CORPORATE COMMUNICATIONS: TOWARDS AN EXTENDED AND PRACTICE-BASED THEORETICAL CONCEPTUALIZATION Joep P. Cornelissen1, Betteke Van Ruler2 and Tibor Van Bekkum3 CORPORATE COMMUNICATIONS: TOWARDS AN EXTENDED AND PRACTICE-BASED THEORETICAL CONCEPTUALIZATION Abstract References to the role of corporate communications (CC) in firm-stakeholder interactions have burgeoned in recent years. Indeed, it is increasingly recognized that CC has emerged as an important managerial function for organizations to gather, relay and interpret information from stakeholders and the environment as well as to represent the organization to the outside world.
This recognition has been reflected in many commentaries within the strategic management and public relations literatures directly or indirectly discussing the role and use of CC around concepts as ‘corporate identity’, ‘stakeholder relationships’ and ‘reputation management’. To date, these commentaries on CC have been fragmented and limited in focus. They have been particularly focused on either communication tactics or the stakeholder effects and outcomes (e. g. images, reputations, relationships) established, whilst paying very little attention to the managerial activities and professional issues (inside the organization) that define CC as a managerial function. To order and advance this work, the authors review prior theoretical and empirical work on communications management and draw upon a set of case studies of European firms (Nokia, Shell, Siemens and Philips) to circumscribe and conceptualize the issues and activities that define CC as a managerial function. The implications of this extended, practice-based conceptualization of CC for management theory, practice, and research are discussed. CORPORATE COMMUNICATIONS: TOWARDS AN EXTENDED THEORETICAL CONCEPTUALIZATION There is a widespread belief in both the academic and professional worlds that in today’s society the future of any one company depends critically on how it is viewed by key stakeholders such as shareholders and investors, customers and consumers, employees, and members of the community in which the company resides (e. g. , Freeman, 1984, Mitchell et al. , 1997). Public activism, globalization and recent accounting scandals have further strengthened this belief; and have also brought the importance of strategic communications management into closer orbit.
Not surprisingly, therefore, both the academic and professional worlds have been bombarded with conceptual philosophies that prescribe steps towards the ‘strategic’ use of communications including ‘integrated marketing communications’ (e. g. , Kitchen and Schultz, 1999), ‘corporate identity management’ (e. g. , Van Riel and Balmer, 1997), ‘reputation management’ (e. g. , Fombrun, 1996), ‘stakeholder communications’ (e. g. , Christensen and Cheney, 1994) and ‘excellent public relations’ (e. g. , Grunig and Grunig, 1998).
Much of this work has been prescriptive in suggesting frameworks for managing communications and for managing firm-stakeholder interactions, as opposed to a more grounded and comprehensive practice-based account of all the activities carried out by communications professionals and the organizational contexts in which these take place. This is unfortunate, we suggest, as it provides for a limited conceptualization of corporate communications (CC) and fails to account for the activities and issues that as for instance a current industry survey (DTI/IPR, 2003) suggests evidently define CC in practice.
This includes activities such as 3 strategic planning, administration of work processes, canvassing for management support, environmental scanning, counseling of senior management; and professional issues around performance and accountability, credibility, transparency and the contribution of communications to the overall management of the firm. The aims of this article, then, are to examine the current usage and conceptualizations of CC in the literature and to argue the case for a more robust and extended conceptualization. To do this, we will point to limitations of prior work on CC and draw upon a set of case tudies of CC in four European firms (Nokia, Shell, Siemens and Philips) to elicit and conceptualize in more detail the activities and issues that define CC as a managerial function in practice. This extended conceptualization is based upon a view of CC as ‘practice’, which focuses upon how practitioners engage in the doing of ‘real work’ (Cook and Brown, 1999: 387) – a view that, we hope, will stimulate conceptual debate and empirical research and offer a more informed basis for practitioners to make sense of their professional realities and act upon it.
THE EMERGENCE OF CORPORATE COMMUNICATIONS AS A MANAGERIAL FUNCTION According to writers as Ewen (1996) and Cutlip (1995) the professional discipline of public relations (PR) – communication activities undertaken by an organization to inform, persuade or otherwise relate to individuals and groups in its outside environment – developed itself, expanding in its scope and activities, because of public skepticism, political reform, turmoil and activism throughout the twentieth century. In PR’s early days as a discipline, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, power was largely concentrated with big businesses, although the balance has since shifted towards powerful groups in society including governments, trade unions, investors and stockholders (Broom et al. , 1991). In response to the increased saliency and power of such groups, new areas of expertise such as investor relations, public affairs, issues management and employee communications were added to the existing specialties of media relations and publicity, and PR gradually developed into a fully-fledged ‘managerial discipline’ in the early 1970s (e. . , Olasky, 1987). The ‘managerial discipline’ of PR has since, as writers as Van Riel (1995) and Cornelissen (2004) have documented, evolved into the ‘managerial function’ of CC. The fundamental contrast being that under CC communications activities and specialties (e. g. media relations, government relations, employee communications, community relations, advertising, investor relations, corporate design and issues management) have been increasingly taken ogether and consolidated into one or a few units or departments and, importantly, these activities are increasingly given shape and coordinated from the strategic corporate interests of the organization as a whole. Van Riel (1995, p. 26) for example suggests in this regard that CC as a managerial function is “an instrument of management by means of which all consciously used forms of internal and external communication are harmonized as effectively and efficiently as possible”, with the overall objective of creating “a favorable basis for relationships with groups upon which the company is dependent”.
