Online Power Resource Management

Online Power Resource Management: Activist
Resource Mobilization, Communication Strategy,
and Organizational Structure
Erich J. Sommerfeldt
Department of Communication, University of Maryland
The power resource management (Heath, 2008; Heath & Palenchar, 2009) and resource mobilization
(McCarthy & Zald, 1977) literatures suggest that resource mobilization is a precondition of issues
management and interdependent with strategic behavior. This study examined how activist organizations
are using their Web sites to marshal the resources necessary to influence the outcome of issues.
Activist group Web sites (N¼300) were coded to determine if online resource mobilization features
were related to types of activist issues management strategies. Results of multivariate probit
regression analyses revealed that particular types of resource mobilization efforts predict certain
activist strategies. The study offers implications on how resource mobilization is used to enact issues
management strategy and on how activist strategies, issue objectives, and organizational structure are
Activist and advocacy groups, as a subset of the larger nonprofit sector (Salamon & Anheier,
1992), are dedicated to the management of issues to a resolution satisfactory to the group’s
stakeholders. Both activism and issues management literatures maintain that marshaling
resources is a precondition for implementing issue strategy (Heath & Palenchar, 2009; McCarthy
& Zald, 1977). At the same time, it is recognized that activist groups differ in size and structure
and engage in a variety of strategies to accomplish issue objectives largely based on their organizational
form and overall goals (Jacques, 2006; Leitch & Neilson, 2001). Activist organizational
structure and the strategies by which activists choose to pursue issues are intertwined.
The resources that are mobilized to sustain the organization and its strategic issue management
programs are—particularly in the case of activist organizations—inherently linked.
The public relations literature has slowly progressed from understanding activists as mere
organizational antagonists to public relations practitioners in their own right. Despite this evolution,
limited research has examined what has been called the unique communication and
relationship building needs of activists as they practice public relations (Taylor, Kent, & White,
2001). Given this, the intended contributions of this article are three-fold. First, the article
extends the power resource management (Heath, 2008; Heath & Palenchar, 2009) and resource
mobilization (McCarthy & Zald, 1977) literatures by examining how the resource mobilization
behaviors of activists are related to the strategies in which activists engage as they attempt to
Correspondence should be sent to Erich J. Sommerfeldt, PhD, University of Maryland, Department of Communication,
2124 Skinner Building, College Park, MD 20742. E-mail:
Journal of Public Relations Research, 25: 347–367, 2013
Copyright # Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1062-726X print/1532-754X online
DOI: 10.1080/1062726X.2013.806871
influence issues. Second, the article argues the mobilization of resources and resulting communication
strategies are also connected to the organizational structure of an activist group. Understanding
the connection between activist strategy and mobilization necessitates recognition that
diverse forms of activism are enabled by different organizational forms (Carroll & Hackett,
2006; Leitch & Neilson, 2001). Third, the article builds on literature that recognizes Web sites
and other Internet technologies as the primary means by which activists disseminate information
and solicit resources (e.g., Kent, Taylor, & White, 2003; Sommerfeldt, Kent, & Taylor, 2012).
This study further examines the connection between activism and Internet technology by considering
how Web sites enable activists to seek the resources and build the influence required
to participate in public dialogue.
The article begins with a discussion of issues management and draws on Heath’s (2008;
Heath & Palenchar, 2009) ancillary concept of power resource management as a guiding theoretical
framework for the study. The literature review then suggests that the issue strategies in
which activists engage are associated with resource mobilization tactics, as well as organizational
form. Finally, the review discusses literature that has considered the impact of Internet
technology on activist group communication and the ability of activists to marshal resources
online. The article then reports the results of a content analysis of activist Web sites for resource
mobilization features and issue strategies. Regression analyses revealed that many mobilization
features predict certain behavioral strategies, supporting extant theory that has suggested marshaling
of resources and strategy are linked. The results help to illustrate the relationship
between certain resource mobilization tactics and specific types of strategic behavior activists
use to engage issues, which range from the communicatively reserved to the extreme. The identification
of a relationship between mobilization behaviors and activist strategy extends knowledge
on activist public relations theory and practice, and provides implications for different
kinds of activist groups and nonprofits as they attempt to attain greater organizational structure
and manage issues in various stages of their life cycles.
Issues management scholarship developed in the 1970s as a ‘‘response strategy and early
warning tool’’ for corporations to deal with emerging issues and public policy changes that
could substantially challenge business operations (Heath, 2002, p. 32). Scholars such as Jones
and Chase (1979) established issues management in large part to counteract or preempt activists
from influencing public policy in such a way as to constrain business, and to enable corporate
practitioners to shape public dialogue and public policy. Although many activist groups
undoubtedly do not have what could be called formal issues management programs, as early
as 1985 Crable and Vibbert commented that activists were nonetheless expert issue managers,
capable of utilizing issues management strategy with more dexterity than corporations.
