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3.3.2 Annual Meetings, Sustainability Reporting, Websites, and Architecture

In this section, I discuss five forms of communication about an organization's sustainability initiatives which are simultaneously directed toward a broad range of stakeholders: annual meetings, sustainability reports, websites, certifications, and architecture. All are the product of multiple communicators working together to shape sustainability-related messages. Similar to the work of Gatti (2011) and Zhang and O'Halloran (2013), semiotics and visual rhetoric play an important role in four of the five. Semiotic theories are based on the assumption that almost anything can be a sign or a symbol, standing in for and eliciting in the viewer's mind a concept separate from the sign itself. Signs can have a complex array of direct and indirect meanings. Images carry with them denotative and connotative messages. The connotative message includes all the values and emotions the image calls forth in the viewer (Hill 2009). Of the four, the least communication research has focused on architecture although it is an important tool for communicating about sustainability.

3.3.2.1 Annual Meetings

Top management uses various forums to communicate stewardship information to stakeholders including their annual report, Internet-based stakeholder forums, and investor meetings. But the annual general meeting is an often underutilized forum (Carrington and Johed 2007). It is a real-time event where stakeholders can ask and pursue questions, thereby presenting them with an opportunity to challenge what are often rehearsed and edited corporate messages. Annual general meetings are a time when a CEO can position him or herself as a good steward of both company resources and the environment.

Sam's Club, the Neil Kelly Company, and Annual Meetings Brian Sheehan, former Sustainability Manager at Sam's Club, thinks the annual meeting's big stage is a very important forum for discussing an organization's sustainability initiatives. Since 2007, Walmart has held sustainability summits which are televised into all Walmart and Sam's Club locations. These summits serve as a platform for announcing aspirational goals and reporting on progress made in relationship to sustainability initiatives. Brian said:

Where we get the most impact is with the biggest scale. And for us the biggest scale happens at the big meetings on the big stage in front of a room of five thousand people. Hearing from our leadership, hearing from keynotes who are experts in sustainability and have a great personal passion for it and are good story tellers.. .. Getting a celebrity that can help make sustainability desirable, and communicate in a way that is easy to understand and rewarding.

Annual meetings are not only important for large organizations. Julia Spence, Vice President of Human Resources at Neil Kelly Company, Portland, OR, talked about the annual meeting of that family-owned business. Before the annual meeting, everyone helps develop the strategic plan for the next year. Employees are invited to participate in open meetings to brainstorm options, opportunities, goals, changes, improvements, etc., and/or to submit ideas in writing. All are invited to think and contribute strategically. Then, the management team reviews the suggestions along with statistics, achievements, and client feedback. Plans for the coming year and beyond are drafted. At the annual meeting, the management team provides results and analysis of the previous year, recognizes employees, and presents the plan for the next year, a plan which makes strong use of employee planning contributions. Julia explained:

[The annual meeting] is a time once a year where the management team gets up in front of everybody [employees] and says here is what we accomplished as a group and here is where we are headed. And it has come out of what everyone has contributed both to production for the past year and [for setting] the goals for the coming year. We do talk about our environmental goals and where we are headed. It is a time when we are accountable as a management team.

Coming from a financial accounting perspective, Carrington and Johed (2007) attended 36 annual general meetings of Swedish companies. Only a third of the questions the CEO answered dealt with financial accounting, and the other questions dealt with nonfinancial aspects of stewardship (i.e., company efforts regarding environmental, equality, and ethical issues). They based their study on actor– network theory, a theory initially developed by science and technology scholars interested in a performative view of the production of science that acknowledged both humans and nonhumans (e.g., machines, texts) accomplish things (Cooren 2009). Cooren and colleagues (e.g., Caster and Cooren 2006; Cooren et al. 2006) urge researchers to investigate forms of nonhuman agency (e.g., textual, technological). What distinguishes an actor is whether or not it influences other actors. Therefore, a written report can be an actor effecting an organization directly as well as creating the organization and making it visible. Actor–network theory is increasingly appearing in the communication scholarship. For example, Allen, Walker, and Brady (2012) discussed how organizations are partly discursive constructions created through the agency of both nonhuman (e.g., sustainability-related training materials) and human actors. Two key concepts of the theory are actor–network and translation. An actor (human or not) can act or speak on behalf of something or someone else which becomes part of a network being spoken for and therefore capable of influence. Translation involves the process by which actors make present the interests of the network they represent. The annual general meeting is a central and indispensable actor because reports are provided describing the state of the organization, shareholders can ask questions to hold management legally accountable, and management is elected or reelected. Unlike other forms of corporate communication (e.g., annual report, Internet forums), top management must answer face-to-face questions. Top management seeks to be identified as good stewards of the company by going through a translation process which involves four steps: problematization, interessement, designated enrolment, and mobilization (Carrington and Johed 2007). Problematization involves imposing one's own definition of a situation on others and convincing them that their interests are being served by what is being proposed. Interessement is when the actor locks others into assigned roles. Designated enrolment is when the locked actors are manipulated to act in a way benefiting the management. Finally, using mobilization methods, spokespeople represent and control their collectives. The general meeting results in a highly scripted and controlled event.

Sometimes organizational spokespeople encounter hostile questions when pub-

lically discussing their organization's environmental performance or sustainability initiatives. This is less likely during an annual meeting and more likely in an environmental public meeting. A hostile question is one that contains a proposition that is both undesirable and erroneous. Campbell et al. (1998) suggest speech act theory can provide communicators with guidance on how to respond. Carrington and Johed (2007) also discuss speech act theory. This theory has had a major impact on communication research. Usually associated with the work of John Searle (Littlejohn 2009), it focuses on how people use a set of language games, complete with rules, to achieve goals. The listener understands the rules of the game, both constitutive and regulative, and can interpret the message accordingly (e.g., this is a promise, a question, or a command). A speech act is not completed until the listener responds. Every speech act does something in addition to saying something. If the goal of a public meeting is continued interaction between the audience and the speaker, then speech acts allow the spokesperson to accomplish two apparently contradictory goals: (a) satisfy the questioner by providing an answer and (b) satisfy the organization by providing an indirect answer. In response to hostile questions, at least three speech act strategies apply (i.e., desirability, agency, and timing). Although based on a small sample size, Campbell et al. recommend using either the timing or the desirability strategy. Timing strategies include claiming the questioner's request had already been addressed. The desirability strategy involves providing reasons why the questioner might not really want that particular request fulfilled.

 
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