Similarly, Gronstedt (1996a, p. 302) suggests that CC provides an integrated managerial function that “inserts the various communication disciplines into a holistic perspective, drawing from the concepts, methodologies, crafts, experiences, and artistries of marketing communication and public relations”. The evolution of PR into CC and its 5 recognition as a managerial function is furthermore documented in the relatively high position of communications managers and departments (e. g. ‘Corporate communications’, ‘Public Affairs’ or ‘Corporate affairs’) within organizations’ hierarchical structures (with in some organizations senior communication practitioners even being members of their organization’s senior management team) (Cornelissen, 2004), the rise of a new ‘style’ more business savvy ‘corporate communications’ manager (e. g. , Freeman, 1984, Harris and Bryant, 1986, Marion, 1998) who works “from the position that the total communication effort must serve the corporate strategy” (Van Riel, 1995, p. 41), and the widespread adoption of the CC vocabulary of ‘stakeholders’, ‘identity’ and ‘reputation’ (Argenti, 1996, Van Riel, 1997). For example, a recent survey of Fortune 500 companies found that rather than using PR terminology around publics (i. e. people who mobilize themselves against an organization on the basis of some common issue or concern to them), managing ‘reputations’ with stakeholders is nowadays considered the lead philosophy among communication departments (Hutton et al. , 2001). CONVENTIONAL VIEWS OF CORPORATE COMMUNICATIONS
In the following section we will critically examine the conventional perspectives on CC in the strategic management and public relations literatures. Here, we aim to draw out the existing foci and conceptualizations of CC in the literatures involved on the subject. Preferring to err on the side of inclusiveness, we included both the strategic management and public relations literatures that have some bearing upon the subject of communications management; in terms of the strategies, tactics, organizational practices and the roles of practitioners involved. 6 Public relations.
Theorizing within PR has primarily focused on the nature and direction of communication systems, ethics, and the roles performed by practitioners. In one sense, the PR literature can be ordered and categorized into two major theoretical strands: a theoretical strand rooted in communications theory, and a theoretical strand rooted in management theory. In the first strand, the focus lies on the rhetorical strategies and symbolism within messages issued by an organization; and the effects that these rhetorics and symbolism have on individuals and society as a whole (e. g. , Toth, 1992).
The management strand of theory and research on PR is in contrast with this rhetorical perspective not so much concerned with the act or process of communicating by organizations and its influence upon targeted groups and society at large, but with tactics that practitioners engage in to deal with issues, resolve conflicts and build relationships with publics in the environment. From this management perspective, the focus is not on the symbolic act of communicating per se, but on the building and maintaining of relationships with publics, and the professional issues and activities involved (Grunig, 1992, Grunig and Hunt, 1984).
Here, PR scholarship has focused on PR tactics and techniques including ‘environmental scanning’ and ‘issues management’ (e. g. , Lauzen, 1995) for managing relationships with publics as well as on the professional roles carried out by the PR practitioners involved. Regarding the latter, much PR work has been focused on qualifying the nature of work performed by PR practitioners using a role typology of ‘technicians’ (i. e. producers of communication materials) and ‘managers’ (i. e. practitioners who engage in strategic communications planning and research) (e. . , Broom and Dozier, 1995, Moss et al. , 2000). Importantly, despite its riches, this work on 7 the task and responsibilities of PR practitioners does not cover issues such as the links between corporate, market (business-unit) and communications strategies, or the decision-making processes involved (see Moss et al. , 2000). In other words, role research has only conceptualized the nature of the work carried out by PR practitioners, with very little further consideration of the organizational context in which this takes place. Strategic Management.
Traditionally, there had been little explicit acknowledgement in strategic management (SM) theories of the importance and role of communications in firm-environment interactions. One reason for this was a consideration of communications as a largely tactical or ‘functionary’ activity supporting other business functions within the firm, rather than as a strategic boundary-spanning function operating at the interface between the organization and its environment – to help gather, relay and interpret information from the environment as well as representing the organization to the outside world (e. . White and Dozier, 1992, Vercic and Grunig, 2000). A second reason for the little attention traditionally being devoted to the role of communications in firm-environment interactions is that the environment has often been conceptualized in SM theories in “general, even rather vague” terms (Rumelt et al. , 1994: 22), without explicit consideration of specific groups (publics or stakeholders) within it. More recently, however various theoretical strands in the SM literature have started to address this ‘environmental void’ (cf. Rumelt et al. 1994, Vercic and Grunig, 2000) by articulating the importance of communications in firm-stakeholder interactions, albeit it in different ways. In the resource-based view of strategic management, for instance, corporate reputation is considered an intangible resource or asset of a firm that, when 8 adequately exploited (through among other things the planned use of communications), leads to sustained competitive advantage and superior financial performance as stakeholders value associations and transactions with high-reputation firms (e. g.
Barney, 1991, Deephouse, 2000, Rindova and Fombrun, 1999, Roberts and Dowling, 2002). Similarly, theoretical frameworks that consider strategy as a process of positioning – i. e. as positioning the firm vis-a-vis its competitors in the marketplace – have shown an increased concern with concepts as ‘corporate identity’ and ‘corporate branding’ to articulate the strategic process of linking corporate strategy to communication processes that express and differentiate the firm in relation to groups in its environment, and ultimately impact upon and lead to corporate images and reputations (e. . Balmer and Greyser, 2003, Fombrun, 1996, Hatch and Schultz, 2000, Van Riel and Balmer, 1997). Fombrun and Rindova (2000) emphasize in relation to this positioning process that it is strategically important for firms to achieve alignment or ‘transparency’ between the corporate identity (i. e. the image projected by the firm) and corporate reputation (i. e. the images held of the firm by individuals and groups outside of it) which they consider as an ideal situation (in comparison with a discrepancy between corporate identity and reputation) (see also Balmer and Greyser, 2003).
Within the SM literature, stakeholder theory has perhaps more than any other theoretical framework addressed the ‘environmental void’ mentioned above by specifying the different stakeholder groups that a firm may depend upon, the nature of the stakes that they hold (e. g. Freeman, 1984, Clarkson, 1995, Mitchell et al. , 1997) as well as the appropriate strategies for firms to establish and maintain relationships with these groups (e. g. Argenti and Forman, 2000, Heugens et al. , 2002, Meznar and Nigh, 1995). 9
Much scholarship and research on stakeholder management assumes the importance of communications between firms and stakeholders in their environments within the different response modes that it suggests for firms. That is, firms can broadly speaking either ‘buffer’ or ‘bridge’ the claim of a certain stakeholder group (e. g. Meznar and Nigh, 1995, Heugens et al. , 2002). Buffering involves trying to keep claims from stakeholders in the environment from interfering with internal operations and trying to influence the external environment.
