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02-2003 ICCSR Research Paper Series - ISSN 1479-5124

Corporate identities on the web: An exercise in the construction and deployment of ‘morality’ Christine Coupland

Research Paper Series International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility ISSN 1479-5124 Editor: Dirk Matten International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility Nottingham University Business School Nottingham University Jubilee Campus Wollaton Road Nottingham NG8 1BB United Kingdom Phone +44 (0)115 95 15261 Fax +44 (0)115 84 66667 Email

Corporate identities on the web: An exercise in the construction and deployment of ‘morality’
Christine Coupland Abstract Exploring a company web site, for how a socially responsible identity is constructed, enables an investigation of interaction between hegemonic discourses, which operate internally and externally to the organization, in the conte xt of this relatively new genre of communication. From a focus on how identity is discursively constructed, the appearance of a socially responsible identity is examined. Through the analysis I illustrate how organizations in an environmentally-aware sector of industry appear to serve the two masters of business and the environment. The web sites of four multinational oil companies were examined and analysed using a discourse analytic technique. The construction of a socially responsible identity for the organizations in the paper is set in the context of alternative versions being publicly available. A claim for a plausible, authentic and legitimate identity therefore situates the ‘virtual’ identity, constructed on a web site, into an ongoing interaction. By examining this method of communication, which addresses an audience beyond the confines of the organization, fractures in the institutionalised nature of argument may be revealed. In contrast to some claims regarding amoralization, I argue the language of morality is the currency in which these organizations currently operate. This has implications for the repertoires on which an organization may draw in recognition of the ambiguous, fluid, fragile nature of a legitimate corporate identity. With particular reference to a socially responsible identity, the process of overt amoralization (Crane, 2000) is simply not an option for this sector of industry. Keywords: corporate socially responsible identities, construction of morality, discourse analysis The author: Christine Coupland is a Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at Nottingham University Business School. Address for correspondence: Dr Christine Coupland, Nottingham University Business School, Nottingham University, Jubilee Campus, Wollaton Road, Nottingham NG8 1BB, United Kingdom, Email


In this paper I am concerned with the appearance of fact. following Mead’s (1934) argument that the desire to being a ‘good’ self is essential to being a social self.constructed in this context. The identity of an organization is made relevant in interaction. subject to intense scrutiny from multiple audiences with diverse interests and is acknowledged as a manufactured image. not whether and if it bears any resemblance to some otherwise determined reality. I further argue that the construction of a socially responsible stance requires some role to be played by morality. While maintaining a focus on constructed socially responsible identities. The corporate web site represents an arena of official communication of a particular kind. leading to growing concerns with corporate social responsibility (Livesey and Kearins 2002). Following an outline of the methodology. I propose. Crane’s framework of 1 . I intend to develop and apply Crane’s (2000) notion of corporate greening (the process of appearing ‘green’) as amoralization (to not make the subject of moral reflection). as an argument awaiting opposition. Although industrial development has long been determined by ‘bottom line’ accounting practices. suggesting tensions and dilemmas being managed in order to achieve plausibility. these have been challenged in the last two decades by an increasing awareness of environmental issues. Although similar in context and purpose to mission statements and letters to shareholders the competing interests of its readers requires that attention be paid to its format. contrasting his findings with the data in the paper. It is the verisimilitude of the web page that is under scrutiny. This is followed by some consideration of how a socially responsibly corporate identity may be re.Introduction Corporate environmentalism is an emerging process addressing environmental issues while recognising multiple stakeholder claims. available for interpretation by its readership. It is ostensibly from one source. frames how claims and arguments may be legitimised. The structure of the paper is thus: first some attention is paid to the web page literature with specific reference to web-based-identities. The diversity of the potential audience. The purpose of this paper is to investigate how a socially responsible identity may be constituted on a corporate web site.

g. a discussion of the implications of the findings will conclude the paper. through the selection and manipulation of existing company information. The Web Site as an Identity-relevant Context I have explored four web sites from organizations that operate in the petro-chemical exploration. a sector subject to particular public scrutiny (e. Winner 1995). Yates and Orlikowski 1992). Finally. Shrivistava 1995. Hence. Tsoukas 1999. Wynn and Katz 1997). Welford 1997). Livesey 2001. the location of this investigation. That is.g. the corporate web site. as an example of a genre of organizational communication. Communications within organizations function as socially recognised actions. Nevertheless. or in the name of. Web sites from this sector have been selected. as a corporate socially responsible identity affects the way people judge a company’s conduct. as an arena fo r the construction and display of identity. they are geared to ‘sell’ to a particular audience (Armstrong and Hagel 1996. In addition. enacted by members to serve a particular purpose (Orlikowski and Yates 1994. This enables some contrast to be made with studies of organizationally situated argumentation repertoires. which renders them available to scrutiny equally or more stringently than the printed form (Correll 1995. Fombrun and Rindova 2000. the members of the community. Sillince 1999). they offer an opportunity to explore what is made relevant for this genre and how this may be carried out. on corporate web sites situates the focus on a genre of organizational communication constituted by its broad readership. because there are commonly known. The web as a relatively new context of communication is still emerging as a variant of more established genres (Wynn and Katz 1997 and Dillon and Gushrowski 1999). Moreover. is recognised as social action on behalf of. the notion of identity as argument is rendered more visible. 2 . alternative narratives to the hegemonic. visible.amoralization will be applied to the analysis of the data. commercial web sites are treated as public documents. narrative. Livesey and Kearins 2002. organizationally defined. In addition. refinement and distribution industry. which are presumed to constrain and manipulate what members can say in pursuit of influence and power (e.

