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Discourse strategies In corporate communication for enhancing democracy

Iris Jammernegg
p. 157-170

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1. Introduction

1This paper’s concern is to investigate the discourse strategies by which Corporate Communication (further CC) can involve publics in participatory decision-making processes, as the core of democracy.

2In deliberative democratic settings but also in aggregative ones, citizens asked to make choices have to be informed of previous decision-finding as a process, not only of its outcome, in order to be able to participate, discussing, making arguments, and changing their minds with leaders. They ought to understand which factors or difficulties have been influent and how politicians in charge have acted for coping with them.

3Many international corporations committed to CSR, when communicating with stakeholders, stress their intention to contribute to democracy and enlarge the internal as well as the external basis of participation. As, for in- stance, Henkel points out in the Foreword of its Sustainability Report 2006, they are aware that «sustainability and social responsibility cannot be left solely to the endeavors of individual persons or companies. We must all play our part – every employee and every member of society». Those hints, which may be overt or implicit, allow us to presume that organizations are interested in fostering democratic citizenship, making the interlocutors able to search for and comprehend background information, evaluate facts and express their decisions made on this basis.

4When CC tries to enhance democracy, it introduces itself in the political field. What is at issue, is therefore political communication, realized by an economic subject conscious of its social and thus political role, which aims at supporting citizenship based on awareness and participation, not at promoting urgently its own interests. This does not mean that corporations willing to contribute to democracy have to exclude from their communication all promotional and lobbying purposes. They surely can continue to create as well advertising texts and spots, although they have, firstly, to assure that there is neither contradiction between the single communication strategies nor with their corporate activities, and secondly, to signalize their multifaceted position as economic and political interlocutor.

5Citizens should not be regarded as «reduced to the state of 'consumers', [having] to choose [between political products], thereby running a risk of misunderstanding that is all greater the further they are from the place of production.» (Bourdieu, 1991: 172). They should rather be addressed and activated as agents in the process of production.

6In this context, within a functional linguistic framework and shifting from a descriptive perspective to a prescriptive one, I want to focus on CC discourse strategies for:

  • activating the targets as citizens and not primarily as customers

  • transferring knowledge

  • building consensus as well as competencies.

7I will not get in depth into discourse strategies on a hyper-level, as a means to direct social evolution, such as we can observe in the ongoing public debate about CC’s contribution to democracy. I will rather concentrate on the features interactants can use in a given communication setting. In a step-by-step demonstration I am going to illustrate the main skills the average citizen should have and how CC can help to develop them. The synopsis table (annexe) gives a survey on the connections between crucial constitutional aspects, individual characteristics required in a democratic setting, communicative functions to be realized and, finally, suitable discourse strategies.

2. Transposition of democracy as governance to individual democratic attitude

8This section briefly describes the individual habits useful for fostering a democratic social system.

9Voting, as the key expression of democracy, implies a subject aware of his/her role in society who is able to choose among different options. This skill is based, on the one side, on sufficient knowledge of the relevant situation, presupposing correct information from political actors, on the other side on what I would like to call literacy competence in the widest sense. Referring to this term, I wish to underline that our reality has to be de-coded like a text which, of course, combines all codes possible, adding to traditional multimodality, made of written or oral language and visuals that mutually expand their meaning (Kress and van Leeuwen, 1996: 194), actions, gestures, physical layout, space (cf. De Saint-Georges, 2004: 72). The 'reader' needs therefore the right instruments for processing this kind of text which consist, besides the acquaintance with the underlying codes, in abilities enabling to catch eventual connections between single elements – information, events, actors – and then to set priorities among them. If there is an information gap, the subject should be able to gather the missing or supplementary data. So he/she can compare information received from different sources and interpret intentions, messages, purposes and proposals. At the end, the citizen has to express, in an understandable and convincing way, the position he/she reached at a given moment, patronizing patterns and lexis which differ from each other in relation to the many activities preceding the act of voting, as promoting or subscribing a petition, organizing or attending a local committee meeting, participating in public discussions on political concerns etc.