Bridging on the other hand occurs as firms seek to adapt organizational activities so that they conform with external expectations and claims of important stakeholder groups. Synthesis and commentary. In reviewing these literatures that have dealt with the function and process of communications between firms and groups in their respective environment, we observed three key limitations in establishing a rounded understanding of CC and its current embodiment as a managerial function in firms around the globe.
First, because of the fragmented treatment of the subject, which has been discussed across a number of specific literatures, there does not appear to exist a single thorough theoretical conceptualization of CC. Second, the current conceptualization and understanding of CC scattered out over these two different literatures is incomplete and biased. Theories and theoretical frameworks in both literatures implicate the importance of communications in firm-stakeholder interactions – and in that sense are coming together (cf. Schultz et al. 2000: 3) – but only narrowly focus on the process of communicating between a firm and stakeholders in its environment. These theories have been particularly focused on communications tactics and execution and the stakeholder 10 effects and outcomes (e. g. , images, reputations, relationships) established, whilst paying very little attention to the managerial activities, professional issues and organizational contexts that characterize CC as a managerial function (cf. Vercic and Grunig, 2000). Some work to this effect has emerged in recent years (e. g. Cornelissen, 2004, Scholes and Clutterbuck, 1998, Van Riel, 1995, 1997), but is still a long way off from fully conceptualizing and describing CC as a management function and practice – at least in comparison with other management functions and practices as for instance strategy (e. g. , Whittington, 2003) and accounting (e. g. , Hopwood and Miller, 1994). Third, there has been little actual empirical research into CC as a management function, despite the recognized importance of the function and a proliferating stream of literatures that directly or indirectly refer to it.
Thus, there is a gap between theoretical deliberations on the relevance and importance of CC, and descriptive accounts of its actual use and embodiment in practice. We argue that a practice-based conceptualization of CC accounts for these limitations and provides not only a framework for extended theorizing and empirical research but also a means for practitioners to attain a fuller and richer understanding of this critical management function.
TOWARDS AN EXTENDED THEORETICAL CONCEPTUALIZATION The limitations of previous work point to the need for more attention to CC as a managerial function that is being practiced within and by firms. Here, we follow the basic tenets of arguments made in related managerial fields as strategy (e. g. , Whittington, 2003) and accounting (e. g. , Hopwood and Miller, 1994) to focus on managerial functions within firms as areas of practice; as activities and work being carried out by practitioners 1 in an organizational context with the latter referring to the political, cultural and structural aspects related to the practice of CC within the firm. The motives for following this line of argumentation are to obtain a richer and more comprehensive picture of CC as it is currently practiced, and thereby offset the limitations of prior work that has considered CC in the abstract and in narrow, limited terms.
Similarly, within the strategy field, current theoretical and empirical work has shown a preoccupation with strategy not as a structural function that is manifested at the structural level of the firm or indeed the macro level of entire industries but as an activity that is actually shaped and constituted by specific activities and professional issues of strategy makers operating individually or in communities of practice (see Johnson et al. 2003). Although there are various ways to consider CC as a practice, scholars who have followed the ‘practice turn’ in related managerial fields have been guided by a shared list of questions in their research. These include questions of where and by whom work is actually done and the tools and techniques that are being used (i. e. practitioners and activities), the roles and skills required of practitioners and how these are acquired (i. e. ractitioners and their professional development), the ways in which practitioners and the work involved are organized (i. e. the organization of communication work), political and cultural issues that contextualize and mediate these practices and activities (i. e. political and cultural issues), and the way in which the process and products of practices and activities are communicated and consumed (i. e. the contribution and use of practices and activities) (cf. Whittington, 2003).
Taken together, these questions equally provide a template for our present purposes to consider CC as a practice, and to map and conceptualize the function in a more comprehensive manner than previous work has 12 done. Although our primary purpose is an improved conceptualization of CC, we will inform our theoretical analysis with data and insights from case studies that we conducted with four European firms with strong reputations with their stakeholders and the marketplace: Nokia, Shell, Philips and Siemens1.
For each firm, we conducted interviews with up to four senior managers of each organization; e. g. president of corporate communication, head of (corporate) branding or marketing communications, and communication managers within divisions. Practitioners: Roles and Activities A detailed practice view of CC starts with circumscribing the practitioners involved in this area of management; in terms of their roles and backgrounds, and the range and nature of the activities that they are primarily responsible for.
Larger firms typically house communication practitioners with different functional responsibilities, including, for example, advertising, publicity, community relations, corporate advertising, crisis communications, internal communications, government relations, financial communications and investor relations, media relations, issues management, lobbying, promotions, sponsorship and public affairs. These practitioners are commonly arranged into larger functional areas, such as ‘corporate affairs’ (including media relations and internal communications) and ‘corporate brand communications’ (Nokia), or as in the 1
These four corporations were selected chiefly for two reasons. Firstly, each of these four corporations is a multi-divisional firm operating under the same corporate umbrella. As such, they are typical of other large firms with a CC presence – as opposed to small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), where communications responsibilities and activities may not have evolved into one or more fully-fledged functional areas, let alone into a managerial function (cf. Kotler and Mindak, 1978).
Secondly, each of the four corporations has an excellent reputation in the eyes of their stakeholders and the general public according to ToMAC (Top of Mind Awareness of Corporate Brands) scores and reputation rankings published in recent years. The inclusion of these corporations therefore allowed us to examine the range and kind of activities carried out within CC within reputed firms. 13 case of Shell ‘external affairs’ (involving strategic corporate communication activities), ‘corporate communications’ (involving support communications activities) and ‘corporate marketing’.
Such functional arrangements appear to depend on the size of the firm and the corporate identity structure adopted. The size of the firm suggests that when firms grow larger and adopt a multi-divisional structure (with each division catering for a certain product-market combination), the proportion of communications personnel it contains equally increases, and communication practitioners will be taken together into separate functional areas, and subsequently organized as such into separate departments or units.