Livesey 2001. as. Therefore its format requires some attention to the likely competing interests of its broad readership. Winner 1995). So. a requirement for interaction to be mutually meaningful suggests an ordered. the audience impacts on the identity that may be constructed. a vested interest is understood to exist. have proposed that. entertaining or satisfying the web site reader is a complex one. Robertson and Nicholson 1996). magazines and some television documentaries. However. The corporate web site. but also opens up organizationally defined argumentation repertoires to challenges from beyond the organization (Segars and Kohut 2001). Groups of people who are concerned with ethical issues would actively search the web site to investigate the company stance (Welford 1997). however this denies the role of a web site as a form of communication. Wynn and Katz 1997). is unusual in that its visitors have diverse interests. arguably. Other commentators. Internet culture not only remains sensitive to indicators. whereby the narrator will ultimately be called upon to account for the identity constructed in interaction. even in ‘virtual’ space.Although it is theoretically possible to create a persona free of embodiment on the web. Contrary to post modernist claims that the self is decentred in cyber space (Wynn and Katz 1997). Spar and Bussgang 1996. structured. process. as a genre for communication. identities are constructed in relation to material and social factors (Herring 1996. Spar and Bussgang 1996. This has relevance as companies are increasingly competing in discursive space where winning the ‘argument’ is important (Tsoukas 1999). 3 . As a commercial venture it may be compared with journalistic representations in newspapers. This becomes more complex if the company espouses a ‘green’ agenda. it would have more to lose than one whose ethical stance is overtly governed by legislators (Fineman 1996. the remit of attracting. With interest from potential customers and employees to current shareholders. despite an even-handed description being espoused. in practice web presence entails accountability (Correll 1995. Although not presumed to be totalising and monological (Boje 1995) the aim is to legitimise the social institution of the organization (Brown 2001). where. Virtuality implies the Internet is a space not relying on institutions and commercial interests. or cues. a new communicative form has creative potential for both the individual and the organizing process. who have explored computer-mediated identity.

in the paper. Livesey 2001. from media reports of questionable practices in the recent past (see. Carroll 1995. Hatch 1997). the construction and mobilisation of a company identity as a socially responsible body is refracted through outsider understandings. There are specific mechanisms in organizational life that lead us away from exploring this (Deetz 2002). the terms ‘image’ or ‘identity’ could be used interchangeably in this context. In contrast to Crane’s (2000) argument that corporate greening is accomplished by a process of amoralization. Ice 1991. which suggests an increasing degree of moral neutrality. Furthermore. many aspects of which have been discussed at length elsewhere (e. Elsbach 1994. Renkema and Hoeken 1998. The paper is an example of a discursive treatment of organizational life by looking at the practices to see how they are maintained. repositioning responsibility in organizational life is due to very subtle processes. the issue of social responsibility. for example.Corporate Social Responsibility as an Identity-relevant Concept Other commentators have discussed the relationships between organizational image. an alternative perspective is to consider on what grounds morality is claimed in the construction of a socially responsible identity. From this rich and diverse field I have selected one aspect of identity on which to focus. how organizations ‘manage’. Alvesson 1994. that is. in that the image is the espoused identity that is being examined. Taking the perspective that our positioning is an outcome of social processes and linguistic constructions. that is. as it is acknowledged that the web site identity is an image manufactured for specific communicative purposes. identity and reputation as being relative to the perceiver. This has resulted in an example of explicit argumentation played out in a publicly accountable corporate arena. In the web page. Shrivastava 1995). the taken-for-granted nature of these mechanisms are made explicit. in discursive terms. Organizational identity has been the subject of a large and burgeoning literature. Whetten and Godfrey 1998). in the light of a growing awareness of environmental issues. However. for the purposes of the paper I will refer to this constructed identity as an aspect of the organization that is available to both members and non-members for their interpretation. This is not to suggest that these 4 .g. moved into awareness. a distinction is drawn between members and non-members (Dutton and Dukerich 1999.

detailed. see also Bullis 1997). a moral/economic distinction is blurred as company leaders articulate a “response to the natural economic incentives of the environment” (Love 1992: 889. “institutions parade goals and mission statements whose benevolent generalities 5 . Schultz 1996). Kernisky 1997. pragmatic. activities that render morality invisible. financial. However. socially responsible identity. rather. The inadequacy of existing management frameworks to explain economic growth and environmental concerns is well understood (Crane 2000). their dialectical nature renders their exploration in interaction pertinent. Instead. stakeholder). hence raising a plethora of moralities rather than none. what are made visible are the methods of operation that may be recognised as ‘being’ socially responsible. These moralities are claimed in support of particular stances taken with regard to environmental issues. Companies are required to articulate their strategic position with regard to public welfare (Kernisky 1997. rather. particularly in the light of the activities of the organizations and past practices. There is an intention to explore how moral perspectives are taken up in the legitimation of a corporate. however. 1998) social constructionist position on morality.g. (e. Without intending to investigate beyond the appearance of these morality claims. the tools and techniques of their persuasiveness will be explicated in the paper. The growing concern with ethical issues has led to a challenge to the former hegemonic repertoire of the ‘bottom line’ (Arrington and Puxt y 1991.notions exist in a dichotomous relationship. In the paper a specific. Hart 1995). as suggested by Bullis. it is in the everyday negotiations of a socially responsible identity that a particular version of morality is made visible. Schultz 1996). This is not in any real sense. “more detailed examinations of corporate rhetoric as they relate to environmental problems are important to undertake” (1997: 459). Well-crafted corporate images communicate accountability through social responsibility. There are emerging pressures for environmental awareness (Starik and Rands 1995). An expectation of socially responsible organizations reflects an increasing concern with corporate accountability (Shrivastava 1995. I suggest it is not simply a matter of local. society. which suggest an alternative account may be as plausible. exploration of organizational communication is attempted. While sharing Fineman’s (1996. Organizations will claim legitimacy for their actions from differing sources of ‘witness’.

