Knowing Who You Are: How Group Identity Shapes the Perceived Legitimacy of Tactics

By Catherine Corrigall-Brown

In the first set of essays for this dialogue published last month, Deana Rohlinger discussed the important role of reputation and how it affects the strategic decision making of movement organizations, particularly in relation to the media. In addition to the strength of a group’s reputation, a group’s identity also shapes the extent to which the media listens to it and how the use different tactics by organizations are viewed by the media and public as a whole.

SMOs within a movement often create niches. There are many groups that are, for example, interested in protecting the environment, but these groups differ in their ideology, tactics, and resources. Two groups might both have strong reputations, but their past actions can lead them to be seen as very different types of groups. What I mean by this, is that the identity of the group – how the media and public sees them – can shape how their use of tactics is understood. In essence, the use of a tactic, and the benefit a group receives from using that tactic, is in part the result of how they are perceived and who they are seen to be within their larger movement.

To illustrate this point, I take some recent data that I collected on two environmental SMOs, Greenpeace (GP) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Canada. Both of these groups are large, bureaucratic, international SMOs. They both have strong reputations and long histories of successful campaigns. They differ, however, in their ideology and tactics. Greenpeace is more contentious and focuses on protest tactics – initially stopping whaling ships and nuclear testing with small boats and big media campaigns. WWF has been less contentious and more focused on institutional tactics – such as when they partner with large companies like Coke to help protect polar bears. Cooperation with Coke would be unthinkable for Greenpeace, in part because of their ideology.

I compare what each of these groups did (through a systematic coding of their tactics as reported in their press releases from 2000-2010) and the media coverage they received (in the two large national Canadian newspapers – the Globe and Mail and the National Post).

The results clearly show that the same tactics can be understood in very different ways depending on the identity of the group using them. For example, GP and WWF had very different results when they used research as a tactic. Research as a tactic can be very effective. Journalists, who are often crunched for time when reporting a story, are looking for information on current issues. SMOs engaging in research can provide such information and this can help SMOs actively frame debates and issues. For this reason, many SMOs engage in research and attempt to disseminate that research to the media.

Both GP and WWF conduct and disseminate research. When I compared their use of research and how it shaped the media coverage their group received, there was a very interesting interactive relationship. When WWF uses research in their press releases, their media coverage does not change. However, when GP uses research in their press releases they receive, on average, two less articles written about them that month.

I also find that these two groups get very different results from calling for the public to engage in an environmental issue. It does not impact the amount of coverage received by the WWF. However, when Greenpeace calls for the public to engage in an environmental issue, they have, on average, three more articles written about them.

These interactions highlight how a group’s identity shapes how we understand their use of tactics. Both groups engaged in the same action but had different results, in part because they are seen as very different types of groups. For example, the interaction between group and research highlights the niches that SMOs delineate. Greenpeace has greatly increased their use and discussion of research within their press releases.

However, the fact that increased use of research by this organization leads to less media coverage speaks to the issue of credibility. It is not enough to simply conduct research; one must be seen as a legitimate and reliable source of research information to have that research lead to more media coverage. However, because Greenpeace has traditionally been focused on direct action and has a more contentious identity, when they call for the public to engage in an environmental cause, they have credibility and can gain media attention. WWF does not have a reputation or identity that links it to collective action of this sort and so, even when it calls to the public to engage, it does not increase its media coverage.

The different relationship of research and calls to the public to media coverage for the WWF and GP emphasize the ways that organizations are situated in the social movement sector and how different groups, based on their ideology and identity, can use the same tactics with very different results. While a group wants to be novel and interesting, they must do so within bounds – engaging in what the media and public accepts as legitimate and credible behavior for their group.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Protestors and their Targets

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