Pratt (2001) summarized issues management as a function that helps ‘‘organizations to anticipate
issues, project and communicate their probable impacts on the organizations, formulate
policies and actions that implement their strategic thinking, and influence public policy debates’’
(p. 336). Indeed, issues management was first premised on the idea that organizations can, and
should, participate in the public policy process (Jones & Chase, 1979). An organization can
work to catalytically shepherd an issue from its earliest stages of fomentation, to widespread
social recognition and legitimation, to the point where decisions are made regarding the issue (cf.
Crable & Vibbert, 1985). Thus, the final function and ultimate goal of issues management is
advocacy (Heath & Palenchar, 2009).
Wilson (1990) placed resources at the heart of issues management, writing that effective
issues management practice begins with the identification of issues and then ‘‘mobilizes and
coordinates organizational resources to strategically influence the development of those issues’’
(p. 41). Brooks and Waymer (2009) similarly remarked that when an organization faces an issue,
‘‘it will mobilize resources to solve it’’ (p. 33). As such, Heath (2008; Heath & Palenchar, 2009)
put forth that issues management could also be characterized as power resource management,
and contended that those who mobilize the most contextually appropriate power resources will
have the upper hand in managing issues.
In issues management, power and influence are brought to bear ‘‘through the application of
various resources’’ (Heath, 2008, p. 12). Heath argued that one way to theorize power resources
is to conceptualize them as ‘‘stakes.’’ Deriving from stakeholder and resource dependency theories,
Heath and Palenchar (2009) suggested that a ‘‘stake’’ could be defined as ‘‘anything
tangible or intangible, material or immaterial, that one person or group has that is of value to
another person or group’’ (p. 16). Example stakes given by Heath and Palenchar included the
purchase of goods or services, the ability to engage in litigation, or lobbying in the public policy
process. The use of stakes is at the essence of an organization’s ability to influence issue outcomes.
Those that control certain power resources will have the ability to wield influence
through stakes. As a further illustration, in soliciting signatures on petition (the signature being
a resource only members of the public can give to the activist group), activists may be attempting
to generate public support for an in issue—a stake that may be used to influence legislators in
policy discussions on an issue in the final stages of its life cycle. Activists are in need of stakes to
give life to their issue strategies. However, resources must be sought and aggregated before they
can be used or managed as stakes to strategically influence issues.
Activism, as a ‘‘process by which groups of people exert pressure on organizations or other institutions
to change policies, practices, or conditions the activists find problematic’’ (M. F. Smith,
2005, p. 5), is fundamentally dependent on the mobilization and management of resources. Prior
to Heath’s concept of power resource management, the process of activist resource aggregation
had become known in the sociology and political science literatures as resource mobilization (cf.
McCarthy & Zald, 1977), which has been described as a ‘‘process by which a group secures the
resources needed for collective action’’ (Jenkins, 1983, p. 532). As agents of change, activist
groups must mobilize resources to maintain their existence, for ‘‘activists do not exist long
on fire and brimstone alone’’ (Heath & Palenchar, 2009, p. 180).
As Ewing (1987) noted, ‘‘Issues management is about power’’ (p. 1). Power, argued Blaylock
(1989), is dependent on resources and the extent to which they are mobilized. The successful
mobilization of power resources thus enables the effective practice of issues management by
organizations. Indeed, Saul Alinksy (1971) wrote in his (in)famous Rules for Radicals that only
when people possess power can they confront issues, writing, ‘‘Power is the reason for being of
organizations’’ (p. 113). If organizations are created for power, then resources are characteristic
of that power and, therefore, of the organization. Alinksy also commented that building a powerful
organization takes time. Particularly during the early stages of activist group development,
activists must acquire resources that enable them to affect public debate or policy (Coombs,
1998). Resource mobilization is a precondition of the strategic communication behaviors that
allow activists to participate in what Burke (1955) called the ‘‘wrangle of the marketplace’’ (p.
23). But how activists participate in public dialogue is influenced by the resources that shape
organizational strategic communication capacity.
Resources and Strategies
Activists are only ready to confront antagonists once they have marshaled the ‘‘requisite power
resources’’ (Heath & Palenchar, 2009, p. 183). The resource mobilization literature (cf. Edwards
& McCarthy, 2004; McCarthy & Zald, 1977) has long maintained that activist organizations are
only as successful as the kinds of resources they mobilize. Resource mobilization is the principal
antecedent to collective action, and the kinds of resources activists mobilize are the ‘‘sine qua
non determinant of the course and character of [activist groups]’’ (Cress & Snow, 1996,
p. 1105). In other words, access to and application of resources is interdependent with the
behavior of activists.
