Keeping up Appearances: Reputational Threat and Impression Management after Social Movement Boycotts

Mary Hunter McDonnell, Brayden King

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

378 Scopus citations


This paper explores the extent to which firms targeted by consumer boycotts strategically react to defend their public image by using prosocial claims: expressions of the organization's commitment to socially acceptable norms, beliefs, and activities. We argue that prosocial claims operate as an impression management tactic meant to protect targeted firms by diluting the negative media attention attracted by the boycott. We test our hypotheses using a sample of 221 boycotts announced between 1990 and 2005. Results suggest that boycotted firms do significantly increase their prosocial claims activity after a boycott is announced. Firms are likely to react with a larger increase in prosocial claims when the boycott is more threatening (it receives more media attention), when the firm has a higher reputation, or when the firm engaged in more prosocial claims before the boycott. We demonstrate that firms fall back on their established impression management strategies when they face a reputational threat and will increase these previously perfected performances as the threat increases. In this way, the severity of a threat positively moderates the relationship between a firm's prior performance repertoire and future performance repertoire, a mechanism we refer to as "threat amplification." When an organization with high reputational standing has bolstered its position by using prosocial claims in its past performance repertoire, however, it will perceive itself to be shielded from movement attacks, decreasing the likelihood of any defensive response, a mechanism we call "buffering." Our findings contribute to impression management by exploring the use of impression management in response to a movement attack and highlighting the important role that a firm's pre-threat positioning plays in its response to an image threat.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)387-419
Number of pages33
JournalAdministrative Science Quarterly
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2013


  • boycotts
  • impression management
  • media attention
  • nonmarket strategies
  • prosocial claims
  • social movements
  • threat amplification

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Public Administration


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