Perhaps the best way to define corporate communication is to look at the way in which the function developed in companies. Until the 1980s, professionals responsible for communication within their organizations had used the term “public relations” to describe communication with stakeholders (a term still used in academic circles across the world). This public relations (PR) function, which was tactical in most companies, largely consisted of communication to the press. When other stakeholders, internal and external to the company, started to demand more information from the company, communication professionals within organizations subsequently started to look at communication as being more than just PR. The roots of the new corporate communication function started to take hold. This new function came to incorporate a whole range of specialized disciplines including corporate design, corporate advertising, employee or internal communication, issues and crisis management, media relations, investor relations, change communication, and public affairs. An important characteristic of the new function was that it consolidated a range of communication disciplines and expertise into a single corporate communication or corporate affairs department. This department has a single mandate that is focused on the organization as a whole and on the important task of how an organization is presented to all its key stakeholders, both internal and external.
This broad focus is also reflected in the word “corporate” in corporate communication. The word of course refers to the business setting in which corporate communication became established as a separate function (alongside other functions such as human resources and finance). There is also an important second sense with which the word is being used. “Corporate” originally stems from the Latin expressions for “body” (corpus) and for “forming into a body” (corporare), which emphasizes a unified way of looking at internal and external communication disciplines. That is, instead of looking at specialized disciplines or stakeholder groups separately, the corporate communication function starts from the perspective of the “bodily” organization as a whole when communicating to all internal and external stakeholders (Christensen et al. 2008).
Within corporate communication, a stakeholder is defined as any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organization’s purpose and objectives (Freeman 1984). In this broad definition, a stakeholder can be anyone who (1) has direct or indirect ownership of an organization (e.g., owners or important creditors), (2) has an economic bond as a worker or consumer in relation to the organization (e.g., employees and customers), or (3) has a legitimate moral interest in its operations (e.g., the local community in which an organization is located). Van Riel (1995) has argued that organizations communicate and interact with a whole range of stakeholders beyond publics (e.g., activist groups) who actively mobilize themselves against an organization on the basis of an issue of concern to them.
Edward Freeman, one of the intellectual leaders of stakeholder theory, suggested back in 1984 that “the stakeholder approach requires a redefinition of the public relations function which builds on the communications skills of PR professionals, yet is responsive to the real business environment of today” (1984, 219). He argued that “in the current business environment the concepts and tools that have evolved for PR managers to use are increasingly ineffective” (1984, 220) by which he meant that traditional concepts and tools such as press releases, annual reports, and corporate publications would not be sufficient to manage the organization’s relationships with key stakeholders. Freeman also felt that the term “public relations” is associated with “spin doctoring” and “window dressing”. Instead, he argued for a new concept that would embody a more managerial understanding of communication; one that would help communication professionals manage the organization’s communication with stakeholders.
The definition of corporate communication and the conceptual terrain that it covers has evolved as a result of its incorporation into management degrees at business schools. Whereas communication courses had traditionally been part of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in schools of communication and journalism, the business equivalent of the subject was refashioned in terms of management theory and education. This development echoed the sentiments expressed above about the need for a redefinition of communication as a management function. Argenti (1996, 74), one of the first professors in corporate communication at a US business school, puts it this way:
business schools are the most appropriate home for the discipline, because like other functional areas within the corporation (such as marketing, finance, production, and human resource management), corporate communication exists as a real and important part of most organizations. As such, it should rightfully be housed in that branch of the academy that deals with business administration or graduate schools of business.
Shelby (1993, 255) defined corporate communication as “an umbrella for a variety of communication forms and formats” that “includes public relations (speech writing, press/community relations), public affairs (including lobbying activities), and employee, customer, and stockholder communication.” All of these forms of communication in Shelby’s view share a focus on communicating about the organization to “collectivities [i.e. stakeholders] that exist inside and outside organizations” (1993, 255). Van Riel (1995) added to Shelby’s early definition the idea that all these forms of communication need to be actively managed and coordinated to present a consistent image of the organization to all stakeholders. He defined corporate communication as “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” (1995, 26).