10In a democratic system, decisions are made by the majority in respect of minorities. Opposition’s activities are mostly taken into account, generating a dialectical exchange which allows to formulate solutions integrating diverse parts of population and their needs. This aspect means that mainly opinion leaders within groups but also every single subject should be able to de-code and convey knowledge about other social groups’ values and wants, and vice versa, to inform them in an effective way about the own position. As Antos (2005: 347) aptly states, the successful outcome of any knowledge transfer relies on the reiterated interaction between individual knowledge and its se- miotic representation in written or oral texts. Once again we can see the importance of multimodal literacy at a high level, comprehending and producing complex texts. Intimately related to the transfer skill is the negotiation competence, in order to build consensus on crucial points; useful for this purpose seems the proactive management of alterity outlined by Candlin (2002: 30) which creates new knowledge in the process of accommodating the distinctive discourse worlds involved. Considering our communicative goal and target, this process should be based on strategies which expand participation in the communication, suited to exploit particular critical moments in interaction for providing opportunities for mutual experience and learning (Candlin, 2002: 32).

11Another important characteristic of democratic settings is governance being based on law. The institutional commitment is reflected in what individuals, supposed to behave in the same way, expect from their interlocutors: settled rules and agreements have to be respected.

12Finally, democracy assures basic rights requiring once more expressive skills as well as the ability citizens have to develop for choosing and manag- ing successfully suitable instruments, both claiming and exercising these rights.

3. Consequences for democratic oriented corporate communication

13The following passage is dedicated to analyzing how CC should take into account the characteristics above elaborated for the ideal citizen, trying to encourage them. As the third column of the synopsis table visualizes, CC voted to democracy has to give the good example for attitudes it should be suited to foster, making relevant patterns and processes transparent and reconstruable. Thus, for inducing citizens to conceive their active role in society, CC firstly ought to clarify its own position, explaining its double nature of an economic and political player, related goals and measures proposed for honouring the commitment undertaken.

14When delivering the necessary background knowledge citizens need for any decision, CC should be aware that for getting subjects concerned, in the political field it is more helpful to inform about processes which lead to a given fact, including difficulties, strategies aimed at overcoming them, and compromises negotiated, rather than exclusively about the fact itself. On the one hand, the reason is, as Ronneberger (1978: 4) and Oeckel (1988: 16) underline, that citizens knowing about decision-finding processes trust in the democratic system they are part of and accept institutional decisions more easily. On the other hand, by learning about processes they can sharpen, analogically, their procedural sensibility, extremely necessary for any efficient knowledge transfer (cf. Antos, 2005: 344), which is a crucial condition for building up competencies.

15As a consequence resulting from this second consideration, in order to enhance literacy competence and improve cognitive processing, CC has to let the audience participate in the unfolding of the texts, foregrounding significant linguistic and textual triggers chosen for orienting the addressees’ interpretative frame. For revealing its structure, every text must therefore contain the instruments needed for de-coding its message, signalize their location and expand the receivers’ ability to search autonomously for further useful tools in other sources. For this purpose, CC should also stress relevant links between internal as well as external elements.

16This kind of communication should not only help interlocutors to understand the message intended, but also to formulate their values, needs and objections, by offering useful articulation and negotiation patterns and engaging the addressees in such activities. This aspect can be achieved by presenting the citizens’ views, quoting authentic statements, or by inviting the target to join interactive tools like on line forums or blogs.

17Last but not least, the obligation to keep the promises made, deriving from the law-based commitment to act within an agreed set of bindings and consequent options, does not only refer to the content level of communication – realizing verbal instantiations by facts –, but also to the textual structure, involving coherence and cohesion, fulfilling the expectations aroused in the reader/hearer.