version and contrasts with a more normative assumption of hegemonic discourses prevailing (Edley 2001. This creates a compelling scenario where a once marginalized version challenges a hegemonic. Robertson and Nicholson 1996). organizationally defined. Fineman 1996. the particular context of organizations in the petro-chemical industry locates their activities within an environmental focus by virtue of what they do. “Hegemony will always be contested to a greater or lesser extent. Renkema and Hoeken 1998. growing pressure from ‘green’ groups and a demand for some expression of ‘social responsibility’ has set a moral agenda to be attended to by companies in general (Banerjee 2001. Robertson and Nicholson 1996). rather. As the organizations being explored in the present paper are constructing their web pages under close scrutiny from outside the company. although operating as a signal of awareness. In this paper these external forces are evident in the web pages and work to legitimise and account for managing the tension between economic and environmental issues in different ways. He found that amoralization (the construction of greening characteristics as amoral in character) was found to be strongest in conventional companies and weakest in companies described as ‘social mission’ companies (such as the Body Shop). 2001: 235). Fineman (1996. Love 1992. opens the company.discreetly obscure the conflicts and contradictions of day-to-day activity” (Love 1992: 884). Other commentators have argued that the corporate rhetoric of a socially responsible stance. in hegemonic struggle. Kernisky 1997). An order of discourse is not a closed or rigid system. which is put at risk by what happens in actual interactions” (Fairclough. Kernisky 1997. The moral agenda as related to corporate greening has begun to be examined. to a charge of ‘hypocrisy’ (Bullis 1997. 1997. The web site as an interaction is the focus of the paper. an open system. However. which shapes and constrains the predominant company version is gained from a growing concern with a demand for companies to operate in a socially responsible way (Love 1992. This suggests that maintaining an amoral stance with regard to the environment is simply 6 . Fairclough 1992). 1998) has argued that coercion from pressure groups and regulators are more likely to encourage corporate greening than principled action. the strength of the perspective. However. but. potentially. Shrivastava 1995. Crane (2000) has investigated the potential role for morality in this process.

morality boundaries. While there is an expectation that organizations in this sector will espouse a socially responsible attitude. users of talk and text. This creates a scenario in which a moral stance is always made explicit. rather than rely on one source of data. Central to this study is the role of language as a site of action (Austin 1962). how this is achieved under tension of competing hegemonic discourses is a focus of the paper. These elements are. Tsoukas 1994). NGO’s and other regulatory bodies ensure that attention is paid to environmental concerns. to the environment. how is that identity made up of tension and argument and what function does an espoused moral stance play in this communicative genre? Methodology The theoretical perspective adopted in this paper is that organizations are a socially constructed. it is acknowledged that the detailed 7 . as examples of corporate text. There was an expectation that these web sites would contain a number of references to a socially responsible identity. appropriation of discourse and mobilization of narrative (Crane 2000). Four organizations were examined so as to enable some identification of cross-organizational patterns of language use. However.not an option. function as manipulative. depersonalization. emergent. to describe a moral stance. driven by forces from outside the company. It derives its philosophical underpinning from Wittgenstein’s (1967) notion of language as a game and Austin’s (1962) speech act theory. They will be drawn on in order to explore the research questions of the paper. conversely. This works from the assumption that web sites. However. External forces such as legislation. This provides four elements which may be utilised. which may have been subject to idiosyncrasies of one organization. or conscious. a moral stance. ‘success’ lies in the persuasiveness of the text in the light of available alternative versions of company behaviour. The framework of the analysis of the paper is derived from an earlier study of organizations which emphasised the construction of an amoral stance. process (Berger and Luckmann 1966. Web sites were selected from four multinational organizations in the petro-chemical industry. in the form of a text. how is a socially responsible identity constituted on a corporate web page.

or written. function in this genre of communication. I have employed a method described by other commentators who argue that. refinement and merger (Brown 2001). only a few will be illustrated in the present paper. which attends to how facts are ‘worked up’ in talk. contain contrary themes which give rise to ideological dilemmas when in opposition to each other. they are not merely 8 . however. that contribute to the sense that discourses are literally describing the world. The use of discourse to persuasive effect has been explored in the text. I examined each result in a systematic way (see Widdicombe 1993 and Gill 1996 for a detailed explanation of this method of discourse analysis). or ideologies. The web sites were initially explored using the sites’ own search engine for reference to ‘social responsibility’ and variants thereof. the process of constant comparison of categories within the data evolves through exploration. This method of analysis was particularly pertinent to the aim of the study as it is concerned with the appearance of fact. Billig et al (1988) have discussed how common sense. I have employed a strategy that was suggested by Widdicombe (1993) which involves treating what is said. In an attempt to identify the problem and how the text constitutes a solution I have examined the rhetorical nature of the talk. the approach adopted in the present study. as a solution to a problem. or procedures. in part at least. Continual re-readings of the data cued instances where environmental issues were discussed. However. In addition. The method adopted operates along the lines suggested by Potter (1996: 47): “Descriptions are not just about something but they are also doing something. Each of these was further explored to investigate how the account was constructed and what resources were drawn on to create plausibility. the purpose of this paper is to investigate how corporate socially responsible identities. Nevertheless. These searches resulted in over 800 hits from the four web pages. in order to acquire an in-depth understanding of texts.examination of nuanced differences between these organizations would also have been fruitful in terms of insight into these issues. that is. make an account of devices. while acknowledging that multiple organizations are required for plausibility of argument. There were many instances in the web site of such cases. follows Potter (1996) by attempting to. through espoused morality. It is taken from discursive psychology. in the main.

