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Stakeholder media: the trojan horse of corporate responsibility

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This article considers how stakeholder media, created and distributed by parties engaged in specific issues or with a specific firm, impacted the media response to the “Beyond Petroleum” rebranding initiative of BP Plc in the years 2000-2005. Using a system dynamics approach, we argue that “Beyond Petroleum” created both immediate and delayed effects on the firm’s reputation as contributions from different kinds of media and different groups of stakeholders emerged and were diffused. While the immediate effects of the initiative were strongly positive for the firm, particularly in the news media, stakeholder media undertook sustained benchmarking of claims made through the initiative, as well as actions designed to create critical news coverage by highlighting gaps between the firm’s stated values and its practices. In a second phase, internal stakeholders widened this gap by injecting information previously neglected or not accessed by the news media into the public domain. Stakeholder media became a conduit for information provided by employees that had direct implications for the firm’s relations with industry regulators as well as for news media coverage. We call this a “Trojan Horse” effect to underline that the message of internal stakeholders was effectively validated by its situation within the larger frame of Beyond Petroleum, which became a benchmark for criticism of BP. We conclude that in an era of rising influence and scope for stakeholder media, corporate responsibility initiatives that ignore or underestimate the impact of stakeholder media, in particular stakeholder media that provide a credible voice for employees, incur augmented reputational risks for the firm.

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