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3.2.4 Changing Descriptions and Absorbing Information

Organizations can change how they describe their performance (e.g., public relations, marketing, and branding) (Ihlen 2009). Corporate sustainability communication (CSC) is an evolving concept that refers to corporate communications about sustainability issues (Signitzer and Prexl 2008). Coming from a public relations perspective, CSC grew out of the reactive corporate social reports and environmental communication programs of the 1970s and 1980s when organizations in certain industries (e.g., chemical, oil) faced environmental scandals. Under pressure, they created communication programs which focused mainly on crisis communication and one-way reporting about environmental success stories. Social reports published in the 1970s and 1980s were often advertising instruments lacking honesty and transparency. By the end of the 1970s, although many companies stopped publishing such information, some were successful in their framing efforts. Royal Dutch Shell Group utilized discursive alliance (Livesey 2002) after encountering intense public pressure due to their environmental and social performance. Their inclusion of their consultant's, John Elkington, expository text in their first annual report to society in 1998 provided legitimacy and authority for Shell's own effort. Elkington, who wrote Cannibals with Forks (Elkington 1999), had credibility as an environmentalist, promoted a win–win environmental message, and sought to develop more comprehensive forms of environmental reporting. Through the use of discursive alliance in their annual report, the company moved into the sustainable development community and became identified as an exemplary case of progress.

Institutional theory offers practical implications for organizations. Some organizations align themselves via media relations with powerful or legitimate organizations (e.g., co-branding, joint sustainability initiatives). Others engage in boundary spanning by seeking institutional learning from shared institutions (e.g., trade associations, professional associations). Institutional theory also provides some exciting research opportunities for scholars interested in the role of communication (Lammers and Garcia 2014) in promoting sustainability (e.g., Frandsen and Johansen 2011) at the institutional level. At this level, our attention is directed to information crossing organizational boundaries and to formal communication or the medium of written codes (e.g., laws, law-like policies, professional codes, certifications). Industryand profession-wide norms and regulations provide important clues for understanding actions within organizations. Institutional forces such as guidance from trade associations, peer expectations, and models of success are increasingly talking about sustainability. Many commonalities are likely to occur among organizations within sectors (e.g., the education sector). As sustainability initiatives become the norm, companies will lose external legitimacy if they don't develop and publicize their own sustainability initiatives.

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