Aristotelian Rhetoric and Corporate Communication

Abstract

The article The Communication Advantage: A Constituency-Focused Approach to Formulating and Implementing Strategy (Argenti and Forman, 2000) addresses the issue of how senior management can utilize communication practice to ensure strategy is implemented. It presents a systematic methodology for conveying plans and visions to relevant audiences (“significant constituencies”). Such a methodology is necessary since foregoing studies have demonstrated how organizations fail or succeed depending on how they transform a strategy on paper into concrete manifestation. Many earlier studies do not clarify the link between strategy and communication. Furthermore, they present communication strategy obliquely, not as a central focus, and concentrate instead on communication as an element of strategy. The article responds to this deficit by theorizing as follows:

  1. By Aristotle’s definition, rhetoric is a tool of persuasion that steers an audience through a process of collaboration and discovery; it has an epistemic function and can be utilized by expressive organizations to devise and implement communication strategy. [1]
  2. Aristotle’s constituency-focused framework can be used to review the communication challenges facing expressive organizations as they devise and apply strategy. The authors divide the approach into elements inside the framework: the organization, its messages, its constituencies, and its constituencies’ responses.
  3. The workings of the framework can be exemplified by the case of RCN [2], who, using a variety of communication channels, reached its constituencies effectively. RCN employed a direct approach (stating its objectives first) to successfully engage its target constituencies. This involved aggressive advertising featuring striking imagery targeted at potential customers and persuading them to switch from established companies to an upstart alternative.
  4. Both the RCN and Navistar [3] cases are supportive of the notion that On Rhetoric is a suitable theoretical basis on which to plan communication strategy. In both cases, successful communication was achieved through the correct identification of constituencies (acknowledging their competing interests and diverse values), addressing them accordingly, and working with them in direct collaboration.

Critical Review

Aristotle’s work belongs to the culture of Athenian democracy and its needs for public debate in courts and assemblies; today’s expressive organizations face different although compelling challenges, such as the need to influence and motivate key constituencies and engage them in formulating and implementing strategy. The authors are confident that the needs of rhetoricians in either scenario are essentially alike, yet democracy and its egalitarian ethos and practices are anathema to the interests of many large corporations who serve (or believe they serve) their stakeholders better by selective management and manipulation of information (Goodman, 1994).[4]

The authors inform us that leaders of successful organizations have drawn upon the Aristotelian rhetorical tradition. But this notion, unless supported by evidence, is an interpretation (since interpretation is rooted in correlation, it is not evidence), prompting the question of whether the authors are unjustly legitimizing the cynical machinations of corporate strategy as Aristotelian rhetoric.

The authors maintain that their case studies illustrate that success in strategy is achieved through complex rhetorical activities that focus on the analysis of constituencies. They assert that strategy must be a central, not peripheral, activity for communication to be effective. Building on this premise, they postulate that effective communicators in expressive organizations – like the speaker at the Athenian court – advance their agendas by treating their significant constituencies as “collaborators in the creation of meaning” and as parties to be influenced to participate in those agendas. Yet such an assertion, if its logic is extended, raises issues of manipulation and ethics. Terms such as “agenda” and “creation of meaning” are emotive and potentially ambiguous. By any definition, “agenda” has propagandistic overtones: are the authors recommending a technique by which audience thought can be brought into alignment with corpthink? Is this what they mean by “creation of meaning”? Or are these neutral terms referring to democratically attained consensus? It is not clear. Curiously, the analysis component of the process is barely discussed.

The authors neglect to note that effective translation of communication strategy into action is contingent on sets of complex factors, including those related to size and structure of the organization (communication becomes more essential when a company experiences rapid expansion, etc.) and those related to deeper socio-cultural forces (communication has cultural specificity, for example).

A common obstacle to the free flowing and sharing of information (and a descriptive example of the latter factor set) is the belief that information is wielded as power (Windahl et al, 1992). This attitude is prevalent in many societies where communication is perceived in terms of struggle and power-play, typically between a minority who has the power to communicate and a majority who has only the dubious privilege of being communicated to. The authors do not discuss the significance of the broader corporate and societal cultural prerequisites influencing the adaptability or effectiveness of any rhetorical method.

Communication occurs continuously and is a fluid process, yet this article’s argument (unstated but nevertheless apparent) is that through effective application of the appropriate rhetorical method, this process can be subtly railroaded and audience support utilized to tactical ends. The argument fails however, because it focuses on rhetoric as a tool of communicating the agenda of the speaker, irrespective of the message itself and any encumbering preconditions or facilitating circumstances.

