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1.3.1.2 Messages Not Processed

An industry exists to rate and rank companies based on their sustainability efforts. Communications with rating agencies are very detailed, specific, and transparent. But this specific, and often technical, information isn't widely accessed or understood by stakeholders (e.g., customers, employees). Stakeholders are often unaware of specific company sustainability efforts and ratings either because they did not receive the information or they are not able and/or motivated to interpret it. In one study, Peloza et al. (2012) surveyed 2,400 individuals representing three key stakeholder groups—investment professionals, purchasing managers, and graduating students (representing potential employees) drawn from six counties (i.e., China, Germany, India, Japan, the UK, and the USA). They plotted the respondents' perceptions against third-party rankings of actual firm performance on sustainability metrics. Although 88 % of their respondents said good corporate citizenship was either somewhat or extremely important, most lacked the information they needed to integrate sustainability into their decision making. Stakeholders could not correctly identify companies that had better than average sustainability records.

In trying to identify how stakeholders decode and interpret sustainability messages, Peloza et al. turned to an important communication theory, the elaboration likelihood model of persuasion (Petty and Cacioppo 1986). Elaboration refers to the amount of critical thinking that a person gives to a persuasive message (Vaughan 2009). The persuasive impact of a message is influenced by an individual's level of elaboration (degree of cognitive processing).

In the case of high elaboration, the receiver typically engages in careful consideration of the message [central route].. . In the case of low elaboration, the receiver relies primarily on inferences about the message based on relatively simple cues from the communication, such as a famous spokesperson. This is known as the peripheral route to persuasion. A third possibility is when the individual is neither motivated nor able to process the communication. Known as passive processing, communication success relies on repeated exposure over time to create attitude change and simple connections between the brand and message elements such as a catchy jingle (Peloza et al. 2012, p. 81).

Central processing involves questioning and researching sustainability claims and then drawing conclusions and making judgments. People must be motivated and have the ability to interpret the message, but in order to be motivating, a message must be personally meaningful. Prior research suggests consumers lack the motivation to process sustainability-related messages. Also, they may lack the frames necessary to effectively understand and act upon the information (Lakoff 2010). Although they may indicate positive attitudes toward corporate sustainability, traditional product quality issues are more important for most customers. This is a frame they have been socialized to understand. Information regarding sustainability initiatives may impact perceptions of a company's reputation but not stakeholder behaviors as much as do issues related to quality and service. Also, individuals tend to ignore information about ethical attributes in their decisionmaking process in order to reduce the stress associated with the decision.

Information processed through the peripheral route receives less critical consideration. Decisions made through this route aren't based on the message itself but by the activation of simple decision rules (heuristics) or guiding principles which come to mind in response to the message such as source credibility, evaluation of the message's style and format, or the receiver's mood. Because most stakeholders' knowledge of and interest in sustainability is low, they use heuristics (Peloza et al. 2012). For example, people use knowledge of one sustainability initiative (e.g., an organization's recycling program) to make inferences about its performance across a broad range of sustainability issues (e.g., pollution control, workplace policies). This halo effect leads people to inaccurately estimate an organization's true investments in sustainability. Peloza et al. discussed four important heuristics: sustainability initiative form, category biases, brand biases, and senior management image. Initiatives that were self-oriented (e.g., fuelefficient cars save money) are more closely related to the traditional product performance cues that dominate customer behavior. So if a stakeholder knows a company leads its industry in fuel efficiency, they are likely to believe it also leads to other forms of sustainability. Stakeholders negatively view some industries or product categories. For example, because of the financial industry's reputation crisis in the mid-2000s, stakeholders are more likely to rate the sustainability performance of financial companies lower than is actually true. Stakeholders have inherent positive or negative perceptions of some brands. For example, although Walt Disney and Walmart were rated similarly by rating agencies regarding sustainability, the Disney brand is seen as wholesome, clean, and caring, while the Walmart brand is associated with operational efficiency, cost, and some degree of ruthlessness. Finally, if the senior management team is seen as wasteful and out of touch based on media coverage, this influences perceptions of the organization's sustainability performance.

 
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