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«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»

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A recent study that examined the corporate social orientation of Japanese and Americans found (Smith, Singal, & Lamb, 2007) significant differences in the way people from these two nations view the responsibilities of businesses as delineated by Carroll (1991). College students from Japan and America (N = 806) were surveyed and it was found that Japanese placed greater emphasis on the ethical responsibilities of the firm. On a national level, this concern translated into many anti-corruption laws. American respondents, on the contrary, favored economic responsibilities, perhaps explaining why American organizations placed more emphasis on profitability as opposed to CSR engagement. American respondents were also found to place more emphasis on organization’s legal responsibilities which may be accrued to the comprehensiveness of American laws. However, the Japanese’s belief in social agreement, accommodation and conflict avoidance could also explain their lower priority on organization’s legal responsibilities. While respondents from both nations ranked the discretionary responsibilities of an organization last, Japanese respondents placed more emphasis on it because they view organizations as corporate citizens and hence they had to be responsible to society.

On another level, societal culture also affects the organization’s culture “because the human resources of an organization are acculturated into the culture of their societies” (Sriramesh, Kim, & Tagasaki, 1999, p. 273). A study was conducted among top managers of 15 countries and found that cultural factors affected the extent to which the dominant coalition supported CSR or the aspects of CSR they were more attuned to (Waldman et al., 2006). The authors examined CSR as comprising of responsibility towards shareholders, stakeholders and the community and found that the societal culture and the ‘firm-level leadership’ affected the dominant coalitions view of CSR. Top managers in poorer countries were found to be more concerned with societal welfare. A probable explanation given by the authors was that 563 governments of poorer countries were usually less capable of providing for the welfare of its citizens, hence managers might feel more personally responsible for their welfare. On the other hand, managers from prosperous nations tend to leave societal welfare in the hands of the government or other institutions. Managers operating in collectivistic cultures were found to be more supportive of CSR as the long term impact of managerial decision on the society is considered. Cultures with great power distance were also found to lack support for CSR due to an inclination towards self-centeredness and the use of power to benefit oneself as opposed to stakeholders.

Identifying factors that drive ethical elocution in crisis communication:

Insights from Conflict Literature Conflict scholars have studied public moral conflicts and provided insights on how to communicate in moral conflicts both in content and in process. These recommendations shed lights on what ethical variables might drive the organizational stances in communicating with conflicting publics.

External factor: The Nature of Conflict

A moral conflict is one in which groups in conflict have “incommensurate moral orders… a moral order is the theory by which a group understands its experience and makes judgments about proper and improper actions” (Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997, p. 51). Moral conflicts are typically intractable, which in public relations context, can “occur within or between groups (as evidence in the antiabortion-prochoice conflict)” and “persist for long periods of time and resist every attempt to resolve them constructively” (Coleman, 2006; p. 533).

Moral conflicts are typically “interminable” (having no endpoint or resolution), “morally attenuated” (the tendency of those who engage in conflict to become just what they are fighting), and “rhetorically attenuated” (the tendency of groups in conflict to speak of the other group in negative terms and to have a limited understanding of the other group’s moral order) (Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997, p. 68). It is a daunting task for any communicator to decide whether and how to use ethical and effective communication to facilitate conflict resolution by addressing the moral order bipolarity and identifying opportunities for win-win situation and constructive negotiation.

According to Fisher-Yoshida and Wasserman (2006), public moral conflicts, “sometimes termed cultural wars, ethnic conflicts, ideological conflicts, and intractable conflicts, are created when people publicly take opposing sides of a values-laden issue” (p. 561). Pearce and Littlejohn (1997) further cited that “the greatest problem of all is that each side is compelled by its highest and best motives to act in ways that are repugnant to the other” (p. 7). As FisherYoshida and Wasserman (2006) summarized, the challenge of moral conflict communication lies in two ways. First, to find a way to bring people representing seemingly irreconcilable differences together; and second, to create a process in which people are both interested and willing to find a path that allows acknowledgment and expression of the other’s view point.

Therefore, if an organization chooses to engage in communication, taking either more accommodative or advocating stance, it must decide the content, format and process of communication that would be strategically beneficial to the organization as well as constructive and meaningful in the eyes of the morally opposing public. Practitioners need to identify the way to bring representatives of both parties together and choose the most appropriate stance to allow both parties’ values and interests acknowledged and expressed.


Internal factor: Role of Practitioners in Engaging the Other

As Fisher-Yoshida and Wasserman (2006) candidly pointed out, holding seemingly disparate perspectives is difficult, as different moral orders of different groups are an expression of a set of complex obligations, prohibitions, duties, rights, and aspirations rooted deeply in the cultural, historical and organizational soil. Therefore, “[r]evolving moral conflicts, minimizing moral conflicts, or at least trying to bring polarized parties to the same table to communicate with one another can be difficult. There are so many levels of complexity to consider and the struggle against the negative influences that may want to perpetuate the conflict can be very difficult” (Fisher-Yoshida & Wasserman, 2006; p. 564).

