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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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199). A logical trajectory would then mean that organizations that have global operations may adopt a less accommodative stance when confronted with crises. On the contrary, this may not be the case. In their study of how MNCs managed conflicts in South Korea, Choi and Cameron (2005) found that these organizations tended to adopt more accommodative stances because they were fearful of the South Korean media and the local culture. Even if the MNCs were to adopt less accommodative stances at the beginning of the conflict, they would move towards accommodation once the powerful Korean media covered the story or when “an issue is related to national sentiment” (p. 185).

Government Influence and Intervention The CSR literature found that governments play a pervasive role in encouraging and regulating CSR activities through implementation of CSR-friendly policies, establishment of CSR-focused institutions and by enacting laws to ensure organizations observe and practice minimum levels of engagement with the community. Despite the importance of the government, it is not a factor in the contingency theory and is often subsumed under the characteristics of the external public. However, studies employing the theory have highlighted the critical roles governments play in managing crises (Jin, Pang, & Cameron, 2006/2007; Pang, Jin, & Cameron, 2004). Pang (2006) also elaborated the facilitating role the Singapore government played in dealing with two air crashes in 1997 and 2000 even though it involved the aircraft belonged to a commercial entity, Singapore Airlines.

What this means: Previous studies (Jin, Pang, & Cameron, 2006/2007; Pang, Jin, & Cameron, 2004) found that organizations facing crisis would often have to follow the lead when the government intervenes in a crisis. Even if the organization may have adopted a less accommodative stance initially, the government, by virtue of its moral, legal and regulatory prerogatives, can sway the organization to move towards accommodation if the government deems it to be the “right” thing to do. For instance, Lee, Lee, and Pang (2009) in their study of how the Singapore government restored confidence in the charity sector in the wake of a massive charity scandal, found that swift government intervention exerted pressure on executives of an NGO (National Kidney Foundation) to back down from their advocacy stance. Further interventions like insisting on immediate public accountability forced the organization to eventuate on an accommodative stance.

–  –  –

because it was the morally right thing to do (see Ulmer, 2001) – it is important for organizations to differentiate crises that can be managed in a straightforward manner and those in shades of gray. The contingency theory did not specifically address this and subsumed under urgency of situation as a situational variable.

What this means: First, it is possible to manage organization-public conflict through ethical communication via appropriate conflict positioning. An organization should always strive to communicate with its publics whenever possible, but it does not necessarily always have to accommodate all the time. With a solid understanding of the issue under conflict, practitioners should further assess the moral conflict as a threat according to the situational demands and organizational resource to handle the conflict as well as whether ethically there is any room to accommodate or to negotiate (and at what level) with the opponent. In addition, the understanding of the terms such as accommodation and advocacy should not be termed too rigidly. For example, the gesture of listening to all aspects of the other party’s issue arguments is a stance of accommodation. On the other hand, practitioners should communicate to reflect authentically the organization’s moral standard and beliefs.

Second, practitioners should recommend the organization to only take different stances toward different publics but also toward different levels of the conflict issue. An organization could take an advocating stance on the core of a moral issue and prohibit further communication on a given issue aspect, but in the meanwhile it could be open for further discussion on possible accommodation on other aspects of the issue under conflict.

Third, in ethical communication with the opponent public, the organization should strategically position itself in appropriate level of emotional engagement and, if possible, facilitate the conflict coping process of the other party. Research showed that the level of emotional engagement with the story of the other side affected “the capacity to hear it, especially when it conflicted deeply with an alternative existing story they held” (Fisher-Yoshida & Wasserman, 2006; p. 577). By providing a forum for both parties to cope with conflict stress via emotional venting and emotional support, the organization might pave smoother way for future communication competitive advantage while cultivating a less hostile external environment.

Activism The CSR literature found that activism, particularly by NGOs, could influence the level of CSR engagements by organizations. Conceivably, activists have different levels of influence on different issues in different societies. For instance, environmentalist group Sierra Club whose members were vegetarians certainly had much manifest influence in determining ranching issues in Montana (Cameron, 1999) than, for instance, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty towards Animals (SPCA) in Singapore. The contingency theory did not address activism specifically and subsumed it under external threats.

What this means: Borrowing from Pang’s (2006) conflict positioning conceptualization, it may mean that when the threats posed by activists appear to be high, organizations may be more likely to adopt a more accommodative stance in crisis communications to resolve the crisis.

The repair strategies used are likely to be corrective action and mortification. On the contrary, when the threats posed by activists appear to be low, the organization is more likely to adopt a less accommodative stance. The repair strategies used are more likely to be denial, evading responsibility, and reducing offensiveness.

The factors that found lesser support were shareholder influence and organizational resources. These are discussed briefly as the CSR literature found their impact minimal. For 568 instance, for shareholder influence, this remains limited in scope as organizations have imposed restricted or even curtailed dialogue with shareholder activists. For organizational resources, the closest association would be the contingency theory’s predisposing factor (size of the organization), it is argued that literature found that size need not necessarily matter in ethical elocution during crisis. One would expect more in responsible and ethical communication from a large organization like Enron (see Seeger and Ulmer, 2003). However, it was a comparatively smaller outfit, Malden Mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts, that was heralded as the epitome of ethical elocution (Ulmer, 2001).


This conceptual paper had set out to unearth a new set of factors called ethical variables in the contingency theory that influence the organization’s stance on the continuum before it interacts with its publics. It is premised on the basis that if the contingency theory of strategic conflict management had offered a viable perspective in portraying a realistic description of how organizations manage conflicts (Pang, Jin, & Cameron, in press), then strengthening the theory’s explanatory power, generating new factors, and expanding its range of potential knowledge would be a consequent trajectory in the development of the theory. Chaffee and Berger (1987) argued these were characteristics of a theory’s rigor.

To engage in this task, this study has reviewed conflict communication and corporate social responsibility literature to identify the key factors that would influence ethical elocution.

CSR literature has provided the initial roadmap on what constitutes ethical decision making, and consequently ethical elocution during crises while the conflict literature has provided a moral bearing to ethical elocution, i.e., how does one manage conflict in a manner that leads to a morally acceptable resolution? From the literature, the study has unearthed six factors that influence ethical elocution, namely 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. These factors are exploratory and far from exhaustive. However, they present a starting point for further discussions to take place and a practical approach for practitioners to engage in. Furure research needs to be developed to test the validity and reliability of this new set of ethical factors using qualitative methods (such as indepth interviews with senior practitioners) and quantative methods (i.e. practitioner surveys in different contexts and situations) to further explore the structure and dimensionality of the ethical aspect of organizational conflict stance. In addition, consideration should be given to how these factors might be associated with other contingeny factors in contributing to different degrees of accommodation the organization could effectively and ethically take toward different publics and different aspects of a given conflict issue.

Not since the last cluster of variables, the proscriptive variables (Cameron, Cropp, & Reber, 2001), has the theory made a major theoretical breakthrough. Besides theory building, the authors believe that organizations which strive to be ethical can benefit from understanding the factors that can impact its stances and concomitant strategies/tactics as it enters into communication. Our motivation to do this is closely tied to Albert Einstein’s call for organizations to engage in ethical elocution. In an address to CALTECH in 1931, he said, “Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors, concern for the great unsolved problems of the organization of labor and the distribution of goods – in order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing (italics added) and not a curse to mankind. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations” (cited in Bartlett, 1992, p. 635).


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