in addition to aiming for resonance with the reader’s interpretations. More reporting is advocated on the basis that it provides greater transparency regarding the environmental impact of corporate activities (Livesey 2002). instead of dealing with counter arguments from opponents. From a small sample of four Web sites. this assumption is based is based on an illusion – we need to consider how organizations report their activities with an aura of objectivity and legitimacy in ways that re-present their identities (Deetz 1992). on the surface at least. This strategy has persuasive power as potential critics of the company web site. appear to be allies. like a polite tea party whose temporary meeting of like-minded individuals exists only until the last cake is eaten and the tea has been drunk (Billig 1996). Story lines have been developed which appear to be conducive to new forms of alliance between historically oppositional agents (Hajer 1997). Starik and Rands 1995). Hence the appearance of adopting a moral stance has become vital to the organizations in this industry sector. for which ‘extrapolation’ may be argued (Alasuutari 1995: 156). Livesey and Kearins 2002). However. while maintaining a traditional identity. From 9 . generalizability of the findings is not claimed. has to be faced by all organizations. they are also involved in that world in some practical way”. the identification may only be temporary. However. in the Zeitgeist of a moderate climate of opinion in favour of social responsibility (Kernisky 1997. I attempt to indicate how the analysis relates to matters beyond the material at hand. Analysis In an examination of rhetoric Cheney (1991) proposed that in constructing the corporate ‘we’ the problem of adapting to outside audiences in changing circumstances.representing some facet of the world. This aligns with other commentators’ investigations into ‘discursive struggle’ – the attempted re-construction of discursive regularity and control following discursive rupture (Hajer 1997. However. The web site that is explored in the present paper is compared to such a tea party where. The publicly monitored na ture of the activities of the petro-chemical industry necessitates an articulated relationship between business and environmental ideologies. have to deal instead with those who. the company identifies with its audience in order to change the audiences’ opinions.

What we are interested in here is the discursive business being achieved through this positioning. appropriation of discourse and mobilization of narrative. to the communicative practices of a newspaper. The concept of positioning may be regarded as a more dynamic alternative to the more static concept of ‘role’ (Harré and van Langenhove 1999). but at first glance it could be interpreted as locating responsibility for the activities of the organization to the reader who uses petrol. Following some investigation of the data it became apparent that the corporate voice was deployed to particular effect with regard to claiming responsibility. Although corporate ‘voices’ were hearable in claims for socially responsible attitudes and behaviours. the activities of the industry are constructed as. morality boundaries. Furthermore. in linguistic terms. By drawing on understandings from positioning theory (Harré and van Langenhove 1999) and pronoun use (Goffman 1979. they work in a similar way. the connections and relative status of the images and text being ascertained in the scanning process. at least partially. as these are all clickable images. will be utilised in order to structure the analysis. Newspapers are multimodal and the images and text are designed to be scanned prior to reading . Depersonalization Crane (2000) used this term to describe how the participants in his study avoided personal and moral responsibility for the environment. In the present study this was also evident. your responsibility. the language used functioned to provide proximity between the speaker and what was being claimed. your industry. Positioning is regarded as a discursive practice in which interactants position self and other simultaneously.this assumption I argue that earlier studies of the amoralization of the greening process provide a critical perspective from which to t ake this argument forward. depersonalization. Messages are not just expressed linguistically but also through a 10 . Crane’s (2000) four key elements. The personal pronoun ‘my’ is part of a clickable device to a section for members of that particular organization. our brands. Malone 1997) some examples of how this was achieved are discussed. “Our company. my petrol company” The pronoun use in the above extract positions the reader as more than an observer.

‘requirements’ is a more appropriate. between behaviour and accounts thereof is a complex linguistic arrangement. In a similar manner the selection of moves through a web site may make sense only to the reader. In the following extract the corporate ‘we’ is 11 . The reader may choose to not pursue further elaboration of the images and hence the strength of the message is contained in the heading. In this way the denial of corporate responsibility for the environment is effectively shaped by the context in which greening is espoused. or create distance. our goal is to be recognized and admired everywhere for having a record of environmental excellence.value-laden. meeting your needs” There are claims for proximity with the reader as individual. It is then up to the reader to connect the elements in order to make sense of the site. Consider alternatives for ‘needs’. business-relevant. “Our company. However. our business. the corporate account suggests that their endeavours are aimed at satisfying the world’s needs. through ‘your needs’ in the above extract. sometimes not. Nevertheless. position-relevant. in your area. The use of pronouns to depersonalise. in the following extracts there is a sense of escalation that goes beyond the potentially sceptical self-interest of the reader to embrace the whole world: Our quality of life. term yet ‘needs’ evokes a m ore emotive response. having the potential to place the organization into an ‘essential-services’ category. deconstructed in detail. as elements are not randomly placed on a newspaper page. world’s energy needs Performance for all our futures Beyond meeting the world's energy needs. So. In the following extracts pronouns are used to establish the role of the organization as one of responder to others’ needs. so are elements on a web site carefully positioned. sometimes organised consciously. ‘visual arrangement of marks on a page’ (Kress and van Leeuwen 1998: 186).