This is evident in the consistent research findings that in large manufacturing and service firms communication practitioners (and their functional responsibilities) are arranged into separate ‘corporate affairs’ and ‘marketing’ or ‘corporate branding’ departments (Cornelissen and Thorpe, 2001, Grunig and Grunig, 1998, Post and Griffin, 1997). The arrangement of communication practitioners into general functional areas (as domains within CC requiring specialist foci and skills sets) also reflects the corporate identity structure of a company: a small set of functional areas at the corporate centre and within the divisions (e. . , ‘corporate marketing’, ‘corporate affairs’, ‘divisional internal communications’) is typical of a monolithic identity structure (where the company and its business units carry the same name) such as Nokia and Siemens, whereas endorsed and branded identity structures (where the business units profile their own distinct names) generally lead to an additional layer of functional areas within the firm’s divisions (e. . ‘product brand management’, ‘brand portfolio management’). For example, within Nokia, the ‘corporate branding’ and ‘corporate communications’ departments together with the ‘investor relations’ unit at global headquarters (which together involves roughly 14 100 practitioners) work with ‘local teams’ and hundreds of communication practitioners in the various divisions spread out over the globe.
Practitioners working in each of these various functional areas of communications are on a day-to-day basis engaged in a broad variety of activities ranging from, for instance, editorial work, internal counseling, handling of inquiries, gathering information, looking at data from research, talking to press contacts, drafting communications plans, delivering presentations, producing communications materials (brochures, visuals etc. ), and administrative tasks within the department.
The job of communication practitioners at various levels of seniority, then, consists of a broad range of activities that in its scope and variety not only varies with the functional responsibilities and tasks that have been assigned to a communications department (i. e. , whether the department has a ‘corporate’ or ‘marketing’ remit and whether the department is a service unit or is involved in counseling and decision making at the senior management level), but also with the range of issues and inquiries from stakeholders that are directed to communications practitioners for handling.
In companies like Shell where stakeholder groups indeed wage many claims upon the organization and raise issues that require a response, practitioners often work at an unrelenting pace to counsel management, draft resolutions and policy documents, and respond to and communicate with those outside stakeholder groups. As in many other organizational jobs, practitioners thus often work at a fast pace and under pressure on a whole range of different tasks and activities (see Mintzberg, 1994).
While these activities may be characterized by variety and brevity, and thus differ from practitioner to practitioner, there are two general dimensions alongside which they can be considered and understood. The first dimension involves whether practitioners on 15 the basis of the activities that they perform can be characterized as generalists or specialists; the second dimension involves whether the activities carried out predominantly reflect a manager or technician role for the practitioner involved.
Both dimensions characterize the range and nature of activities within the practice of CC; and the roles performed by practitioners. The generalist versus specialist dimension concerns the range of activities performed by a practitioner, and whether this range encompasses a wide variety of tasks, objectives and stakeholder groups (e. g. the director of a corporate affairs department), or rather is more tied to a select set of tasks and a limited number of objectives and stakeholder groups (e. g. a public affairs practitioner).
There has been some suggestion that ‘generalist’ practitioners are better equipped for strategic, integrated and holistic thinking (Gronstedt, 1996a,b, 2000; Lauer, 1995; Stewart, 1996). These practitioners are seen to have a more general outlook and understanding of the communications profession, know how work processes need to be integrated, and they also tend to look beyond their own departmental boundaries and appreciate other communications disciplines and the professionals working with them.
Within Philips, for example, practitioners with ‘top potential’ are enrolled into a management development program where they become trained as generalists (through a broad based management training and job-rotation system), with the purpose of developing and educating the new leaders within CC, whereas ‘bread and butter’ support communications staff (e. g. media relations officers) are trained and maintained in their roles as specialists.
Communication practitioners are characterized as technicians if their work focuses on such activities as writing communications materials, editing and/or rewriting for grammar and spelling, handling the technical aspects of communication campaigns, 16 producing brochures or pamphlets, doing photography and graphics, and maintaining media contacts and placing press releases. Dozier and Broom (1995: 22) defined a technician as “a creator and disseminator of messages, intimately involved in production, [and] operating independent of management decision making, strategic planning, issues management, environmental scanning and program evaluation”.
In other words, a technician tactically implements decisions made by others and is generally not involved in management decision-making and strategic decisions concerning communication strategy and programs. Practitioners enacting the manager role, on the other hand, predominantly make strategy or policy decisions and are held accountable for program success or failure. These practitioners are primarily concerned with externally oriented, long-term decisions, rather than solving short-term, technical problems.
Activities within the manager role include counseling management at all levels in the organization with regard to policy decisions, courses of action, and communications, taking into account their public ramifications and the organization’s social or citizenship responsibilities, making communication program decisions, evaluating program results, supervising the work of others, planning and managing budgets, planning communications programs, and meeting other executives.
Communication managers also typically use research as the bedrock of their work; employ environmental scanning to monitor the organization’s environment and help it manage relationships with key stakeholders. While the manager and technician roles are very distinct in terms of the activities performed within them, it is important to note that these two general roles are conceptual abstractions. In other words, manager and technician role activities are different, but neither mutually exclusive nor in opposition to each other.
As Dozier and Broom (1995: 5-6) point out: “all 17 practitioners enact elements of both the manager and technician roles which are themselves simply useful abstractions for studying the wide range of activities that practitioners perform in their daily work”. Senior communications managers, for instance, do not exclusively occupy themselves with managerial tasks as they are often still engaged in handling routine technical communications tasks (media relations, publicity, the production of in-house newspapers etc. . The director of corporate communications within Nokia, for example, spends the majority of her time on technical tasks around media relations, with only a limited amount of her time devoted to such managerial activities as counseling senior management, environmental scanning and strategic planning of communications campaigns. Nonetheless, the concept of predominant role types is a useful descriptor of the practice of CC.
If a practitioner enacts activities of the manager role set with greater frequency than activities of the technician role set, then this practitioner can be categorized as a manager. Such categorization is helpful not only in understanding the tasks and activities carried out by practitioners, but also for explaining practitioner involvement in corporate decision-making. In particular, predominant manager role enactment appears to be positively related to participation in management decision-making (Dozier and Broom, 1995; Grunig et al. , 2002; Toth et al. , 1998).
