Letters to fuckwits: They’re all the rage! Just this week, we saw hundreds of Facebook employees co-sign a letter to Mark Zuckerberg condemning the site’s ad policies. But why should they have all the fun? With an open letter, you, too, can tell your company’s chief dipshit officer exactly how you feel.
You wouldn’t be alone. Workers at some of the world’s biggest tech firms, including Amazon and Google, have published similar letters to company leaders in recent years. And employees at Salesforce, Microsoft, and Microsoft-owned Github have signed internal open letters which later became public.
To help understand these campaigns—and how nascent agitators can ask their own bosses to drink piss—we talked to two scholars about what makes publicity-based activism work.
While humiliating your idiot boss can feel like its own reward, it’s important to know what kind of humiliation your company fears most. Chelsea Woods, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech specializing in public relations, explained that corporations can be broadly categorized as either “public-driven” or “profit-driven.”
“Public-driven companies appear to be concerned about their social impact and reputations,” Woods told Gizmodo. “Some of these companies, like Ben & Jerry’s or Patagonia, have social responsibility baked into their DNA.” On the other side are profit-driven companies, like pharmaceutical or oil giants, which already face public animosity and prioritize financial performance.
If your employer has a good name to besmirch, then, a public smirching campaign will be more effective. Conversely, executives at some companies are so thoroughly reptilian that no amount of popular outrage will sway them—unless it hurts their bottom line.
According to Jamie McCallum, an associate professor at Middlebury College and the author of Global Unions, Local Power, there are occasions where shaming can pressure a company financially. “Typically companies respond to investor withdrawal or divestment,” McCallum told Gizmodo. “So if you can challenge them in a way that would potentially threaten important investments, that also is typically useful.”
It can be difficult to remember, but the purpose of writing an open letter isn’t just to tell your boss he’s a dumbass and should stop sucking. The “open” part is inviting the world to observe those same qualities. In service of that, activists need to tell a story that people will listen to.
“Your audience has to understand what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and why they should care,” explained Woods. She said a good way to start is by linking your problems to “a pre-existing concern or question” the public already has.
McCallum echoed this sentiment, saying, “You have to find a narrative that is going to agitate people.” He pointed to how reporting about sexual harassment in Silicon Valley touched on a larger cultural moment and spurred a wave of organizing at tech companies.
The flip side here is that some stories won’t interest people no matter how shitty your boss is. So, um, good luck with that campaign for better break room snacks.
“If the public doesn’t believe that your problem is real or important, doesn’t agree with your perspective, or doesn’t perceive your organization as a credible proponent for that issue, people will lose interest in what you have to say,” said Woods.
Sadly, merely convincing the world that your dipshit boss is a total dipshit isn’t enough. Activists who want to make a lasting impact need to maintain the pressure, which can be even more difficult.
“Shaming companies in the press is cool and it could be useful, but the way the news cycle goes, stuff comes and goes pretty quickly,” said McCallum, pointing out that a lot of big companies can just ride out the bad press until it’s forgotten. “But if that provides the opening for workers who are organizing to go ahead and say, ‘well, the story has gone to the press, we have to hold you accountable now,’ it’s more effective.”
According to Woods, creativity is a useful tool for activists hoping to keep a campaign alive and the public engaged. It’s unclear if she’d find a bunch of synonyms for “dipshit” creative.
Ultimately, an open letter to a complete fuckup of a boss is just one weapon in the agitator armory. According to Woods, activists have to be willing to pursue any and all strategies, as methods that work on one company may not work on another.
“What’s interesting about open letter writing is that the dissent is coming from employees, individuals who have not only financial but often emotional ties to the organization,” said Woods, pointing to the letter calling for a company plan on climate change signed by more than 8,000 Amazon employees. “For companies that prioritize employees, these strategies are likely to be more effective.”
McCallum stressed that media campaigns are most powerful when paired with on-the-ground organizing, such as forming a union.
“It’s important sometimes to create a critical moment where a company has to answer to investors, to workers, and the public,” said McCallum. “But if you can’t take advantage of that crisis, internally, if you can’t organize around that crisis, then it’s much less useful.”
Sure, writing an open letter is a gratifying way to articulate exactly what kind of dipshit your boss is, but its true strength may lie beyond that. Just by signing a letter, a silently pissed-off coworker can become a political ally.
If enough of these people come together, it becomes a movement which can generate its own attention. Woods observed that many activists invite the press to organized events offering a memorable image. Theoretically, this could be as simple as public banner reading, “FUCK YOU, YOU FUCKING DIPSHIT.”
“Even though these actions may not produce immediate change, they still raise the profile of the issue and generally annoy the target,” she said.