Institutionalisation of argument are features of organizations’ persuasive-rich negotiative power (Sillence. Billig (1995) has argued that ‘we’ may be described as a feature of the syntax of hegemony. but the construction of other groups immediately following the use of ‘we’ questions just who ‘we’ is referring to. in this context a desire to persuade through plausibility at least renders the procedures of authenticity visible. to which they are accountable. and it allows society to measure our performance beyond the generation of wealth. in a situation where the argument is implied rather than explicitly maintained by two or more parties the notion that argumentation is a context-based sense making process (Weick 1995) becomes particularly relevant. Values and principles therefore are useful so staff may be motivated and so society may judge.” In this extract I would like to focus on the use of the personal plural pronoun ‘we’. ‘staff’ would be employees of the company and may be included in ‘we’ but for the purposes of justifying a claim to having values. In the context of the web page where the organization is communicating beyond the immediate group of members. in order to behave in a particular way. but the exclusive ‘we’ is positioned as the other in this discourse. This questions and. it is drawn on as a motivator for ‘staff’. it unifies and motivates staff. This ‘making visible’ is applied to morality boundaries in the following section. Although this constructs the company as situated in a physical and social environment. ‘we’ is also constructed as if outside ‘society’. 12 . In addition. In this instance the claim to moral values and principles is brought close to the company. undermines the use of ‘we’. The dominant repertoire of explicit legitimisation of the organization (Sillince 1999) can be unravelled to make visible the fragility of the tenets of common sense on which it is based. 1999).“…we take pride in what we do. as a body speaking as one. in this instance. it functions to establish an ‘us’ and ‘them’ scenario. Although Czarniawska (2000: 276) argues that ‘authenticity’ with regard to a narrated identity does not appear to be in any great demand anymore. However. It gives us clarity when making decisions. For example. not only does the setting affect the appropriateness of justification but the very nature of the status of the justification itself.

safety and the environment consistent with their commitment to contribute to sustainable development. “To conduct business as responsible.” “An impoverished world with degraded resources. or explained.” “the good news is that these new ways of doing things are giving us competitive advantage. one corporate position is explained. for example. the above extracts relate closely to Crane’s (2000) findings that environmental issues are couched. to express support for fundamental human rights in line with the legitimate role of business and to give proper regard to health. However. polluted environments and social instability is a risky and unproductive place for business” These tensions are manifest in ways that see the corporate argument slipping between the two. In the present paper one example of this is examined through evident tensions between business and environmental discourses as illustrated in the following extracts. In the following extract. “Key to Profitability: We also know that a record of environmentally sound operations makes us more competitive in the global marketplace.” 13 . let’s keep in mind that what helps shareholders helps a lot of other people too. in economic terms. And also let’s remember that a business needs to put first things first. through presenting morality as circumscribed into other organizational functions. corporate members of society. helps us gain permission to operate and is essential to profitability.Morality Boundaries Crane’s (2000) focus on this element was with regard to boundaries that limited the moral status of the environment. This was achieved. selling one in terms of the other.” “So when we or others talk of balancing the interests of shareholders and stakeholders. to observe the laws of the countries in which they operate.

the term ‘to express support for fundamental human rights’ is a weakened version of supporting human rights. which illuminates an alternative perspective. In the first instance the descriptor ‘corporate members of society’ functions as a qualified member of society. uncontroversial. ‘a commitment to contribute to sustainable development’ sounds like a pledge to attend 14 . Secondly. behaviour as being in accordance with the socially operable judgements pertinent to the local context of the behaviour. The competing ideologies of business and the environment are woven into the text in this extract. The readers’ acquiescence is sought for the third in the wake of agreement with the pre-ceding two items in the list. matters. while slipping in a potentially controversial concern under cover of the first two. In addition. It is unlikely that a company would argue to not support human rights. which is ostensibly about the company’s responsibility to society. The qualifier to the statement follows ‘in line with the legitimate role of business’. safety and the environment’ constructs the company as giving consideration to important work related matters. while purporting to claim an uncontroversial stance. this functions as a disclaimer of past behaviour as within the laws of a country. inappropriate. by drawing on the institutionalised rhetoric of a business organization the argument is framed according to economic perspectives (Arrington and Puxty 1991). In addition. Finally. it also works to justify any globally interpreted. ‘to observe the laws of the country in which they operate’ places responsibility for unethical behaviour outside the company. In this instance ‘proper regard to health. and in this way functions as an institutionalised argument repertoire (Sillince 1999). an economic/business ideology qualifier ‘consistent with their commitment to contribute to sustainable development’ follows the list. The appearance of this claim is interesting. At first glance. However. However a close exploration of the account makes visible how business concerns are positioned over societal concerns throughout the argument. The next proposition in the text takes the form of a three-part list (see Jefferson. one whose first concern is a corporate one. It is the kind of assumption that is taken for granted until made explicit.In this extract the company constructs its responsibility to ‘society’ in business terms. This positions the claim to support fundamental human rights as operable from within a business context. That is. 1990). The matters dealt with in the preceding list are constrained within the terms of the qualifying comment.