The original definitions by Shelby and Van Riel characterize corporate communication as a management function within organizations that involves communication professionals engaging in different forms of communication (e.g., public affairs, media relations) with internal and external stakeholders. In line with these early definitions, Van Riel (1997) stressed the importance of “orchestration” of all forms of communication. “Orchestration” refers to the coordination or integration of all forms of communication so that its contents convey the same corporate image or “corporate identity” of the organization and leave a consistent impression or “reputation” with stakeholders. Much theory-building and research has since focused on these concepts of “corporate identity” and “corporate reputation” and has argued that an organization conveys an image not only through forms of communication, but also through its products and services, the quality of its management, the behavior of its employees, its financial performance, and the economic and material support that it provides to different stakeholder groups. This has led some to define corporate communication in very broad terms as “everything a company says, makes, or does,” which emphasizes the fact that not only forms of communication “communicate”, that is, leave an impression with stakeholders, but also behaviors of managers and employees (Cornelissen & Harris 2001).
To describe the scope, processes, and objectives of corporate communication, researchers have developed a number of concepts. These concepts reflect developments in professional practice and draw upon ideas from management theory and education (Argenti 1996; Van Riel 1997).
The original set of concepts that were introduced to describe the field of corporate communication involved corporate identity, corporate image, and corporate reputation. The concept of corporate identity grew out of a preoccupation in the design and communication communities with the ways in which organizations present themselves to external audiences; for example, in their visual images as well as through more elaborate forms of corporate advertising and communication. Initially, the term was restricted to logos and other elements of visual design, but it gradually came to encompass communication and all forms of outward-facing behavior in the marketplace (e.g., Birkigt & Stadler 1986). Larçon and Reitter (1979) added a further dimension to the concept of corporate identity when they argued that it not only involves the visible outward presentation of a company, but also the set of intrinsic characteristics or traits that bestow the company with its specificity, stability, and coherence. In their view, a corporate identity is not merely a projected image in the form of visual design and communication, but is fundamentally concerned with “what the organisation is” – the core of the organization as it is laid down in its strategies and culture. The notion of corporate identity traits resembles the conceptualization of organizational identity as involving identity anchors that are central (inimitable organizational traits), distinctive (differentiated from other organizations), and enduring (stable over time). These traits specify the general meaning of a corporate entity that resides in the values, beliefs, roles, and behaviour of its members as well as in the shared symbols and other artifacts that they create, in particular, through conscious acts of corporate branding (Hatch & Schultz 2001). Accordingly, empirical research on corporate identity has explored links between a corporate identity, as the projected image of the organization, and both its underlying organizational identity or culture (e.g., Ravasi & Schultz 2006) and its received image or reputation in the eyes of stakeholders such as employees, customers, and consumers (e.g., Simoes et al. 2005).
In relation to these links, researchers emphasize that it is strategically important for organizations to achieve “alignment” or “transparency” (e.g., Fombrun & Rindova 2000; Hatch & Schultz 2001). According to Fombrun and Rindova (2000, 94), transparency is “a state in which the internal identity of the firm reflects positively the expectations of key stakeholders and the beliefs of these stakeholders about the firm reflect accurately the internally held identity.” Along these lines, researchers stress the particular importance of consonance between (1) the organizational culture as articulated by senior managers and as experienced by employees, (2) corporate identity (i.e., the image projected by the organization), (3) corporate image (i.e., the immediate impression of an organization in relation to a specific message or image), and (4) corporate reputation (i.e., an individual’s collective representation of past images of an organization, induced through either communication or past experiences). Importantly too, where these elements are nonaligned (so that, for example, the rhetoric of corporate identity does not match the experienced reality), a range of sub-optimal outcomes are anticipated, including employee disengagement, customer dissatisfaction, and general organizational atrophy (e.g., Hatch & Schultz 2001).