4. Discourse strategies cc should apply

18Finally, this section explores the discourse features supposed to perform the communicative functions determined above.

19I fully agree with the functional linguists Martin and Rose (2004: 22) who «…wish to foreground the interactive nature of discourse, whether spoken or written, as negotiation.» CC can rely on several strategies for this purpose, mediating values and positions. In all of them negotiation can be seen, in a marketing perspective, as means by which the author induces the addressees to accept his point of view and act in the interest of the organization, or in the PR sight, more suitable for enhancing democracy, as interplay between peers willing to make a compromise on the subjects discussed, satisfying both sides’ needs. In the first case, communication will shift to the advertisement style, characterized by accurate – and well hidden – orchestration of rhetorical, visual, gestic and audio effects which aim at influencing the audience appealing to the emotional, often unconscious sphere; in the second case, it will give interlocutors the opportunity to reason, making choices meaningful to their lives.

20An effective approach to negotiation is what Martin and Rose call Appraisal: in the interpersonal metafunction of language, which enacts relationships, Appraisal serves for negotiating attitudes and is concerned with evaluation. «Appraisal […] unfolds dynamically to engage us, to get us on side, not with one appeal, but through a spectrum of manoeuvres that work themselves out phase by phase» (Martin/Rose, 2004: 56). In our context, most importance among the attitudes listed by Martin and Rose have Appreciation, which means valuing the worth of things, and Judgement, referred to judging characters and behaviours in base of aspects of social esteem and social sanction. Less relevant is Affect, expressing emotion. Even if the emotional channel facilitates knowledge transfer (cf. Jahr 2005), I would suggest reducing its presence, as it dominates in political marketing communication and could function as contamination vector. In respect to the text-types CC uses for social/political purposes – as Self-Presentations or Forewords to Financial Reports –, graduation of the chosen attitude, oriented toward influencing the addressee’s interpretation of the message, will rather be achieved by sharpening and softening the focus (e.g. our own duties; not quite) than by varying the degrees of the attitudes’ intensity, and using the second possibility, intensifiers (very/really/extremely) are more likely to occur than attitudinal lexis (ecstatic vs. happy).

21Appraisal can rely on semantic means, but also on syntactical as well as textual aspects, stressing relevant information and arguments by marking them, which makes indeed some meanings stand out against others, opposing them to the reference system (cfr. Martin and Rose, 2004: 214). Thus foregrounding facilitates background and procedural knowledge transfer, setting priorities and explicating logical connections. As for the English syntax, it can be easily realized by a Marked Theme in Halliday’s sense, where ideational meaning is located before the Subject of a clause. As the Subject is the most common choice for the Theme, a Marked Theme scaffolds discontinuity (Martin and Rose, 2004: 178-179), getting attention. As far as concerns text structure, using hyperThemes – like titles or preceding keywords and summaries – gives the addressee an orientation to what will follow; they of- ten contain evaluation and the text they introduce justifies the appraisal. Guiding awareness and evaluation within the information flow can also be performed by packaging new information where it is expected and can be decodified – e.g. in English at the end of the clause – and as hyperNew in a final sentence which provides a new access to the passage or the whole text.