which would require substantial justification in terms of the hegemonic economic repertoires that permeate most corporate communications. a commitment to contribute to sustainable development. For example. safety and the environment as restricted by. “Global forces have led us to shed the traditional way of doing things and to expand into new and eye-opening opportunities” “Global forces have encouraged us to change the way we work” The above extracts indicate subtle ways that the responsibility for changed business focus is legitimately located outside the organization. or within the confines environmental concerns. Just how large or small that commitment is. social. In Sillince’s (1999) terms of institutionalised repertoires of argumentation. environmental and financial is excessive. competing. ideologies. “Society expects us to be environmentally and socially responsible as well as financially successful. one reading of the text positions the company concerns for health. which communicates to people who operate from within other. However.” 15 . What makes the ideologies in the text visible and breaks the rational explanatory power of the dominant economic/business ideology is the context of a web site. It is also implied that an expectation to serve three masters. through a revision of legislative and NGO pressure being presented as ‘new opportunities’. hence a response rather than a conscious decision. “Recent revisions (in business principles) reflect heightened public interest in human rights issues. these are only effective in arguments within an organization and perhaps only then for a short period of time. is left to the interpretative skill of the reader. The above extract indicates that the corporate morality is determined by expectations. The construction of an ambiguous statement renders alternative interpretations as plausible.

paradigm the arguments of environmentalists may be contrary to the dominant understanding of growth. Ownership of these issues and dilemmas is left unclear. In the present paper I consider how alternative discourses are presented on the corporate page. moral. while reducing the status of the challenge to revise company policies to an opinion. Hence the company constructs an agentic. notions. in the context of the web site response to ‘public’ opinion carries weight in terms of legitimated behaviour. but subsumed under clickable headings entitled: ‘viewpoints’ or ‘issues and dilemmas’. ‘global warming’ and ‘ecology’ as Crane (2000) fo und. rather than an avoidance of words like ‘biodiversity’. which exist separately to the company. they serve to position the contents of that link page to matters of debate. managerial.In the above extract the reaction of the organization is constructed through the business principles having been revised. for example? Furthermore. Van Dijk (1998) has identified these functional moves as part of an overall strategy of ideological selfinterest. Appropriation of Discourse According to Crane (2000) this occurs and affects the use and value attached to discourses surrounding corporate greening. stance evidenced by a positive act. Do they belong to the organization. for consideration. the location of the cause for revision is not constructed as response to ‘fact’ but to ‘public interest’. Consider what status this apportions the discussions contained therein. these words are discussed. generalised. following the construction of business principles as ‘fact’. How are NGO’s arguments presented. In this instance. In addition. the industry or the world? In addition. In this way the status of opposing ideological views may be reduced to mere opinion. From the perspective of a traditional. to emphasise the good properties/actions of the company. the impact of the audience is made visible as. 16 . These constructs are presented as vague. the company has voluntarily made revisions. contrary to Christensen and Cheney’s (2000) argument that organizations address the world as segmented into different stakeholder groups. although the demands to do so have been positioned as having a weak status of ‘public opinion’. This works in two ways.

historically and culturally relative. or factual. part of the positioning works on locating a low moral ground for someone else. NGO’s identity is thus constructed: “NGO’s have enjoyed a great growth in recent years” This suggests a questioning of David and Goliath typified interactions (see Tsoukas 1999). They can be ideologically hostile to business and unwilling to accept the tradeoffs necessary in most avenues of life. which are believed to be. Hence. In the analysis of expressions of conflicting themes attention should be paid to how strategies function to create unequal representations (Wetherell 1998). rather to consider that ideologies reside in the opinions expressed. As norms. and treated as ‘true’. “Some NGO’s have a darker side.” In the above extract. rendering alternative arguments as opinions weakens their status.consumption and profitability as what business is about (Fineman 1996). Hence. When claiming a high moral ground. these matters are placed as opinions. The difference lying in whether socially accepted judgement constructs the belief as ‘fact’ (van Dijk 1998). this makes them a target for the corporate counter-argument. in contrast. in this instance ideological differences are drawn 17 . 1998) has argued that pressure groups and regulators are more likely to encourage corporate greening. whereas fact may be defined as ‘factual beliefs’. Fineman (1996. They tend to be single issue focused and made up of uncompromising activists. It is in the strength of ‘socially accepted judgement’ that opinion may be rendered factual. This is not to question whether accounts in text are truthful. in contrast to Crane’s (2000) expectation that words which imply a moral stance would be avoided. values and judgements are socially. rather than as strongly held oppositional ideologies with the potential to challenge the hegemonic status quo. what is truthful or factual may differ for different people at different times. So. Opinions can be defined as ‘evaluative beliefs’. 1997. In this way ideology can be seen to operate in an understanding of how fact may be separated from opinion.