The enactment of management and technician roles thus also indicates whether, as a consequence of role enactment, communication practitioners and their departments participate in strategic decision-making of the dominant coalition or simply execute decisions made by others. In a management-oriented communications department one or a few senior communication managers oversee a range of management and decisionmaking oriented activities including analysis and research, the formulation of 18 communications objectives for the organization, the design of short-term and ong-term organizational philosophies, and counseling of senior management. In contrast, practitioners enacting the technician role are predominantly located in a peripheral department; technicians do not participate in management decision-making but only make program decisions necessary to the internal functioning of their department. These practitioners are concerned with day-to-day operational matters (providing services such as writing, editing, photography, media contracts, and production of publications), and they carry out the low-level communication mechanics necessary for implementing decisions made by others.
Within Nokia, for example, the ‘corporate communications’ department has a primarily tactical remit around media relations and internal communications and is as a result not involved in corporate decision-making, whereas the firm’s ‘corporate branding’ department is. Philips, in contrast, has a ‘corporate communications’ department at group headquarters in Amsterdam which together with the ‘corporate marketing’ department counsels the CEO and senior executive team on stakeholder and (corporate) branding issues.
In other words, the enactment of the manager role is crucial for communications to be involved in management decision-making concerning the overall strategic direction of the organization. When communication practitioners are involved at the decisionmaking table, information about relations with priority stakeholders gets factored into the process of organizational decision-making and into strategies and actions (Lauzen, 1995). This would mean, among other things, that senior communication practitioners are actively consulted concerning the effects of certain business actions (e. . staff lay-offs, divestiture) on a company’s reputation with stakeholders, and even have a say in the 19 decision-making about it, instead of being called in afterwards, after the decision was made, to draft a press release and deal with communications issues emerging from it. This enactment of the manager role, however, requires that practitioners are able to couch the importance and use of communications in the context of general organizational issues and bjectives. This requires on the part of the practitioner knowledge of the industry or sector in which the organization operates and of the nature of the strategy-making process (competence that is sometimes lacking), as well as a strategic view of how communications can contribute to corporate and market strategies and to different functional areas within the company (Moss et al. , 2000). The latter point will be addressed below. The Organization of Communication Work
The way in which communication practitioners and functional areas are organized is important as it not only determines to a large extent whether the communications function is enabled to provide strategic input into decision-making at the corporate level, but also whether the communication activities that are carried out at various places within the organization are streamlined and coordinated. In other words, the way in which communications is organized carries important strategic and political dimensions and is also crucial for the effective support and integration of communication activities.
Ever since the 1970s, academic and practitioner writings have emphasized that firms should consolidate rather than fragment their communications by bringing practitioners and functional areas together into central organizational departments, with the purpose of pooling and enhancing communication expertise and increasing the organizational 20 autonomy and visibility of communications within the organization (e. g. Cook, 1973; Dozier and Grunig, 1992; Grunig and Grunig, 1998; Schultz et al. , 1993; Van Riel, 1995).
Siemens, for example, has consolidated all of its communications staff and their responsibilities into a ‘corporate brand and design’ department responsible for the strategic development and policing of the Siemens umbrella brand values, a ‘corporate communications’ department which includes advertising, internal communications and media relations, and a central ‘corporate messages’ unit encompassing both senior communications professionals responsible for developing and guarding the overall corporate story of Siemens and copy writers for speeches of senior managers.
Such consolidation is according to a number of research surveys (e. g. Cornelissen and Thorpe, 2001; Grunig and Grunig, 1998, Post and Griffin, 1997) now commonplace, with the exception of a few large corporations like General Motors which rather than bringing functional areas together into a few central communications departments have devolved them as stand-alone units (e. g. a governmental affairs unit) or subordinated to other functions such as human resources or finance (Fombrun and Van Riel, 2004).
Generally, then, there appears to be a greater consolidation of communications into a few departments, yet still in separate ‘corporate communications’ and ‘marketing’ or ‘corporate branding’ departments. Within large firms, such as multi-divisional firms and multi-national corporations like Siemens, Nokia, Philips and Shell, the relationship between the corporate centre or group headquarters and the various business-units is usually a major strategic issue. One key structural consideration here, is as Argenti (1998: 5) suggests, to have “all communications focused by centralizing the activity under one senior officer at a 1 corporation’s headquarters or to decentralize activities and allow individual business units to decide how best to handle communications”. Centralization of all communications responsibilities by placing the majority of communications practitioners in a staff ‘corporate communications’ or ‘corporate branding’ departments at the corporate centre has perhaps advantages in terms of a greater corporate control and coordination of all communications programs to stakeholders, ensuring its consistency and achieving greater efficiency as research and communications materials can be shared.
Decentralization, devolving communications responsibilities to departments within the separate business units, requires a larger apparatus of personnel, but delivers advantages as communications can be attuned to the specifics of the business-unit and the geographic market and stakeholders that it serves. Most large multinationals like Siemens, Shell, Nokia and Philips have a combination of centralized ‘global’ departments at the corporate center and decentralized ‘local’ departments, eams and professionals in business-units around the world. A related issue in this regard is the extent to which the center adds to or detracts from the value of its businesses. For the communications staff department at the corporate center, this means that it must deliver value-added advice and assistance to the communications practitioners in the individual business-units, if it wants to secure a receptive environment for its involvement (Cornelissen, 2004).
Van Riel (1995) suggests that this requires the central department to move beyond a technician view of communications, where it is seen as part of organizational routine and overheads and just deals with programmed decisions such as using weekly news briefings and publishing the monthly employee newsletter. Practitioners within the central corporate department rather need to provide expert and strategic advice and develop useful tools like an overall 22 ommunications strategy, so that the communications activities of the different parts of the firm can be coordinated; and so that ‘individual’ business units see their part in the ‘overall’ communications strategy. Within both Philips and Siemens, the ‘corporate branding’ and ‘corporate communications’ departments have defined a brand charter (‘OnePhilips’, ‘OneSiemens’) and a number of work processes to assist professionals within the business with their specific communication programs.