Resource mobilization is thus an important consideration for activist issue managers. Writing
in terms of crisis communication, Perry, Taylor, and Doerfel (2003) posited that ‘‘managers need
to identify what financial, technical, human, and legal resources are available to make the ideal
crisis-communication strategy come to life’’ (p. 229). The enactment of an issue strategy is
dependent on mobilized resources (Botan, 2006). Consequently, the solicitation and mobilization
of different forms of resources is likely an indication of a strategic shift in issues management
goals (Heath & Palenchar, 2009). Not only is the acquisition of resources central to the
survival of activist groups and necessary for engaging in effective issues management, but the
strategies in which activist groups engage are likely to be directly related to mobilization
behaviors initiated by activist issue managers.
Like all organizations, activists may use a variety of strategies in their efforts to manage
issues. Strategies are the kinds of deeds undertaken by an organization to achieve its objectives
(R. D. Smith, 2002). Tactics are constitutive of strategies in that they are specific behaviors
intended to implement strategies—strategies condition tactics (Botan, 2006). From this perspective,
mobilizing and applying resources are a tactical campaign decision. As Botan has defined
it, ‘‘Strategy . . . is a property of campaigns and is about planning and the maneuvering and allocation
of resources’’ (p. 225). In this way, strategies can be seen as the enactment of stakes.
Alinksy (1971) explained that a group that has a mass following can ‘‘parade [its size] visibly
before the enemy,’’ whereas a smaller group can still ‘‘raise a din and clamor,’’ but through
different means (p. 126). The resources that give activist organizations power, and thereby
influence, are enacted via different strategies. Resource mobilization, or the specific tactics
undertaken to construct stakes, is thus predicated on the issues for which an activist group
advocates and how it wishes to strategically accomplish issue objectives.
Some strategies practiced by activist issue-managers are no different than those performed
by their for-profit counterparts. Other strategies are distinctly more activist. Jackson (1982)
provided a commonly used taxonomy of strategies activists employ in pursuit of their
objectives: (a) informational activities, including media interviews and other media relations
behaviors such as holding news conferences; (b) symbolic activities like boycotts or protests;
(c) organizing activities such as networking, holding meetings, and community outreach activities;
(d) litigious activities like petitioning, filing lawsuits, influencing legislation, and testifying
at hearings; and (e) civil disobedience activities like sit-ins, blocking traffic, and trespassing. As
exemplified in this typology, the range of activist strategies runs the gamut from the reserved to
the extreme, and highlights how different activists may be from one another.
As Derville (2005) wrote, ‘‘recognizing differences among activist organizations is important
to theorizing about them’’ (p. 528). Leitch and Neilson (2001) characterized activist groups by
their structural and communicative characteristics. They distinguished activist organizations
based on their institutionalization and integration into the systems of state and economy. Leitch
and Neilson explained that at one extreme, activist groups are lifeworld organizations that ‘‘grow
out of the debates that take place within the public sphere’’ and ‘‘develop as an artifact of the
communicative interaction of a public’’ (p. 132). At the other extreme are systems organizations,
which ‘‘embody the strategic rationality of the systems of state and economy’’ (p. 132).
Although Jackson’s (1982) taxonomy is not a perfect continuum that runs from lifeworld strategies,
such as civil disobedience at one pole and systems strategies like litigiousness at the
other, the taxonomy nonetheless helps to inductively infer how strategies may be used by groups
with different structural characteristics.
Similarly, Carroll and Hackett (2006) pointed out that ‘‘different kinds of collective action
are enabled by different organizational forms’’ (p. 89). For example, grassroots activism, a
form of spontaneous activism with a bottom-up system of organization without high levels
of professionalization, has been described as ‘‘essentially an amateur pursuit—sometimes fiercely
independent or even anarchic in nature’’ (Jacques, 2006, p. 413). Grassroots groups are
thus likely to practice symbolic strategies or civil disobedience. Although some grassroots
groups are built on personal relationships, others are distinctly more impersonal. Particularly
as symbolic activist behavior has been fueled by Internet technology, members of
activist groups that practice symbolic behavior may never have personal contact with
one another, save for coincidental interaction at a rally or protest (Flanagin, Stohl, &
Bimber, 2006). In some activist groups, this leads to members with weak ties, that are perhaps
better characterized as supporters or affiliates of an activist group, rather than members
that pay dues or have regular face-to-face interactions (Chadwick, 2007; Flanagin et al.,
In contrast, Jacques (2006) noted that many large-scale activist groups and nongovernmental
organizations resemble national or multinational businesses as they integrate into economic and
government systems, taking on forms of highly professionalized nonprofit organizations.