Mobilization of narrative Crane (2000) suggested that corporate greening was facilitated by extending and developing existing organizational narratives in such a way that it appears as a natural next chapter in the story. between two. there is no evident reluctance to use the language of radical environmentalism. in essence it is used as a counter argument. all of the examples shown may be described as a mobilization of a discursive resource. particularly from a discursive perspective. The moral ‘beliefs’ of the organization remain unstated in this extract. but these roles need to be responsibly played. It is acknowledged that. “The term ‘corporate social responsibility’ basically describes the range of responsible and ethical practices that Oilco has followed for years in the communities and countries where we work. I have already identified some contrary indications where other tensions lead to a balance. however. public health and the development of poorer countries. desired positions for the organization. or more. they take on moral implications by inferring that some NGO’s are irresponsible and misuse their roles. in discursive terms.” 18 . there were instances where the account of socially responsible behaviour was normalized and legitimised through historical reference. a play off. exemplified in the following extract: The corporate role for NGO’s is further “NGO’s and multi lateral bodies have important roles to play in addressing issues related to the environment. there is some intimation of irrationality in an attempt to undermine the critical voice. in the following section some attention is paid specifically to how narratives are related to identity.on to suggest radical and irreconcilable differences between the corporate bodies and the pressure groups. However. However. However. however. Neither institutions nor processes should be misused for ideological purposes” In keeping with Crane’s (2000) findings for conventional companies there is a requirement to create a symbolic distance between the organization and the radical environmentalist.

However. instead. are nuanced and consist of counter-counter-moves in alternative directions. some references to corporate social responsibility focus on the rhetoric itself.” There were many instances where there was evident negotiation in importing the language of social responsibility into existing narratives. window dressing and the political correctness of being green (Banerjee 2001). in contrast to Crane’s (2000) suggestion that emotive issues were relegated to the province of pressure groups in favour of rational discourses of 19 . the genre of communication renders an explicitly anti-environmental repertoire as unacceptable. In addition. Thus the play on words is all that remains to these organizations for whom an espoused moral position appears to be mandatory. However. In the final extract. unconventional and inappropriate for businesses. the best companies clearly agree that success in our world today means doing business in a socially responsible and ethical manner. In the following extract the ambiguous meaning of ‘sustain/able’ functions as a bridge. the language of environmentalism has entered corporate-speak in terms of public relations exercises (Bebbington and Gray 1993). “and enlightened self-interest rather than philanthropy will be a powerful motivator towards achieving sustainable development – because for business to be sustainable it must sustain the societies in which it operates. uncontroversial and has always been attended to. implying that multiple definitions suggest lack of consensus. this argument is not articulated in unsubtle ways. It proposes an alternative to the discourse that greening is radical. “we see a lot of definitions of what is generally known as corporate social responsibility’ but no matter what you call it.” From a radical environmental perspective ‘sustainable development’ suggests the elevation of environmental goals alongside economic goals from a deep ecology perspective (Crane 2000).This links with Crane’s (2000) findings in that it suggests that greening is normal. The arguments.

science. This extract represents a piece of text which illustrates some self-absorbtion in symbolic expression (Christensen and Cheney 2000). From this piece of narrative it is evident that. rather than an amoralization of discourse surrounding corporate greening. or fact. the focus of this paper has been on how. worthy of investigation in its own right. the findings suggest that ‘depersonalization’ functions to provide proximity between the corporate voice and the activities being accounted for. With regard to how a socially responsible identity may be constituted on a web page. Discussion I have utilised Crane’s (2000) dimensions of amoralization to examine web based communications of corporations who operate in an environmentally-aware sector of industry. the analysis can explore the appearance of legitimacy. communities and the environment nonnegotiable. the Western icon of democracy was drawn on as a supporting argument to claims for being socially responsible. The Rights of Man. I suggest the crafted expressions are the result of selfseduction as described by Christensen and Cheney (2000). moral issues have become the currency in which organizations in this industry give their account of themselves. and in what form. From the analysis it is clear that issues of morality surrounding the environment are managed in similar ways to those identified by Crane. our country is indeed the world… and our aim should be to do good not only because it is good for business – which it is – but because we live in a world where expectations have changed and new benchmarks are making respect for ethical values. By regarding language as an opaque phenomenon. that ‘my country is the world…and my aim is to do good’. For a company like ours. However. The context of the web page renders 20 . It functions to construct a particular identity not simply in the face of disinterest but in the light of rampant cynicism from the audience. Those words that helped launch the idea of democracy around the world two centuries ago are in many ways even more resonant today. people. “The early American patriot Thomas Paine wrote in. morality is made visible. which fail due to explicit rejection by the audience.

and. This is not to deny the growing influence of environmental discourses (Kernisky 1997. or unemotional way (Fineman 1996) they are still attended to. although attended to by organizations in a pragmatic way (Fineman.the interaction more complex as the audience is more diverse than the usual recipients of corporate communication. the corporate role is then described in terms of being a supplier of essential services. From some consideration of the extracts in the present paper it can be seen that the discourse of the environment has been constructed in the terms of the discourse of business. Through the analysis some tensions have been highlighted which have made this argument visible. the corporate response remains within an economic argument. corporate. Sillence’s (1999) discussion of the institutionalisation of argument in organizational settings has been useful to provide a background of more usual. often unspoken. for example. It has become evident that the corporate. This suggests that social responsibility is located in the interaction with the presumed reader. in. through undermining and questioning the position of the other in the interaction. Love 1992). the heading becomes the message. which function in a similar way to newspaper headings. although the hegemonic status of the discourse of business has been challenged. Livesey 2002. this broad readership is drawn on in the content of the message. hence the corporate argument has to address the potential audience in a manner appropriate to the context. through creating the corporate position and. If the reader chooses not to pursue further elaboration. 1998). the role of clickable headings enables an attribution of status to titles. firstly. Livesey 2001. Of particular relevance to the communicative genre being investigated. This is utilised to render environmental issues as matters of opinion. Furthermore. socially responsible. alternative perspectives. ‘the world’s needs’. ‘your industry’. The power of the once marginalised. or amoral way (Crane 2000). arguable and temporally intransient. The analysis has made visible the competing ideologies in such a way that. subsequently. argument justification. 21 . identity is constantly being negotiated in interaction in the light of. I have examined how the persuasiveness of this positioning works in two ways. What appears as non-controversial within typical organizational boundaries may provoke challenge in the context of the web page. secondly.

