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3.3 Communication and the Strategic Approach to Legitimacy

In this section, I focus specifically on proactive and strategic communication as enacted by individual organizations (i.e., the strategic approach to legitimacy). Message credibility and greenwashing are discussed. Then, rather than discuss public relations, marketing, public affairs, and crisis management strategies in any depth, the focus is on communication directed simultaneously toward multiple internal and external stakeholders which reflects standardization efforts involving the use of signs and symbols in annual meetings, on websites, through certifications, and in the design of physical spaces.

Individual organizations communicate strategically with their stakeholders to gain environmental legitimacy (Allen and Caillouet 1994; Hunter and Bansal 2007). They might invite stakeholders into the decision-making process or respond to stakeholder concerns over organizational processes. Or they may use various tools, including symbols and texts, to communicate about their sustainability— although stakeholders increasingly are more interested in tangible indicators (e.g., reduced CO2 emitted, reduced employee health claims, reduced energy or water use) (Suchman 1995):

The process of managing an organization's relationship with its external environment of other organizations, regulators, competitors, customers, and diffuse media may be thought of as institutional positioning via the use of institutional rhetoric, or messages that offer specific interpretations of social issues of importance to the organization's survival and success. Examples of institutional rhetoric include corporate statements of social responsibility and policies on the environment. (Lammers 2009, p. 523)

Today, individual organizations engage in public disclosure practices, provide corporate donations and sponsorships, sign on to principled ideals from institutions of moral authority (e.g., sign onto the UN's Kyoto Protocol), and participate in conferences, public discussions, and open panels.

Their communication may be proactive or reactive. This chapter focuses primarily on proactive communication:

Proactivity has come to refer to a more or less unspecified set of nondefensive or nonreactive practices through which organizations handle their relations with the external world. Instead of waiting for threats and opportunities to become manifest imperatives, the proactive organization attempts to influence and shape external developments in ways considered favorable in terms of its own aspirations. (Cheney and Christensen 2001, p. 253)

Some organizations position themselves as proactive when they are actually engaging in a discursive fiction (i.e., saying they are taking positive actions when they are not) (Zoller and Tener 2010). True proactivity involves working with multiple and varied stakeholders to anticipate potential harms and to adopt environmentally sustainable practices (Bullis and Ie 2007). True environmental leaders make sustainability initiatives and communication an integral part of their core business strategy; create alliances to foster progress on targeted sustainability issues; implement Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) reporting and fully and transparently meet the standards; integrate sustainability into the brand and client value propositions; integrate sustainability into corporate stories, mission, vision, and values; and direct varied, yet complementary, communication toward key stakeholder groups (Peloza et al. 2012).

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