yield mixed results— that make it difficult to determine clear winners and losers—in this instance, extensive antitrust litigation but no real reduction in Microsoft’s influence or market power.

There is also the problem that some campaigns never end. Nike, for example, under pressure from the Clinton White House, agreed to join a new organization, the Fair Labor Association, and to follow its code of conduct in dealing with the foreign contractors who manufactured its products. As soon as that deal was inked, however, Nike’s principal antagonists—such as UNITE, the textile workers union, and Global Exchange, an anti-corporate activist group—who had pressed for Clinton’s support, withdrew their participation in the agreement. Instead, they formed a new and more aggressive group, the Workers Rights Consortium, and began a new campaign against Nike.

CEI: How effective has been the use of investor mechanisms, such as shareholder resolutions, by unions and other corporate campaigners? What challenges do such resolutions pose for companies?

Manheim: Though the unions, the union-influenced public-employee and multi-employer private pension funds, and the “socially responsible” investment community have been preparing the ground for these initiatives for many years, it is the post-Enron environment that has opened the door for aggressive shareholder activism. By supporting governance reforms, in particular, these corporate antagonists not stake out the moral high ground in the contemporary debate, but in the process pressure companies to make reforms that—whatever their salutary benefits—have the advantage of softening up the board room and the senior management for a second-level agenda of business policy reforms that is sure to follow. For example, the widely advocated CEO-Chairman split, creates competing power structures at the top of the company, and the demand for cumulative voting of shares enhances the power of organized institutional investors in selecting directors.

It is not the value of the investments made by these organizations per se—though the $3 trillion or so that they invest is surely enough to command attention—but the leverage they gain through shareholder resolutions and proxy wars that is the key to power. They do not often win outright, but between the threat of a battle (often in conjunction with other aspects of an anti-corporate campaign) and the media coverage it generates, they frequently engage in negotiated settlements that alter the game.

CEI: John Sweeney, when he became president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, promised to “use old-fashioned mass demonstrations, as well as sophisticated corporate campaigns, to make worker rights the civil rights issue of the 1990s,” a promise on which he has followed through. However, given unions’ recent major political defeats—failing to elect Al Gore or John Kerry and failing to thwart President Bush’s tax cuts—and the success of companies like Wal-Mart in avoiding unionization, do you see corporate campaigns as a defining tactic of organized labor in the foreseeable future?

Manheim: If anything, continued failure—in the aggregate—adds impetus to organized labor’s reliance on these sophisticated attacks. There is great stress at the moment within the labor movement, with a group of unions known as the New Unity Partnership pressing for structural reforms and for increasingly aggressive organizing efforts. The unions in this group are among those most strongly committed to corporate campaigns and to shareholder and proxy activism. They may prevail, which would push the AFL-CIO still further in this direction. Or they may lose, in which case at least one union, the Service Employees, has threatened to bolt the federation (another, the Carpenters, has already done so) to pursue their agenda independently.

Either way, antagonism to employers will remain a central motivating theme of movement building both within and beyond organized labor for the foreseeable future, so corporate America is likely to remain in the cross-hairs for many years to come. Indeed, there are still a great many companies that have yet to feel this pressure and so have yet to develop defenses against it, so the opportunities for mischief remain almost without number.

CEI: What are some of the big questions that you believe still need to be explored in the strategic communication field, a relatively new field of research?

Manheim: That is almost too big a question to answer here, so let me address it just within the context of the kind of activism we have been discussing. With respect to these coordinated, strategic attacks on corporations, what we have are numerous anecdotes and descriptions. We can identify campaigns, name the players and follow the strategies and tactics easily enough.  What we do not have so far is the ability systematically to understand, explain and predict the outcomes of these campaigns in different circumstances, with different players, and with particular variations in strategy and tactics. 

Doing that effectively requires two things: theory and data. At this point we have some good theory to work with, and it is getting more and more sophisticated. But we still have a data problem—too few campaigns for which we have sufficiently complete information to draw meaningful conclusions. Part of that is because the phenomenon, though not new, has matured only recently. Part is because, as noted earlier, it is often difficult to obtain complete and candid information from either side, let alone both. That leaves folks like me trying to make lots of inferences from limited information. Fun, challenging and interesting, to be sure, but imperfect nonetheless.