Organizations can achieve such alignment, it is argued, through consciously coordinating (“integrating”) the timing and content of messages that are communicated to stakeholders. Back in 1994, Robert Heath formulated this challenge as follows:
Some companies and other organizations are well known for their ability to conduct a truly integrated communication campaign designed to get the message across even though it is tailored to various stakeholders. Not only is the matter one of providing a coherent and consistent message that fosters an understanding of the company as its management and employees want it to be understood, but it also means that key audiences are addressed in terms of the stake each of them holds with regard to the organization. (1994, 55)
Such integration is also seen as important when one considers the multiple stakeholder roles that any one individual may have, and the potential pitfalls that may occur when conflicting messages are sent out. The concept of “integration” has been described in terms of (1) consistency in messages that are produced and communicated to stakeholders, and (2) organizational coordination between communication professionals. Consistency in messages (i.e., similarity in content, tone, and visual design) is facilitated through guidelines on design and communication, including a specification of the central corporate identity or corporate brand values of the organization and of the general corporate story that the organization wants to tell (e.g., Fombrun & Van Riel 2004). Organizational coordination between communication professionals is facilitated through mechanisms such as teamworking, job rotation, corporate brand committees, networking events, and a dedicated intranet. These allow communication professionals from different disciplines (e.g., public affairs, marketing communication, media relations, internal communication) and from across the organization to interact and to align their work (e.g., Cornelissen 2008).
Researchers have applied a variety of methods and empirical indicators to measure the concepts of corporate identity, corporate image, and reputation. Most research has used survey methods to establish stakeholders’ perceptions and evaluations of organizations (e.g., Fombrun & Van Riel 2004) alongside in-depth case studies of an organization’s culture and identity (e.g., Ravasi & Schultz 2006). Such case studies are often based on a variety of data sources including interviews, (participative) observation, and analyses of company documents and communication campaigns.
Fombrun and Van Riel (2004) have carried out comparative analyses of corporate reputations of the most visible organizations across the world. Based upon stakeholder evaluations of the strongest corporate reputation within their country, they inferred that organizations with the strongest reputations are on average characterized by high levels of visibility (the degree to which corporate themes are visible in all internal and external communication), distinctiveness (the degree to which the corporate identity or positioning of the organization is distinctive), authenticity (the degree to which an organization communicates values that are embedded in its culture), transparency (the degree to which an organization is open and transparent about its behavior), and consistency (the degree to which organizations communicate consistent messages in all internal and external communication channels) in corporate communication. This broad picture of linkages between corporate communication, corporate identity, and corporate reputation has been further refined in recent empirical research. Recent research has established that organizations in specific industry sectors may become more similar in the kinds of corporate identity that they project (e.g., Deephouse & Carter 2005; Lamertz et al. 2005) and that such convergence may be more or less appreciated by stakeholders dependent upon their expectations regarding appropriate corporate behavior in a particular industry (Brammer & Pavelin 2006). Deephouse and Carter (2005) have demonstrated that isomorphism (i.e., the similarity of an organization to others in its industry) improves the degree to which an organization is deemed legitimate (socially acceptable) by stakeholders, presumably because organizations converge on images and behaviors that are expected of them by stakeholders. They also found that organizations with stronger corporate reputations were able to deviate from such mimetic behaviors and improve their status without losing their legitimacy. Lamertz et al. (2005) similarly identified social pressures at the level of an entire organizational field, which stimulated organizations in the Canadian beer-brewing industry to construct similar images (corporate identities) of themselves to meet stakeholder expectations. At the same time they found that alongside such similar images, organizations also claimed distinctive attributes as part of their corporate identity.
The development of corporate communication as a separate function within organizations and its grounding in management theory has led to research being rather disconnected from the PR and mass communication literatures. Recent years, however, have seen the emergence of new lines of research that bridge the two domains. For example, the research by Carroll and Deephouse on the role of the media in the formation of stakeholders’ views on the reputation of organizations integrates management theory (i.e., the resource-based view of organizations) with mass communication theory (i.e., agenda-setting theory; e.g., Deephouse 2000; Carroll 2004). Similarly, Cornelissen (2008) has connected management literature on sense-making, professional identity, and career transitions with existing ideas from PR on “technician” and “manager” roles of communication professionals.
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