The obvious reasoning behind these examples is that although bringing communications specialists together vertically into one or a few departments may lead to enhanced efficiency, to the ability to develop specialized, distinctive capabilities, and to ease of management through the centralization and consolidation of communication activities, it may not lead to coordination between communication related departments and with other functional areas (e. g. uman resources) outside those departments, and it risks ‘turf wars’, functional myopia, and over-specialization. A horizontal structure overlaying the vertical structure, therefore, is often seen as necessary for coordinating disparate communications tasks and activities, which also recognizes that communications with key stakeholders might emerge from various places within the organization and that the process of developing and executing communication programs is therefore essentially cross-functional or cross-disciplinary (Gronstedt, 1996a,b; Heath, 1994).
Horizontal structure can take various forms including multi-disciplinary task or project teams, formal lines of communication, standardized work processes (Philips), council meetings (Shell, Siemens), communication guidelines (Siemens, Philips) a corporative vision and communications strategy (Nokia) or the use of ‘czars’ (senior practitioners working as integrators between departments). Large organizations in both 23 the private and public sectors generally need at least some of these horizontal structures.
Particularly in multi-divisional firms operating across geographical borders, horizontal structures appear not a luxury but an absolute necessity. Nonetheless, however, in many large organizations not enough attention is being paid to the use of horizontal structures, as there is often among managers and practitioners a preoccupation with the vertical structure of bringing practitioners and functional areas together into departments. Gronstedt (1996b), author of a study into horizontal structures in eight best-practice US firms, challenges this preoccupation and suggests that there should be less focus on “who is in charge? and “who belongs to what department? ” and rather an emphasis on developing more knowledge about horizontal processes and structures of integration. As he emphasizes the importance of horizontal structures: “integrated communication is not necessarily about putting public relations, marketing communications and other communications professionals into a single department, but about integrating their [work] processes” (Gronstedt, 1996b: 40).
In recent years there has been a lot of discussion around the departmental arrangement of communications and the reporting relationship of the central corporate affairs department (see Cornelissen, 2004). Ultimately, the stakes of this discussion are about the professional status of corporate communications (vis-a-vis other established functions as human resources and finance) and its strategic involvement in decisionmaking at the highest corporate level. Claims that have been made to this effect include the rguments that different communications disciplines should be consolidated in a single department, and that the head of this department should report directly to the CEO or the senior management team (or be a member of this team) to bolster and secure the 24 functional expertise as well as the strategic involvement of corporate communications in decision-making. Broom and Dozier (1986) and Grunig and Grunig (1998) characterized this involvement in organizational decision-making as perhaps most important to the communications practitioner than any other measure of professional growth.
The guiding idea in this regard is that a direct reporting relationship to the CEO may be seen as an indication that there is indeed a broad, growing recognition among corporate executives and corporate boards that the ability to succeed will depend upon the firm’s ability to effectively communicate with its stakeholders; and that therefore the communications function is recognized as an absolute, integral part of the top management function.
White and Mazur (1995) have added that such a direct reporting relationship is also important as it leads to excellent communications management as senior management is counseled on issues, and stakeholder and identity considerations may more easily get factored into the process of organizational decision-making. The results from a number of studies indicate that in the large majority of cases, there is indeed such a direct reporting relationship from the staff communications department to the CEO and/or executive team (e. . Argenti and Forman, 2001, Cornelissen and Thorpe, 2001, Grunig and Grunig, 1998, Grunig et al. , 2002, Van Ruler and De Lange, 2003). In most large firms, such a direct reporting relationships consist of counseling and advising the CEO and senior executive team on stakeholder and reputation issues, rather than having a direct involvement (through a seat on the executive team) in corporate decision-making. In a recent study in the UK, Moss et al. 2000) found that within the sample of companies studied communications directors report directly to the CEO or chairperson of the senior management team, but were not formal members of the senior management team 25 responsible for determining corporate strategy and strategic decision-making. In other words, all of the directors in the study indicated that “they were often consulted on important issues likely to affect their organizations, [but] their involvement in key operational decision-making was often limited to advising on how best to present policies to the outside world or to internal stakeholders” (Moss et al. 2000: 299). Similarly, within companies such as Shell and Nokia, the senior vice-president in the area of CC sits on the second-tier management team (one level below the senior executive team), and in that capacity advises and counsels the CEO and senior executive team regarding corporate decision-making. Political and Cultural Issues This is not to say, of course, that the communications director should not have a seat on the executive board and should remain in this advisory capacity, but the UK study did show the current impediments to such a move.
One the one hand, there is still a considerable lack of understanding and a lack of commitment to communications among senior managers. On the other hand, many senior communication practitioners often do not meet the needs of senior managers to provide communications advice and an input into corporate strategy in ways that contribute to the accomplishment of organizational objectives and that affect the bottom line.
In other words, strategic corporate communications stands or falls with highly qualified input from the communication practitioner at the decision-making table; and only then will there be such a receptive environment for that contribution. The practitioner therefore needs to produce strategically focused recommendations for strategic corporate action; bringing to the 26 attention of top managers a broad understanding of the strategic management process and of those issues which may affect and impact upon a company’s reputation (Cornelissen, 2004; Cropp and Pincus, 2001; Moss et al. 2000). Otherwise, communications will be seen as a largely tactical or ‘functionary’ activity; in which practitioners are considered ‘communications technicians’. In such a view, communications is concerned primarily with sending out messages and publicizing a favorable image for an organization with little, if any, involvement in more strategically important activities such as environmental scanning, analysis or management counseling. Grunig et al. (2002) have argued that for many firms, the strategic potential of CC in its boundary-spanning role appears to go largely unrealized.
As a boundary-spanning function, CC operates at the interface between the organization and its environment; to help gather, relay and interpret information from the environment as well as representing the organization to stakeholders within the outside world. This is the case, Grunig et al. (2002) argue, as senior management equally tends to treat communications largely as a tactical function, concerned primarily with the technical gathering of information and with carrying out publicity and promotion campaigns to external audiences.
