Corporate Communication

Corporate Communication

Jan van der Stoep (Christian University of Applied Sciences Ede, The Netherlands) and Peter Jansen (Christian University of Applied Sciences Ede, The Netherlands)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8006-5.ch011


In September 2015, it appeared that the Volkswagen Group had circumvented the rules for testing diesel car exhaust gases. Although the organization presents itself as eco-friendly, it used a “default device” for diesel cars to produce less CO2 during test situations. Due to this kind of scandal, corporate communication is often associated with greenwashing and the manipulation of minds. Using the normative practice approach, the authors introduce some basic distinctions that may help to come to a better understanding of what the specific duty and responsibility of communication professionals is. They argue that corporate communication stands or falls with public trust. Building confidence and public legitimation is the main task of communication professionals. Although communication is about the construction of a communal world, that does not mean that framing and strategic reasoning are not important. In order to bring in a legitimate point of view, one has to present this point of view in an impactful way. Communication professionals have to balance between the interests of the organization and the requirements of public legitimation. They also have to make convincingly clear how their personal biography and the narrative of the organization are interrelated.
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In its corporate sustainability report of 2014, the Volkswagen Group claimed that aims to be ‘the world’s most environmentally compatible automaker.’ This was not just an isolated statement, but part of a broader communication strategy in which the Volkswagen Group presented itself as an eco-friendly company (Siano, Vollero, Conte and Amabile, 2017). On September 8, 2015, however, it appeared that Volkswagen had circumvented the rules. To ensure that Diesel cars produce less CO2 emission during tests, the company made use of a ‘default device’, specialized software that detects test situations. On the road the Diesel cars were far more polluting. This obviously caused serious damage to Volkswagen’s reputation. It was difficult to maintain that the Volkswagen company really cared about the environment. The image of the organization as a reliable partner became a topic of discussion. In the USA newspapers journalists spoke about ‘fraud’, ‘scandal’ and ‘cheating’ (Siano et al., 2017, p. 31). From that moment on, a lot of effort has been put in restoring the reputation of the Volkswagen Group (Painter and Martins, 2017).

The Volkswagen case is not unique. Similar stories can be told for example about BP, ExxonMobil or Enron. It is not uncommon that organizations present themselves better than that they actually are, causing a discrepancy between ‘talk’ and ‘action’. Due to scandals like this communication often has a bad name. People associate public relations and corporate communication with propaganda, the deliberate manipulation of the minds of people by means of mass psychology. At the same time organizations expect that communication professionals will position the organization as powerful as possible. The identification of communication with propaganda puts the profession under pressure. It faces a double crisis of trust (Hoffjann and Seidenglanz, 2018). On the one hand the public doubts the trustworthiness of corporate communication. On the other hand communication professionals who ask critical questions are easily framed by organizations as trouble makers.

Stories about greenwashing and misleading reporting raise the question what exactly the role of communication professionals should be. Are they just there to serve the interests of the company or do they have their own professional autonomy and responsibility? What is good communication in the case of the Volkswagen group and in the other cases mentioned? Is communication just a technical skill, or is it a practice that serves a higher public goal? In this chapter we will argue that corporate communication can best be understood as a normative practice, a practice with its own codes of conduct and its own teleological structure. The relevance and credibility of the profession stands or falls with public trust. Therefore, communication professionals have to be sensitive to the concerns of the public and have to tell a story that is credible. If they damage the confidence of the public, they also damage the company for which they are working.

In order to clarify the specific role and duty of communication professionals we use the Normative Practice Approach as it is developed by Jochemsen (2006), Verkerk, Hoogland, Van der Stoep & De Vries (2016) and others. First of all, we ask what the foundational function of communication is. What is a communication professional doing, what exactly is his specific skill? Secondly, the question is raised what the qualifying function of communication is. What is the purpose of communication? What is the ultimate goal? Why is it so important to influence the minds of people? Thirdly we will show that corporate communication has a layered structure. Communication professionals give voice to organizations in the public sphere and at the same time their activities are embedded within these organizations. Although they have their own code of conduct, they also have to serve the interests of the organization. Finally, we ask whether or not communication professionals should take a neutral stance towards the company that they are serving. We will argue that the usual distinction between form and content does not hold. Instead of this we introduce another distinction, the distinction between the constitutive and the regulative side of communication practices.

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