Holtzhausen (2007) has gone so far as to suggest that ‘‘activists lose their typical activist attributes
as they become institutionalized’’ (p. 369). Even activists’ relationships with media will
change as they become more systematized. Grassroots organizations are more dependent on
gaining media attention, whereas resource-rich groups are often in no need of such attention
(Carroll & Hackett, 2006). Activist behavior becomes more like traditional organizations as their
organizational structure develops and integrates into existing economic, social, and governmental
systems. However, despite their capacity to take on enormous size, scale of activities, and
resources, systematized organizations are still capable of maintaining interpersonal interactions
among members. As evidenced via the local activities organized by branches of systematized
organizations like the Sierra Club and, such organizations may have more
dedicated members with interpersonal or strong ties (Chadwick, 2007; Flanagin et al., 2006).
On the basis of the foregoing discussion, it is clear that the act of seeking resources is linked
to strategic behavior. In other words, the resources gained through mobilization are likely
characteristic of activist group strategy. The kinds of resources mobilized will vary based on
the issues or goals of the organization, its structure, and the strategic ways in which they intend
to address those issues. However, ‘‘without effective issue communication,’’ wrote Heath and
Palenchar (2009), ‘‘power resources cannot be obtained or maintained’’ (p. 189). Although
activist groups can seek to mobilize resources in many ways, the Internet ‘‘may be one of the
best channels for activist organizations to communicate their messages and build public support
for issues’’ (Taylor et al., 2001, p. 264) and, consequently, to mobilize resources.
Online Resource Mobilization
As Heath and Palenchar (2009) observed, ‘‘Internet and Web capabilities have been a boon to
activists’’ (p. 181). Indeed, activists had great success in building relationships with publics
online long before for-profit organizations realized the relationship building potential of Internet
technology (Coombs & Holladay, 2007). Early public relations research on the Web recognized
the potential of the technology to help ‘‘level the playing field’’ between activists and more
resource-rich organizations (e.g., Coombs, 1998; Heath, 1998). Even the most resource-poor
activists often have the ability to maintain a Web site, making it an effective low-cost tool
for activist groups (Coombs, 1998; Taylor et al., 2001). Web sites are not only opportunities
for activists to have their point of view evaluated by reporters, potential supporters, or even
antagonistic organizations. Web sites are also an opportunity to solicit resources from publics
to ensure organizational survival and manage issue programs (Heath, 1998; Kent et al., 2003;
Sommerfeldt et al., 2012; Taylor & Sen Das, 2010). Activist organizations with an online presence
are thus likely to be more flexible and durable, as there are ongoing opportunities to
exchange information and gain resources (Hollenbeck & Zinkhan, 2006).
Features can be integrated into Web sites to help build relationships (Kent & Taylor, 1998)
and to help organizations weather crises (Perry et al., 2003). However, limited research has
examined features that make Web sites tools for resource mobilization (Hara & Estrada,
2005; Taylor & Sen Das, 2010). Taylor and Sen Das examined the online resource mobilization
practices of stem cell advocacy groups and provided a list of features that was subsequently
refined by Sommerfeldt (2011), who described Web site mobilization features in terms of the
tangible, intangible, or coalition-building resources such features were intended to provide.
Tangible resources. Activist groups must have tangible resources such as money, space,
and a means to publicize the existence of the group and its ideas (Freeman, 1979). Freeman
described tangible or material resources as needed by all activist groups in furthering their
causes. Adapted from Taylor and Sen Das (2010), Sommerfeldt (2011) identified five tangible
resource mobilization tactics of activist groups, including: features that asked for donations, an
online store or shopping opportunity, sponsorship opportunities, features to help participate in
fundraising, and encouraging the donation of supplies.
Intangible resources. Intangible resources consist primarily of people, their support for an
organization, and the activities they perform to further the goals of the organization (Freeman,
1979). Intangible resources are human assets and what they produce, which form the central
basis for activist group activity (Jenkins, 1983). Again derived from Taylor and Sen Das
(2010), Sommerfeldt (2011) identified 12 intangible features aimed at mobilizing people,
providing them with information, or raising awareness of the organization, including: a
become-a-member or join feature, opportunities to volunteer, a sign-a-petition feature, contact
a representative of government, tell-a-friend referral features, RSS or other news feeds, benefits
to members, and message boards or chat rooms. Activists may also self-produce resources, as
part of their ‘‘tactical repertoire’’ (Edwards & McCarthy, 2004, p. 132). Activists may mobilize
their technical and professional expertise through intangible resources in the form of information
subsidies such as action alerts, online newsletters, blogs, and news releases.
Coalition building resources. Activists draw on the power and resources of stakeholders
in other groups and are strengthened by participating in coalitions that add to their legitimacy
(Coombs, 1998; Heath & Palenchar, 2009). Activists are likely to seek alliances with others
who take compatible stands on similar issues. Taylor and Sen Das (2010) proposed that references
and=or links to other activist organizations could help to build an advocacy network, generating
support for a variety of interrelated issues. Other online coalition building resources
identified by Sommerfeldt (2011) included features such as guides or resources for other
activists, and links to social media sites like Facebook or Twitter.

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