Equally, practitioners who are expected to enact a more strategic managerial role, not always meet these requirements and expectations of senior managers to provide such an input into corporate decision-making. Many communication practitioners still lack the requisite knowledge and skills to fully enact the manager role, particularly in areas such as financial management, the strategy-making process, and the use of communications in organizational development and change (Moss et al. , 2000). As a result, these practitioners and the communications departments that they represent may be sidelined 7 by firms and treated as a peripheral management discipline – one viewed as unimportant to the overall functioning of the corporation. Pincus et al. (1994) refer in this regard to a belief commonly held among some parts of senior management that communications adds little to corporate performance as it is a ‘fluffy’ discipline that is insufficiently focused on the practicalities and demands of the business. Practitioners in senior positions who are expected to enact the manager role bear thus a responsibility to show and communicate the value of communications in terms f what it contributes to the organization. Within Philips, for example, the senior professionals within the corporate communications department have developed so-called process survey tools, which document and standardize work processes (e. g. a process in relation to a media inquiry), and can as such be improved upon – these tools are used instrumentally to increase and sustain performance, but are also used symbolically to position CC as a professional function and to increase visibility.
A general theme emerging from this is the importance of showing the added value of CC to the firm. Each and every function or set of disciplines within a corporation is evaluated and scrutinized by senior management for its contribution to the firm and to the achievement of corporate objectives. When the contribution or ‘added value’ of a particular function to the organization is high and visible, it is more likely that the function will be granted input into strategic decisionmaking.
The same goes for CC, which as every other function (human resources, finance, etc. ) is measured with the same stick. Capturing and quantifying the contribution of CC to the firm and to the commercial bottom-line is thus key, although, unfortunately, not always commonplace (e. g. Dolphin, 2000, Fleisher and Burton, 1995, Van Ruler and De Lange, 2003). 28 The visibility and status of CC may vary across firms and industries, and reflects certain generic issues around the developing state of CC as a managerial profession and its acumen.
At the same time, it appears, that CC as a practice area is often given shape in line with the wider cultural and professional context of the firm of which it is part. Within Philips for example, it is seen as a part of an organization-wide technocratic engineering culture where every function and the work processes involved are documented and standardized, so that these can be constantly monitored, updated and optimized. Work processes (e. g. edia inquiries) within CC have equally been documented and standardized in flow-charts and worksheets (following ISO quality specifications); and characterize a particular modus operandi. Within Nokia, in contrast, the corporate vision of ‘connecting people’ together with the fact that members of the company have a strong bond between them (“having embarked on the technological journey together”) has led to an ‘informal’, ‘innovative’ and ‘can-do’ culture of knowledge sharing and of coordinating work processes, including CC.
There are no formalized work patterns or lines of communication between communication practitioners within Nokia; they rather liaise frequently and informally with one another. Shell, as a strong engineering-led company, emphasizes specialist expertise in its functional areas, and thus also within CC, and, perhaps because of its dual holding structure (between the UK and the Netherlands) stimulates a bureaucratic form of control and coordination of CC through consultation and council meetings. Contribution of Work and Activities
The contribution and consumption of work and activities carried out by communication practitioners takes place at three levels within large firms: the corporate, market (or 29 business-unit), and operational levels. Strategies and activities at the corporate level are concerned with the overall purpose (mission and vision) and scope of the firm to meet its various stakeholders expectations and needs. Strategies and activities at the market level are concerned with determining how the firm will compete successfully in particular markets.
Strategies and activities at the operational level concern the way in which CC manages its own resources, processes and people to help deliver corporate and market level strategic goals. Central to the question of what type of contribution CC makes and whether this is located at the corporate, business-unit or strictly operational level, is the definition and enactment of the function as either strategic or tactical. As a strategic function, there is likely to be strategic involvement of communications practitioners in managerial decision-making at the corporate and business-unit levels.
Such a strategic view of communications, which in part has already been realized within the business world but in part is also still aspirational (Cornelissen, 2004), means that communications strategy is not just seen as a set of goals and tactics at the operational level – at the level of the CC function – but that its scope and involvement in fact stretches to corporate and business-unit wide decisions and activities. At the corporate level, here strategy and activities are concerned with the corporate mission and vision as well as corporate positioning, communication practitioners can aid managers in developing strategies for interaction with the environment. In this sense, communication practitioners are directly involved or support strategic decision-making through their ‘environmental scanning’ activities which may assist corporate strategy-makers in analyzing the organization’s position and identifying emerging issues which may have significant implications for the firm and for future strategy development.
Communication practitioners can at this 30 corporate level also bring identity questions and a stakeholder perspective into the strategic management process, representing the likely reaction of stakeholders to alternative strategy options, and thereby giving senior management a more balanced consideration to the attractiveness and feasibility of the strategic options open to them. This happened in each of the four firms (Shell, Nokia, Philips, Siemens) in our case studies.
In addition, communications practitioners in these four companies also implemented the corporate strategy by helping to communicate the firm’s strategic intentions to both internal and external stakeholders, which may help avoid misunderstandings that might otherwise get in the way of the smooth implementation of the firm’s strategy. The layers between the corporate, market, and operational CC levels thus need to be permeable and relaxed; allowing decentralized initiatives and input from the lower level corporate communications function to the higher senior management echelon.
For this to happen, communication practitioners as mentioned need to meet management expectations in terms of understanding and responding to the needs and concerns of the firm or its separate business units – i. e. in terms of demonstrating how corporate communications can contribute to the bottom-line or provide invaluable counsel on the organization’s environment. A tactical or support role for CC comes into play when it is employed at the corporate level to just make decisions of the organization and its operations public and inform relevant stakeholder roups (e. g. investors, government officials); and communications thus takes a back-seat. This happens when an organization lacks fully developed programs of engagement with a wide range of its stakeholder groups, or when instead of relying on communications it rather strategically 31 adapts its output, goals, and methods of operation to conform to prevailing definitions of legitimacy (Dowling and Pfeffer, 1975; Meznar and Nigh, 1995).
It is also important to note that the practice of CC and the management of stakeholders spirals to other functions at the operational level as well. Within Philips, for example, the director of communications meets once a year individually with all of the company’s senior managers (in finance, human resources etc. ) to discuss their communications needs. Similarly, Hewlett-Packard’s corporate communication staff has developed a database to profile its internal “customers” in other operational functions to better meet their needs.