22For fostering negotiation in the PR sense, useful to democratic debate, it is essential to introduce additional voices into texts, in order to respect the different interactants and opinion streams operating in society. The most obvious way of introducing them is projection, using for instance projecting clauses or quotations. In addition, in an on line communication setting implying linked texts and interactive tools which generate a hypertext, there is the possibility to refer to statements already made elsewhere by disparate interlocutors or solicit new ones of readers/hearers. As Martin and Rose (2004:48) underline, the second way, this is to say modality, creates in a more subtle manner a semantic space between positive and negative poles (cf. also Halliday, 1994), negotiating services – how obliged we are to act – or negotiating information – how probable a statement is. While polarization – something is or is not – denies contradictory voices and points of view, modality allows them to meet in between, negotiating a compromise, and should therefore be preferred by CC with a democratic approach. A third way of presenting different voices, which, besides, engages the interlocutor, consists in counter-expectancy where the author adjusts addressees’ expectations he has created by concessive conjunctions (but, even if) or semantically equivalent continuatives (already, finally, still…). As it is an effective strategy for «pre-empting any objections and countering them» (Martin/Rose, 2004: 130), CC should use it carefully, in order to not deny the other voices introduced. Summarizing we can observe that quoting citizens is especially indicated if the author wants to give an example, as illustrated in section 2. In the other cases, modality is the best option for giving space to different positions. When «grading their evaluation of relations between events or arguments» (Martin and Rose, 2004: 141), writers should use forms which relate strong commitment as well as high likeliness to their company, taking expressly position, while reserving those expressing a wider range of choice for addressees.

23Of great relevance for negotiating consensus, a basic principle in democracy, is the register of CC texts which, in a functional linguistics perspective (cf. Halliday and Hasan, 1985), is organized by tenor (relationships between interactants), field (their social activity), and mode (concerns the role of language). Key variables in tenor are power and solidarity (cf. Poynton, 1985) which represent the vertical and horizontal dimensions of interpersonal relations. Democratic oriented CC has to reduce inequalities of status, creating text situations and using linguistic structures, as mentioned before, that offer reciprocity of choice, avoiding keeping the addressee in deferential positions. CC has thus to enhance solidarity taking into account a process which Poynton (1985: 250) calls proliferation: it means that if you are aligned as social subject into a given community you have available more meanings to exchange than outsiders. This is a powerful resource for further bonding, because it generates a sense of affiliation, of values shared by peers. However, it leads to a second process, referred to by Poynton as contraction, which enforces the status quo created isolating the group from other sub-systems, menacing thereby the cohesion of society, insofar as within a given community communication and comprehension take less explicitness, but the resulting use of acronyms, specialized and technical lexis etc. excludes non-members of the community. So CC has to balance the two tendencies: on the one side, it has to maintain a high level of explicitness, in order to allow the greatest number of interlocutors as possible to join the community situated at the crossing of the corporate community, including both internal and external stakeholders, as well as the wider community, formed by citizens interested in the organization’s contribution to society. On the other side, it must insert lexical, textual and communicative features recognizable by the audience as insider-oriented. Thus CC can build up social consensus.

24Although they can be summed up under the vast negotiation concept I refer to, I want to concentrate separately on specific discursive strategies for two main attitudes to be fostered by CC: consciousness and literacy as successful decoding and encoding.

25Making citizens aware of their role in a democratic society implies getting them involved, concerned by public interest. This goal can be reached both by directly addressing them, using an including strategy, where we means the corporation and the addressee and the surrounding society, as well as by the appraisal strategy already discussed, based on values to share. Counter-expectancy, as shown above, may be a useful tool for engaging interest but it should be considered that it must not collide with coherence of contents and purposes.

26For enhancing literacy competence, it is crucial to negotiate the intended meaning with receivers, guiding them through the text(s) (cf. Hoey 2001), explicating how the texture functions, as following a critical discourse analysis approach, it is important to deconstruct the text genres used together with the reader/hearer, in order to bring their organization and useful instruments for de-codification to consciousness, and by sharing them, give access to privileged genres. Consequently, addressees will also be able to use those features, aimed at strengthening their own communicative products. At a purely linguistic level, the efficient organization of texts is based on cohesion which makes a text coherent, this is to say semantically meaningful. Cohesion organizes information in such a way that it can be shared by speaker and addressee, because it provides the resources for guiding the exchange of meaning in text. Cohesive ties may be deictic, anaphoric or cataphoric elements, conjunctions, reiterations or general nouns, a logical tense structure, specific lexical items or grammatical features in a given utterance which function as presupposition trigger (see for detailed debate Halliday/Hasan 1976, De Beaugrande/Dressler 1981, Matthiessen 1995). Logical links between relevant elements within the text as well as in relation to external information should not only be foregrounded by lexical, syntactical or text-organizational means but sometimes also explicitly mentioned in related metacommunication with addressees, preferably to be held on line, exploiting interactive tools.