Channeling communication to the advantage of the organization, rather than the agenda of the speaker, requires a shift away from ends (which constitute the “bottom-line” of profit-driven corporate activity) to means, in which the communicator and communicatee change roles fluidly. It is through such attitudinal shifts – not choice of rhetorical method – that communication becomes collaborative and any hierarchical impediments are blunted.

(I would argue that Aristotelian rhetoric is superficially but not actually collaborative. Collaborative communication strategies entail far-reaching cultural/perceptual shifts, such as from reaction to proaction, and from informing/being passively informed to actively influencing the corporate mechanism. The tightness of the Aristotelian rhetorical framework does not account for any such variability; hence its suitability as a communication methodology is contestable.)

Critical Comparison 1: Internal Constituency Strategy

JCX began reforming its internal communication policy after Hewlett-Packard made sudden increases in productivity and sales following communication policy reforms. [5] Today, it has a feedback system that ostensibly functions to integrate each employee’s personal career development goals with the broader objectives of the company. In practice, it is a complex information-sharing system that is readily adaptable to any communication requirement. The formal process takes the form of interviews and form-filling, but informal contact and communication occurs constantly between supervisors and workers. The process incorporates every conceivable channel. JCX sees this system as essential, despite resisting its adoption for nearly two decades. [6]

Japanese labour relations are not as confrontational as they are in Europe or the USA, so the management-worker dynamic tends to be less antagonistic. Unions are fully incorporated into the company sphere and their primary activities concern improvements toward achieving the goals of the organization. Thus, the corporate communication policies of Japanese companies reflect the egalitarian and communistic/cooperative nature of the broader corporate personality (Ramsey, 1998). Communication strategies are not therefore forged within a culture of management/worker division, and the tensions generated by the class issues and opposition of interests that are inevitable in such a polarity are absent. [7] Issues of internal communication strategies have until very recently (2005) been overlooked by Japanese corporations, since collaboration was normal and trust between layers of employees taken for granted (Doi, 1982). [8] Applying the Aristotelian rhetorical techniques to such an environment would at best be an awkward wheel-reinvention exercise.

Traditionally, JCX shared information among workers through regular management/shop floor meetings. These were highly successful in Japan. However, managers posted to the UK were surprised to discover that their British counterparts performed information sharing only when forced to by extreme circumstances, and did so only reactively (also observed by Langford-Wood, 2002). No strategic, pro-active information gathering or sharing was normal in the British factories until the mid 1990s. Top-level management in Japan took the advice of their British managers and left them to determine communication strategy as they saw fit. This principle of communication strategy according to host culture remained unofficial policy until around 2005. Since then, standardization has taken precedence and a uniform system has been implemented across the board. Perhaps to counter the immediacy with which news and information can be leaked by e-mail or shared across the Internet, today’s standardized corporate policy is one of extreme openness (defense through transparency). [9][10]

Critical Comparison 2: External Constituency Strategy

Company intranet has blurred divisions between external and internal communications. Suppliers, who were once considered outside stakeholders, are now privy to so much information that they have effectively become an internal constituency. The same is true for investing stakeholders and subsidiary companies. This leaves only advertizing and press releases remaining in the strictly outside constituencies/public relations bracket.

To increase the company’s reputation (and thereby remain competitive), JCX has invested heavily in the promotion of CSR [11] papers, which are posted online and freely accessible. [12] These documents have multiple purposes: they include statements of environment-related expenditure, corporate objectives and ideals. Much of the material can be readily rehashed and crafted into press packs. Press conferences, if they are ever done, are prepared and orchestrated. Their content is checked by top management and corporate lawyers before the conference is announced. If they are done at all, they are done in Japan, where it is normal for interviewers to provide a list of their questions two days in advance. If done outside Japan, the task will almost certainly be delegated to a local public relations company. Template documents covering hypothetical scenarios such as employee death, scandals, redundancies, etc. have been carefully drawn up and lie in preparedness. Local management is obliged to simply fill in the blanks and avoid expanding on any matters more than they are legally required.*

*It is of interest to note how internal and external strategies differ. Much of this might be attributed to the cultural pedigree of the company, since the dichotomy resonates with the cultural bias toward in- versus out-groups (Doi, 1982; Cathcart and Cathcart, 1982). In terms of rhetoric (if the term must be imposed), only internal communication strategy could be safely considered governed by any practical – albeit unrecognized – rhetorical patterning. Internal strategy is inherently egalitarian and dialogue is expected and rewarded. In this sense, it has echoes of Aristotle’s “collaboration”. However, it is critical to recognize that corporate objectives are never disputed. Discussion concerns only the means of achieving pre-decided objectives.