Telefonica, the global telecommunications firm, equally has such an arrangement where the corporate reputation department counsels ‘clients’ – i. e. all other functions within the company (including finance, human resources, operations, and marketing) – on stakeholders issues, and assists and supports each of these functional areas in the development of stakeholder management and communication programs. DISCUSSION The preceding sections have outlined the ‘practice’ perspective on CC and conceptualized the important dimensions of this perspective.
These are (1) the roles, skills and activities of practitioners, (2) the organization of these practitioners and their work, (3) political and cultural issues that contextualize and mediate these activities, and (4) the communication and consumption of the process and products of activities performed. Together, these dimensions provide a framework for considering the practice of CC in its entirety and in a much more comprehensive manner than previous work has done. Specifically, the practice-based conceptualization of CC makes the following 32 ontributions. First, it opens up the ‘black box’ of the organization in which CC activities take place. CC is conceptualized as an organizational phenomenon rather than a macro strategy problem detached from the internal dynamics of the organization. Internal politics, structure and cultural issues are introduced into the field of managing CC, not as inevitable failings or difficulties within firms, but as significant for communications strategy outcomes, perhaps even as attributes to be exploited positively for the status and contribution of CC.
Second, the ‘practice’ conceptualization of CC ‘humanizes’ the field (cf. Pettigrew et al. , 2002: 12). Unlike much prior work that primarily focuses on the strategic outcomes of CC activities (e. g. strong reputations and relationships with stakeholders), a ‘practice’ perspective populates the field of CC with human beings. In effect, all forces and activities are seen to emerge from human action – from the actions and contributions of communications practitioners, as well as the reactions by senior managers and managers in other functional areas (human resources, finance, etc. of the firm. Third, and related to the previous points, the view of CC as ‘practice’ starts to explore the agency of communications practitioners to bring about changes in corporate strategy and in the interaction between the firm and its environment, amidst general professional as well as situational constraints (Whittington, 1988). Practitioners can be captured in wider professional belief systems about their roles and work – i. e. he aforementioned distinction between ‘manager’ and ‘technician’ roles (Pieczka and L’Etang, 2001) – that effect and constrain their possibilities for action. Similarly, the political and structural aspects of the work situation in their firms – i. e. whether there is a receptive environment among senior managers for an input from CC, and whether communications practitioners are located in departments with access (through a reporting 33 elationship or seat on the management team) to senior management at the corporate level of the firm – effects the micro activities and agency of communication practitioners. Put differently, a practice perspective suggests a further exploration of the relationships between the roles and backgrounds of practitioners, their activities, the political and cultural situation surrounding their work, the way in which they are organized, and their input and contribution to the firm at the corporate and market levels of the firm.
As such, it connects macro phenomena with micro explanations. It does not deny the importance of research that has raised the awareness of key macro issues and challenges; the challenge of achieving and sustaining strong corporate reputations with stakeholders, of identifying and building on unique organizational assets or the ‘corporate identity’ of the firm, of managing international communications for multinational firms.
Instead, it extends such macro level accounts with descriptions and explanations of the practices and activities which underpin and constitute such phenomena. A fourth contribution concerns its practical implications. A practice perspective on CC extends macro level explanations of CC as outcomes of what goes on in organizations to the activities that constitute them. This perspective is concerned with the same strategic issues of importance to senior managers and communication practitioners (i. e. ow to build and maintain strong corporate reputations with stakeholders of the firm? ), but in terms of the organizational activities and practices which are their fabric. As such, it provides a more comprehensive and detailed picture of how communications is and indeed can be managed. The relationships between the practice dimensions (i. e. the backgrounds of practitioners, their activities, the political and cultural situation surrounding their work, the way in which they are organized, and their input and contribution to the firm at the corporate and 4 market levels of the firm) in particular provide managers and communication practitioners with concrete factors or attributes that can be understood and, if needed, challenged or manipulated. To communications practitioners, the profound implication is not only a greater understanding of their work but also suggestions and prescriptions for how their work can be changed or improved. For example, if practitioners aspire a developmental shift from a tactical’ or ‘craft’ orientation to communications, characterized by technician role enactment and communications service departments or units carrying out low-level communication mechanics, to a strategic management function, they know that they need to enact managerial roles through management activities like environmental scanning, counseling and strategic planning that demonstrably add value to the corporation, and that they need to vie for an organizational arrangement that gives them a central, recognizable place in the firm from where to counsel and support senior management as well as managers in other functional areas.
Recommendations for Research In sum, the practice conceptualization of CC suggests a need to put the micro into macro in order to both uncover plausible linkages to performance (with stakeholder groups) and to offer tangible guides to managerial action. Some important insights, albeit illustrative, on micro issues in CC are offered through our four case studies. However, beyond these preliminary case studies, we make two main recommendations in line with this research agenda.
First, we recommend further small sample in-depth studies of CC within firms, to develop the contextual and holistic understanding of the practice dimensions of CC that is essential to unpacking the complex driving forces of the management of CC and its 35 strategic outcomes with stakeholders of the firm. In-depth studies, particularly at this early stage of theoretical development on CC, are a necessary feature of furthering the conceptualization and understanding of CC as an area of practice. Second, we recommend process research as a methodology for capturing and explaining how the practice of CC evolves within firms.
Process research is concerned with understanding how things evolve over time and why they evolve in this way (see Langley, 1999, Van de Ven and Huber, 1990), and process data therefore consist largely of stories about what happened and who did what when – that is, events, activities, and choices ordered over time. In his classic work on organization theory, Mohr (1982) makes a distinction between what he calls ‘variance theory’ and ‘process theory’. Whereas variance theories provide explanations for phenomena in terms of relationships among dependent and independent variables (e. . , more of X and more of Y produce more of Z), process theories provide explanations in terms of the sequence of events leading to an outcome (e. g. , do A and then B to get C). Temporal ordering and probabilistic interaction between entities are important here (Mohr, 1982). Within the context of CC, the emphasis is with process research on understanding patterns in events (e. g. the link between activities and tools of communication practitioners and changes in stakeholder reputations), either as a narrative pattern or analytical sequence of events.
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