Corporate Campaign Theories

Janet A Bridges. Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Editor: Stephen W Littlejohn & Karen A Foss. Sage Publications. 2009.

The concept of corporate campaign theories can be discussed from at least two major perspectives: promotional product or service advertising campaigns, most relevant to the field of marketing, or the less visible corporate issues campaigns, most relevant to the field of public relations and issues management. This entry explores the corporate issues campaigns perspective and associated theoretical frameworks.

In the corporate environment, issues campaigns focus on either opportunities or threats. Every corporation wants to function as autonomously as possible in its economic environment. In that environment, an issue that could result in additional regulatory, legislative, or legal restriction is perceived as a threat to the organization’s ability to function, and the organization attempts to resolve the issue before these restrictions become necessary. In a parallel scenario, when the regulatory, legislative, or legal outcome is perceived as beneficial to the organization, the organization will attempt to further these actions. Whether beneficial or restrictive, corporate efforts frequently take the form of management-level information campaigns that could involve coalition building, mass media or interpersonal contact, and usually behavior change in the relevant organization.

Because these issues campaigns frequently involve or potentially involve regulatory agencies, legislative bodies, or court decisions, the issues both attract and compete for attention in the public arena, including media coverage. An issue may also attract activist interest groups. Management of these corporate issues campaigns therefore involves negotiation with activist groups, included in the theoretical framework of powerful stakeholders. The concept has been tied directly to at least five theoretical frameworks: systems theory, issue life-cycle theory, legitimacy-gap theory, powerful stakeholder theory, and social exchange theory.

The concept of corporate issues campaigns and their resolution draws on several disciplines, most notably the public policy side of political science and business management, and includes much of public relations’ emphasis on management-level communication that prepares and negotiates. But the concept as a unit was strongly positioned theoretically in the field of communication first through Robert Heath and Richard Nelson’s 1989 book, Issues Management: Corporate Public Policy Making in an Information Society. Heath’s 1997 book, Strategic Issues Management: Organizations and Public Policy Challenges, brought the concept into the management boardroom through concern for issue anticipation and established corporate issues management campaigns as an academic field in communication. The emphasis moved to corporate campaigns in anticipation and prevention of issue development, including negotiation with relevant stakeholders, changes in corporate behavior, and communication of these changes. This latter academic approach is of interest here.

Systems Theory

Systems theory is based on a generic concept that has been applied to organizational communication, public relations processes, and corporate issues management and campaigns. Applied to corporate campaigns, the premise of systems theory is simply that no corporation or part of the corporation exists or functions by itself. The corporation is a complex system of connected, interdependent internal parts connected to a broader external suprasystem that encompasses not only other similar units but also interdependent organizations that influence and are influenced by the original corporation. Whether internal or external, these interdependent units are potential stakeholders that have the ability to affect the corporation in a positive or negative way. Thus the systems environment is broader than one corporation and has the potential to create a turbulent setting where the corporation attempts to survive and prosper. Turbulence can result from social, political, or economic change. Change in the external environment generally requires change in the internal environment that can distract the corporation from its mission. Therefore, consistent with systems theory, the organization will strive for a level of what is called homeostasis, or balance, in order to regain stability or a nondisruptive state. Relevant management personnel should continually practice environmental scanning, monitoring the environment in order to avoid surprises.

Systems theory would suggest that any organism that fails to adapt to its environment challenges its own survival, and a corporation that ignores incoming information regarding change becomes a closed system that eventually will be unable to survive. However, a corporation cannot deal with every environmental disruption or issue. Neither can it respond to an issue without careful analysis of the issue’s potential effect on the organization, its potential effect on powerful stakeholders, the potential for the issue to develop or be disrupted, and potential media interest.

Organizational systems theorists suggest that organizational response can take one of two forms. If the organization feels the problem or issue is routine or has been dealt with previously, established procedures may already be in place. Assuming the organization was satisfied with the earlier outcome, routine response procedures should be sufficient. If the problem or opportunity has not been addressed, the organization should search for both similar issues and coalitions and evaluate the new information before acting. Cybernetics suggests that the organization will respond by either increasing or decreasing information from the organization to relevant stakeholders. However, issues management theorists recommend two-way negotiation to establish mutually beneficial relationships.

Issue Life-Cycle Theory

Issue life-cycle theory in effect extends systems theory by explaining the components that predict whether an issue will grow or will safely move out of the corporate system. The theory suggests that negative corporate issues begin when a recognizable group begins to register discontent with the corporation or when a specialist group recognizes a corporate-related problem. Positive-outcome issues may be supported by the organization. Regardless, at least three stages exist: first, the beginning of an issue, when a problem begins to surface and attract attention; then the stage when the organization is expected to react; and the final stage, when the organization makes changes to resolve the issue or when the issue disappears.

A negative issue that is not resolved in its early stages can escalate to the point that a political solution, such as regulation or litigation, is expected. When mass media become aware of an issue and find it of interest, at least in the short term the issue grows. Media coverage legitimizes an issue, attracts other media, creates an awareness of the issue in a broader public whose activities can attract additional media coverage, and can even create a label or name for the issue. It also can provide a means of activity for groups, or stakeholders, who thought the issue was unresolvable.

