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August 14, 2012

Press Releases and Corporate Responsibility in Business Communication

11:59 AM

There is a growing public demand for information regarding corporate responsibility actions. Various stakeholders are monitoring companies’ operations and actions related to their immediate neighbors and to the global society. Yet companies have business to run and owners and investors to satisfy. Diverse expectations create tensions between ethical and economic interests. On one hand, it can be argued that economic criteria form the basis for business decision making, and to be a good corporate citizen, a company must be profitable and bring society economic prosperity. On the other, it can be argued that business must be moderated by ethical considerations and take into account the various demands, expectations, needs, and requests of its constituencies and society at large (O’Neil & Pienta, 1994).
These two views are grounded in historically contradictory, not to say conflicting, values, and this duality contributes to the ideological tensions that are intrinsic to corporate responsibility and to the business-society relationship. Especially in conflict situations, where the views of stakeholders differ from each other and from the view of the company, it is essential to provide information about corporate responsibility activities to receive public acceptance to business. Companies may use various methods and communication channels to communicate their practices to different audiences; increasingly, they engage in direct dialogue with stakeholders (de Bakker & den Hond, 2008). In marketing literature, press releases are treated as a part of corporate public relations activity and also as a forum for managing stakeholder relationships (Whysall, 2004). However, in a conflict situation, media play a vital role in unfolding and opening up the corporate actions and mediating the information from business to the public.
Thus, press releases are an important and sometimes even the only way to disclose essential information to intended audiences. Despite a growing interest in corporate responsibility research, neither defining the concept nor finding a comprehensive framework for empirical analysis is easy (see Matten & Moon, 2008). One way to conceptualize corporate responsibility is through the notion of the triple bottom line, where responsibility consists of three dimensions: financial, social, and environmental (Carroll, 2004; Panapanaan, Linnanen, Karvonen, & Phan, 2003; Steurer, Langer, Konrad, & Martinuzzi, 2005). To take a more holistic view of corporate responsibility and to better understand how different views of economics and ethics construct our understanding of it, we turn to the “common worlds” recognized by conventionalist analysis (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006; Daigle & Rouleau, 2010).
This method enables acknowledgment of the inherent dualism of economic and ethical interests related to corporate responsibility and also provides an analytic tool for demonstrating how this tension is portrayed in company press releases. Our interest is based on a notion proposed by Kujala,
Toikka, and Heikkinen (2009), who maintain that even though companies are willing to communicate corporate responsibility issues, the content of official press releases does not necessarily, cater to the interests of external media. For example, a company may include information about financial, social, and environmental issues in their press releases, but external media are more interested in the influence of the company’s actions for different stakeholders. By using conventionalist analysis to examine the common worlds presented in corporate communication, we want to reveal and discuss tensions related to corporate responsibility and further discuss how the information disclosed by a firm could be developed to more adequately address different demands and expectations of both external media and various stakeholders.
The purpose of this article is to examine how tensions of corporate responsibility are articulated and reconciled within company communications while in a conflict situation that emerged in relation to a foreign investment project. To achieve this goal, we present a textual analysis of a company’s press releases in a situation where Europe’s second-largest pulp producer, Metsä-Botnia (hereafter Botnia), was caught in the cross fire of a heated debate between two countries, Uruguay and Argentina. The situation erupted when Botnia decided to build a major pulp mill in the city of Fray Bentos by the Uruguay River in western Uruguay. The dispute began as a disagreement between Uruguay and Argentina. Soon, however, it was politicized into an open conflict between the two nations. Argentina decided to take the case to the Hague International Court of Justice (ICJ). The conflict also erupted into a public issue that attracted various sets of stakeholders, including civic and environmental organizations, local people, workers, financiers, and the governments of Uruguay, Argentina, and Finland.
This conflict attracted considerable research interest, and previous investigations have considered issues such as stakeholder salience and strategies (Aaltonen, Kujala, & Oijala, 2008); legitimacy in corporate social responsibility (Joutsenvirta & Vaara, 2009); the role of media in cultural conflict resolution (Pakkasvirta, 2008); relationships between multinational firms, host governments, and nongovernmental organizations (Skippari & Pajunen, 2010); and corporate communication (Kujala et al., 2009).
Throughout the investment project, Botnia engaged in informing various stakeholders and the media, and the case also attracted considerable attention in the media in Uruguay, Argentina, and Finland. One of the main information channels to the public was the company’s press releases frequently addressing the progress of the investment project and the construction works, so there is ample information available regarding the focus of our research. Press releases in a conflict situation provide an interesting opportunity to study the tensions of corporate responsibility.
Our analysis contributes to the knowledge of communicating corporate responsibility in four ways. First, at the theoretical level, it provides a better understanding of how the tensions in corporate responsibility between the benefits to the company and the wider society are articulated and reconciled within the company’s disclosures. Second, at the methodological level, our analysis follows a systematic and rigorous approach to textual analysis based on the conventionalist systems of common values proposed by Boltanski and Thévenot (2006). This study focuses on justifications in a controversial situation and enhances our understanding of the making of agreements between ethical and economical values. Third, at the managerial level, this study offers practical insights into ways by which corporate communicators can improve the content of their press releases in terms of corporate citizenship by incorporating views from different common worlds to more effectively address the demands and expectations of the public. Fourth, we suggest that in the teaching of business communication in academic, corporate, governmental, or other organizational settings, press releases can be better formulated by taking into account the different and sometimes even contradictory viewpoints and world views of various audiences to form a multi voiced dialogue to the documents instead of merely promoting the writer’s or sender’s own point of view.


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