An introduction to Strategic Communication

Can an organization be open and transparent?

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A current theme when discussing organizations and their communication, in general as in the academic field, is the importance of being open and transparent (see among others Falkheimer & Heide, 2011; Fombrun & Van Riel referenced in Cornelissen, 2011; Berg, 2011; Werntoft, 2013). Political institutions describe their activities as striving for transparency as seen with everything from the Swedish State Bank (Riksbanken) to the NGO Sida, making general gambit regarding the importance of transparency (Svensson, 2008; Sida, 2012). One reason lies in how technological developments are perceived to have expedited communication processes, such as how the media can quickly spread negative news about a company or authority, and that both the organization and stakeholders quickly need access to information and expertise to handle the situation. Falkheimer and Heide (2011) argue that the opportunities available to store and access a wealth of information has created expectations on organizations to be transparent. It can stem from for example to prevent corruption which could jeopardize an organization’s entire raison d’être, such as the United Nations which should reflect international law (United Nations, 2013).

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Openness and transparency is in line with the prevailing academic perspective on communication, namely the mutual creation of meaning or ”ritual” model, where communication is seen as a circular process where individuals and groups together and continuously creates meaning (see for example Jansson, 2009). Varey (2000), Axley (1984) and Botan and Taylor (2004) highlight this perspective as the modern and ideal, in contrast to the transmission model where communication is seen as linear transfer. The authors seem to be missing a power aspect of communication, where even a perspective based on shared meaning making can be used to control and exert control over others. Deetz and Mumbay (1990 referenced in McPhee & Zaug, 2000) points out ”All communication necessarily involves the use of power […].” An organization’s communication will thus always involve a production and reproduction of power. Moreover both perspectives should be needed to understand how organizations communicate and why, as this is based on cultural norms and traditions, despite Varey’s (2000) argument that the transmission perspective is out of date.

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That an organization is transparent seems to be based on the idea that the organization is more democratic as everyone can get access to information. Falkheimer & Heide ( 2011) writes : ”[…] strategic communication is justified based on the argument that it promotes openness and transparency between members of the organization and between the organization and the environment. The argument is based on a non-authoritarian and democratic view of organizations and society based on secrecy, hierarchy and the withholding of information being valued negatively.”. We find this standard in the Swedish principle of public access where the government and other agencies are required by law to keep a great deal of information open and where transparency is considered positive (Regeringen, 2013). But the principle of openness has exceptions, e.g. documents relating to national security or protection of individuals. This in itself points out therefore, the risks associated with organizations’ openness, while it raises the question: if transparency is limited, is it really transparent? Is transparency something that an organization can strive for, but never totally achieve? The issue is likely normative. From an organizational communicative perspective the question evolves around the specific organization’s approach to leadership and strategy. If the leader is based on a ”top-down” perspective found in classical approach school (Whittington, 2002), the organization can hardly act with transparency since focus on is on individual leaders’ thought instead of communication processes. The corporate culture is therefore fundamental to whether transparency is possible.

Two settings can be found in the literature that may be linked to the two dominant communication perspective, where the pursuit of transparency and openness is seen as positive, which is based in ritual model of communication ideals, and one who sees transparency as impossible and more as a strategy for the conductors which is based on the transmission model. But if a modern organization should strive to be open and transparent, how is such a corporate culture created?

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