To tackle the complexity and understand the different levels of conflict, practitioners can learn from the lessons from conflict resolution and take a more proactive approach to engaging in more ethical communication while standing firmly by the organizational principles and moral standards. First, practitioners need to clearly perceive and help the organization to perceive the views of the opposing side in a moral conflict. This perception clarification “involves the capacity to see beyond one’s own viewpoint and to correctly represent as well as to respectfully engage with those of the other” (Fisher-Yoshida & Wasserman, 2006; p. 563). As Buber (1955) mentioned, in moral conflict communication, “experiencing the other side” (p. 96) is crucial, which is a quality of being in relationship by being open to the beliefs of the other side while staying true to one’s own beliefs. Second, the moral conflict itself could be further dissected and dealt with differently at different levels. Practitioners need to further analyze the issue under conflict, separating the elements that are completely against the organizational moral standard from those that might not be conflicting with the other party’s demand diametrically. Third, in handling moral conflicts, practitioners should keep the vision of building sustainable ethical communication process, which might lead to possible relationship transcendence. To transcend moral conflict, a shift is required in the pattern of “logic, commitment and obligations” (FisherYoshida & Wasserman, 2006; p. 564).

Relevance of insights to Contingency theory: What we can distill and infer From the review, it is evident some factors were more prominent than others.

In this section, we would divide these factors into two sets of thematically consolidated and categorized variable: Those that found greater and consistent support, and those that found lesser support. The factors that found greater support were the role of public relations practitioners; role of dominant coalition; exposure of organizational business and to diversity of cultures; government influence and intervention; nature of crisis; and activism. The factors that found lesser support were shareholder influence and organizational resources.

Role of Public Relations Practitioners The CSR literature found that the more involved practitioners were, the more entrenched and engaging would the CSR work be while the conflict literature showed that if practitioners took a more proactive approach to engaging in more ethical communication, the organization would abide by its principles and moral standards. We may be preaching to the choir, but what is evident is that if practitioners are highly involved and empowered to play the role of “ethical conscience” (Bowen, 2008, p. 290) as well as performing the role of “ethics 565 counsel to the dominant coalition” (p. 290) who would act in the “best of interests of both their organizations and their publics” (p. 290), the organization is likely to practice ethical elocution in crisis communication. The contingency theory, which characterized the PR access to dominant coalition as a predisposing factor (Cameron, Pang, & Jin, 2008), may not have given justice to the critical role PR plays.

What this means: A clearer description comes from Pang’s (2006) conflict positioning conceptualization, which termed it involvement, autonomy and influence of PR practitioners.

Borrowing insights from Pang (2006), it may mean that when the public relations practitioners have more influence and autonomy in crisis communication, the organization is likely to adopt a more accommodative stance with the aim of positioning the organization in a good light. It is therefore likely to mount a consistent defense based on the use of more accommodative repair strategies such as corrective action, and mortification. On the contrary, when public relations practitioners have less influence and autonomy in crisis communication, the organization is likely to employ a less accommodative stance. It is likely to utilize less accommodative repair strategies such as denial, evading responsibility, and reducing offensiveness.

Role of Dominant Coalition The CSR literature found that the values of the dominant coalition were important as it had the most control over an organization’s strategies and actions. Indeed, the dominant coalition dominates organizational life. Nothing happens in the organization without its sanction. The contingency theory characterized this as a predisposing factor and examined whether the dominant coalition is enlightened (Cameron, Pang, & Jin, 2008). Related contingency studies found similar insights. Shin, Park and Cameron (2006) reinforced found that the involvement of the dominant coalition played a dominant role in defining the release of negative information and in the handling of conflict situations. Pang, Cropp and Cameron (2006) found that the most important public was the dominant coalition. Crandall, Parnell and Spillan (2010) argued that the dominant coalition is instrumental in establishing an “ethical environment” (p. 200) within the organization. Pang (2006) went a step further and argued that the dominant coalition should be highly involved during crisis.

What this means: Drawing insights from Pang’s (2006) conflict positioning conceptualization, it may mean that when the dominant coalition is more involved in crisis communication, the organization is likely to adopt a less accommodative stance if it is bounded by moral, legal, regulatory and jurisdictional constraints. The repair strategies used are likely to be less accommodative strategies such as denial, evading responsibility, and reducing offensiveness. On the contrary, when the dominant coalition is more involved in crisis communication, the organization is likely to practice a more accommodative stance if the moral, regulatory, legal, and jurisdictional constraints do not prohibit it from entering into communication with its publics. The repair strategies used are likely to be more “accommodative” strategies such as corrective action, and mortification.

Exposure of Organizational Business and to Diversity of Cultures The CSR literature found that organizations that had global operations, particularly MNCs, tended to support and report their CSR activities. The contingency theory, which characterized this as a predisposing factor, termed it business exposure (Cameron, Pang, & Jin, 2008). A logical inference would be that the more exposed to a diversity of contexts an organization is in its CSR activities, the more enlightened the organization would be in appreciating – even tolerant – of the nuances, demands and contradictions placed on it. This 566 would certainly have a strong impact on the stance it adopts in its ethical elocution during crisis.

Corollary to the above factor, the CSR literature also found that exposure to diverse societal culture had an impact on how organizations adapted their CSR programs to meet specific needs in different contextual settings. The contingency theory characterized this as the general political/social environment/external culture that the organization operates in (Cameron, Pang, & Jin, 2008).

What this means: Crandall, Parnell and Spillan (2010) argued that greater exposure to the global environment can leave the organization vulnerable. Coupled with the vulnerability faced by specific industries, these could present formidable “ethical boulders” (p.

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