External communication occupies the other end of the spectrum. It is centralized, minimalist, and perfunctory. No official guidelines exist for its governance. Nor is there any particular department or section tasked with management of public relations. It is Japanese corporate policy to stay whenever possible “under the radar” and maintain aloofness and neutrality unless pressed into engagement. This approach is adhered to both in Japan and overseas.

The Appropriateness of Aristotelian Rhetorical Technique

The collaboration/constituency-centrality that Aristotle endorses is an unnecessary concern in contexts where they are givens. The notion that a communication strategy is Aristotelian because it has features comparable to Aristotle’s rhetorical methods is a case of false categorization. The assumption that communication methods constitute rhetoric (or indeed strategy) would be communicable only within societies where concepts such as rhetoric have practical value or where preference for labeling such methods as discrete strategies is extant. Similarly, the extensibility of several of the methods described in the case studies is also of questionable validity. For example, the direct approach that proved successful to RCN would have problems outside the Anglophone business sphere, especially in cooperatively- rather than competitively-oriented commercial environments (such as Japan and South Korea, where open mention of a competitor’s weakness is intolerably disruptive).

Conclusion

Faced with an ever-evolving set of market-stimulated challenges, corporations must adjust their approach to business, redefine corporate culture, and increase efficiency while reducing costs. For corporations to function effectively, their significant constituencies need information, not only as recipients (“audiences”) but also as creators of that information. But is rhetoric as a theoretical foundation necessary? Only general dearth of effective communication policy could reasonably prompt this question. Yet, even if such a void exists and corporate communication is universally deficient, there is still the question of whether rhetoric, whose credence is culturally rather than empirically anchored, is a fitting solution. There is also to be addressed the cynicism implicit in Aristotle’s recommendation that constituencies are there to be commandeered as shouters. In Aristotle’s model, audiences are not to be convinced by an argument’s ethical, moral, or intellectual superiority, for the message is of itself not of concern; instead, they are guided by a rhetorical strategy that leads them to the chosen solution, which happens to be that of the speaker. The meaning of the message is immaterial; the debate is won or lost according to the rhetorical skills of the speaker. This is a notion that will appeal to cruder corporate interests, who drive to convince audiences of their worthiness despite the undemocratic and often destructive methods of their business practices.

In sum, the applicability of Aristotle’s rhetorical methods is limited, and the issue of whether corporate strategy should be built on such methods depends on what those methods are intended to accomplish.


[1] On Rhetoric argues that rhetoric consists of two elements that can enrich understanding of communication strategy: deliberative rhetoric, which is debate for or against a particular outcome for the organization, and constituency- focused communication, which places the audience at the centre of the persuasive discourse. Of the two, the latter is the more important to corporate communication as this mirrors more closely the discourse of strategy formulation seen in most modern expressive organizations.

[2] An American communications company.

[3] An American truck manufacturer.

[4] Malaysian Palm Oil Council, Exxon, McDonald’s, etc.

[5] HP introduced a reward system to encourage workers to make suggestions and complaints. They had learnt following quality setbacks in the 1980s that the assumption that managers know best by virtue of their being managers is often at the root of inter-staff communication problems and workplace animosity.

[6] The wholesale capture of the low-end market share away from Xerox during the 1970s and 80s effectively preserved the management communication strategy of the day, leaving it unrevised and retrograde until the early 2000s, when reemerging market competition urged a major reevaluation).

[7] For example, time clocks are rarely if ever installed, worker’s holidays are not monitored, there is no culture of snooping, and theft or sabotage by employees is highly unusual. It is not surprising then that workers are willing to happily continue long after their official hours have ended and support the company in ways that are not contractually required of them.

[8] Due perhaps to the horizontal rather than vertical nature of promotion (“allocation” would be a better term) that is normal in Japanese companies.

[9] Progress on any project in any section, the minutes of any team’s meeting, and even a messaging service informing you about an employee’s holidays or current location within the building is available to anyone who has access to the company intranet. Since such information is digital, it is vulnerable to leakage, but this is not a major concern. In the case of digital content production, a worker’s individual contribution can be both seen and commented upon by anyone. There are also webcams bringing real time video of activity at sites around the world.

[10] In a past incident, workers at a Central American subsidiary of JCX learnt about their redundancies through national television (courtesy of leaked e-mail). The “managers”, in league with local officials, had plundered the company’s finances (we can safely assume that their flavour of communication strategy involved hired thugs). The result was riots.

[11] Corporate Social Responsibility.

[12] They are targeted at authorities who might be considering letting property and services to a new factory or warehouse, but they also advertize through inclusion of only positive content.

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