NGO’s were positioned as. through temporal consistency for example. Corporate positioning of self and other in interaction plays a role in the plausibility of argument. I shall examine the implications of each of these stances in turn. However. and in contrast. this claim is not without risk. When considering how discourse is appropriated in the context of corporate greeni ng it was useful to examine how potential adversaries were described. however. the moral status of the environment is established as a close concern of the organization. again making visible a tension in the accounts of a socially responsible identity. thus undermining a voice that is critical of corporate business activities.alternative. The corporate use of ‘ideology’ functioned to construct and maintain distance between the pressure groups and the organization. Robertson and Nicholson 1996). alternative versions of the central concerns of the organization are available. the non-agentic-identity-potential is mitigated by drawing on the 22 . corporate greening was constituted as what the organization has always been about. corporate greening was constructed as a reaction to forces from beyond the organization. a corporately-defined role was then provided within which remit NGO’s activities were legitimised. By describing corporate greening as uncontroversial. locating a lower moral ground than the self-positioned corporate body. The more prevalent response to the moral status of the environment was as a reaction to pressure. This stance too has negative potential as it makes explicit the non-agentic activities of the organization with regard to this issue. at least partially. Through an extension and development of existing narratives it was described as an uncontroversial activity. discourse lies in its potential appropriation by the web page reader. The construction of boundaries to the moral status of the environment was examined not only through tension between economic and environmental ideologies but also in terms of the corporate response to environmental issues. There were two main techniques that were deployed. If the organization espoused a ‘green’ agenda they would have more to lose (Fineman 1996. Firstly. However. environmental. Secondly. this discourse is now drawn on in corporate accounts of their activities and includes some description of the environmental groups who have raised awareness of environmental issues.

fluid and fragile nature of a legitimate. through accepting and repudiating responsibility for their actions. constructed as matters of opinion. In addition. This has provided insight into the practices required to display corporate agency while managing the attendant responsibilities. while the current concerns with the environment are deflected as temporally transient and. It has been the remit of this paper to locate and make visible the devices of rhetoric in this espoused stance. In addition. plausibility and authenticity has been doubted through the analysis. broader. the findings suggest that an amoralization of corporate greening is too simple an explanation for the organizations in this industry 23 . An increased. In considering the function of an espoused moral stance in this communicative genre. on occasion. thus their rhetorical impetus is diminished. or behaviour. a growth in the importance of this web-based method of communication between organizations and the rest of the world will lead to less reliance on institutionalised justification for argument.(more appropriate?) business activities of the organization in contrast to demands from ‘society’. as a mode of communication with the outside world. It has become evident that. series of repertoires from which to construct a socially responsible identity in recognition of the ambiguous. Implications and Conclusions Following the analysis in this study. Furthermore. which will enable/require an espoused moral stance. in relation to a moral position on the environment. I propose that in the analysis of the present paper this has begun to be examined. In Sillince’s (1999) discussion on institutionalised argument he concludes by questioning whether the anticipation of a potentially critical audience would lead to rhetorical window dressing. Predictably. stable. That a ‘virtual’ identity may be created without the structure imposed by a desire for legitimacy. the web site clearly offers opportunities as well as costs to the organization in its identity construction. the organization cannot rely on institutionalised argument to be persuasive in this context. some understanding has been gained of how the organizations in this study display themselves as agentic. this stance constructs the organizational identity as longestablished. this broad series of repertoires will include an appropriation of discourses of greening. corporate identity will be required.

This has relevance when considering the importance of argument and counter-argument in socially responsible identities.e. identity. moral. Positioning theory (Harré and van Langenhove 1999) provides an approach to studying proximity-creating techniques in interaction. distance is created in the corporate account which locates responsibility with the reader of the account as users of the product. stance with regard to the environment. self and other in text on a page. attitudes or other internally located concepts. the appropriation of environmental discourses. In addition. society. One aim of this study is to make visible the techniques of a socially responsible identity in a particular context. With reference to the web page. mitigation through economic discourses (i. the ‘real’ business). techniques from media analysis (e. corporate. claims of socially responsible activities. socially responsible. attention to audience characteristics. the reader) and through undermining the proponents of radical environmental issues through claims of irrationality and irresponsibility. positioning. an intention is that at one level. By making these techniques visible a critical perspective is enabled. To this end. For example.g. the level of rhetoric and persuasion. Kress and van Leeuwen 1998) may go some way to explain status-positions of text. the world.e. the following devices are outlined with a view to engendering future attention to the language of a moral. Instead. it holds attention on the how of a socially responsible. This is to focus on the appearance of plausibility and fact. others’ responsibility (i. Where the activities of the organization are intimately related to the environment more complex techniques of talking about responsibility for the environment are called for. This study adds in an unusual way to understanding surrounding corporate greening as it does not aim to locate and explore motivations. legitimate. although there is no attempt to distinguish environmental improvements from greenwashing claims in the paper. Methods of legitimising these identities include. doubt may be cast on what otherwise appear to be sound.sector. 24 .

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