These activist groups may pressure an organization for unilateral change. Even after mutual resolution of an issue, the activist groups have developed coalitions that can be quickly mobilized if another related problem arises. Organizations generally wish to avoid a litigated solution, which can be precedent setting, affect other organizations, and move an ethical issue into the legal system. Social issues generally have a limited life cycle as they share public interest with other issues. Regardless of the issue focus, life-cycle theory says that no issue stays in the forefront forever. Other issues move into the cycle and attract attention of relevant groups and organizations.

Legitimacy-Gap Theory

Theorists have attempted to identify the reasons a corporate issue moves into the issue cycle, generates problematic attention, or fails to generate desired attention. One of these explanations is legitimacy-gap theory, discussed at length by Suresh Sethi. If we consider an organization a legitimate member of the business or nonprofit community, any activity or information that creates a discrepancy between society’s expectations of the organization and the organization’s perceived behavior creates a gap that could threaten the organization’s status. Two scenarios can explain this gap. In the first scenario, the organization’s behavior is knowingly inappropriate. The organization has either changed from acceptable to unacceptable behavior, or it had hidden inappropriate behavior that has been discovered. In the second scenario, the organization has neither changed its behavior nor tried to hide inappropriate behavior, but society’s expectations or norms have changed, and the organization no longer meets these standards.

These scenarios often appear when an organization focuses only on financial success, and the effects can be traced through analysis of corporate history and development of corporate public relations in this country. Financial success enables an organization to survive, but this narrow focus relates to only one stakeholder, the shareholders of the corporation. To close or avoid a legitimacy gap, corporate citizenship suggests that a successful organization needs to maintain awareness and consideration of changing social mores and exhibit behavior that is perceived as not only financially sound but also socially responsive to other stakeholders in the organizational system.

The issue is one of corporate ethics and social responsibility. Even when government attempts to promote a favorable business climate, social and environmental regulation will follow irresponsible behavior, especially behavior that is perceived as causing social risk. Social responsibility is also becoming a criterion for financial investors. Research enables an organization to maintain awareness of social norms.

Powerful Stakeholder Theory

Different stakeholders have different roles in the organizational system, and the amount of attention needed to engage a particular stakeholder group will vary with the issue. When an issue campaign becomes an organizational priority because of the behavior, needs, or influence of one stakeholder group, that stakeholder group assumes the role of or rises to status of a powerful stakeholder and generally behaves as and is treated as an activist group. Vincent Price reminds us that the political process, in which regulatory decisions are made, focuses either on recruiting specific groups, or publics, for individual problems or on defining these issues so the identified groups do not form or become active. These powerful stakeholders can include media that focus on an issue.

At minimum, interested stakeholders are perceived as having two roles. The first role is that of smaller activist groups that focus intently and actively on the issue, identified by Walter Lippmann as actors. These active groups are problematic if they have power in regard to the relevant issue, beneficial if the organization supports the issue. The second role is that of a support group, or in Lippmann’s terms, spectators, who provide support or perceived support to the actors. This spectator group could also include James Grunig’s aware publics, those who are aware of the issue but see barriers to the issue’s resolution. Perceived support can encourage the actors to continue their behavior in support of or opposition to the issue in question. While shareholders and regulatory bodies will always hold a powerful stakeholder role in the organization, employees, residents in the organization’s community, customers, and even suppliers can become powerful by organizing around an issue. If these groups begin forming coalitions, the issue will escalate.

As issue life-cycle theory proposes, individual issues do not maintain priority status forever. But even if an issue is resolved, the original coalitions can materialize faster if another relevant issue develops. Corporate campaign managers should be aware of these group linkages as well as their interests.

Social Exchange Theory

Successful corporate campaign interaction requires communication that is understood by all participants, and this interaction includes words, symbols, and actual behavior, such as demonstrations by activist groups and corporate change by organizations. Without analysis of the interaction rhetoric, rhetorical analysis, differing viewpoints, values, and issue perspectives will not come forward and cannot be resolved, or disagreement between an organization and stakeholders may inaccurately be perceived to exist.

One particular type of interaction, social exchange, is specifically appropriate for resolution of issues. Corporate interaction with activist groups and other issue-related stakeholders suggests that during negotiation each group expects something from the other. Thus, one concession can be traded for a reciprocal concession, or an exchange. However, Blau reminds us that these mutual concessions are not necessarily social exchange. In his (and Emerson’s) analysis, these concessions or exchanges are discrete, even economic, in that they resemble a purchase in which one value is traded for another.

Social exchange as a concept is more relational; trust is built. In this approach, if an organization exhibits responsible behavior, the return or reward may not be immediate. Rather, the organization builds intangible goodwill that will hopefully result in support and future goodwill with the affected stakeholders. The recipient of the intangible goodwill theoretically incurs an obligation to the responsible organization.

The organization’s responsible behavior cannot be short-term and must address the needs of the relevant stakeholder group. Blau noted that this responsible behavior also builds power for the giver, the organization, as long as the benefit has value to the recipient and if the benefit cannot be obtained elsewhere. Thus corporate issues campaigns are long-term efforts to maintain an organization’s reputation and build goodwill with relevant stakeholders.