27This kind of processing obviously requires a high-level cognitive activity of the addressee which has to be fostered by using different channels. Thus values and statements should not only be emphasized semantically or by syntactical marking, but also powered by argumentation to be realized at text-level. For this purpose, it may be helpful to resort, for instance, to Toulmin’s scheme, suitable for informative-persuasive text-types, which presents an initial claim, supported then by data and backed up by a warrant expressing a consecutive or conditional relation, in order to make the claim finally turn into the proved conclusion. The warrant often relies on structural parallelism and lexical reiteration. Another way to train cognitive approaching consists in inviting the addressee to reflect and to give feedback, either implicitly, selecting one option among many offered in a specific text, in order to continue de-codification, or expressly in the web-based section, both following given examples and without guiding inputs.

5. Conclusions

28As hopefully I have shown, democratic oriented Corporate Communication has at its disposal several discursive strategies for involving internal and external publics in participatory decision-making processes, aimed at activating citizens, transferring knowledge in an efficient way which thereby creates new competencies, and building social consensus.

29As main aspect I have stressed the cognitive nature of both crucial attitudes/skills citizens should develop, including data de-codification, choice-making, as well as expression of one’s positions, and discourse strategies suitable for enhancing them, which should serve an instructive purpose. In fact, examples and explaining meta-communication to be offered have a double function: on the one hand, de-constructing relevant communication//text patterns together with receivers, they shall visualize models which can be adapted to the addressees’ own communication; on the other hand, they shall build up and strengthen relevant competencies, insofar as, in a spiral evolution, they help to transfer (procedural) knowledge which underlies the initiation of new competencies which take the knowledge to be shared to a new point.

30Among the competencies to be attained, I have focused on the ability to process complex multimodal texts, referring to disparate semiotic systems, and on the skill to take over efficiently one’s turn in the hypothetic dialogue between an economic subject aware of its political role, publics formed out of internal as well as external stakeholders, and citizens not yet in contact with the organization, using suitable expressive means. Both can be facilitated by semantic, syntactical and textual marking of relevant information or logical connections, relying primarily on lexis or conjunctions, but also on texture (e.g. realizing argumentation or negotiation patterns at text-level).

31As a result, I place emphasis on the different approach CC should reserve for its promotional and democratic oriented texts: while the first are usually based on implicitness, hiding the strategies by which the speaker tries to influence the audience, the second require to make them explicit and re-construable at a degree which allows to balance their didactic purpose with their aesthetic effectiveness. The meta-communication between author and receiver, related to specific texts, should even offer the opportunity to train the explicated features.

32Further investigation need aspects concerning the optimal application of those strategies, analyzing which text-types and which patterns of meaning-making or of socio-cultural construction of reality are mainly indicated for the purpose discussed and how they ought to be improved, in relation to specific publics, selected on the basis of different criteria like nearness/distance from the organization, gender, age, social and cultural aspects.

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Source used:

Henkel, Foreword of its Sustainability Report 2006

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Iris Jammernegg, «Discourse strategies In corporate communication for enhancing democracy»Comunicação Pública, vol.3 nº5 | 2007, 157-170.

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Iris Jammernegg, «Discourse strategies In corporate communication for enhancing democracy»Comunicação Pública [Online], vol.3 nº5 | 2007, posto online no dia 15 outubro 2020, consultado o 28 fevereiro 2021. URL:; DOI:

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Iris Jammernegg

Università degli Studi di Udine (Italy)

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Comunicação Pública Este trabalho está licenciado com uma Licença Creative Commons - Atribuição-NãoComercial 4.0 Internacional.

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