CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION
1.1 Research background
As for international companies, in the face of increasingly fierce competition around the world, it is of great importance to promote positive identity globally and build favorable relationship with their stakeholders. The reason is that the resources that are crucial to a company depend on its multiple different stakeholders (Breeze, 2012). This means that, in order to secure continued access to the resources and survive the international competition, a company need to develop favorable relationships with its stakeholders. In the building of this favorable relationship between a corporation and its stakeholders, trust plays as a key factor, as a corporation’s ability to continue operating and achieve long-term economic success, to a large extent, relies on trust (Ingenhoff & Sommer, 2010; Poppo & Schepker, 2010). The development of trust between a corporation and stakeholders is influenced by three key factors: ability, integrity and benevolence.
At a macro level, public communication serves as an effective way through which a corporation can attain trust from its stakeholders. From a meso perspective, during communication, it is language that plays a significant role in constructing a corporation’s trustworthy identity. This trustworthy identity is a corporation’s strategically planned self-definition and self-presentation, and its construction serves as a main communication strategy, through which a corporation can control and positively influence the image the public has of it. Therefore, it helps to build favorable relationships with the stakeholders on which the company depends (Hallahan, et al. 2007; Van Riel 1995). To be more specific and micro, as various stakeholders hold different expectations (Freeman, 1984; Friedman & Miles, 2006), linguistics devices help to meet their expectations by addressing three important aspects of trust: ability, benevolence and integrity.
1.2 Research rationale
Based on the research background, this study attempts to explore how international energy companies gain trust from their stakeholders through public communication. The choices and reasons are explained as follows.
Firstly, this study selected the public communication materials from the international energy companies listed in Fortune 500 of the year of 2021 as research target. Energy production and use presents as a sensitive industrial area. Energy industry is highly connected with chemical materials and people’s life, as its products serve people, and its extraction, processing, manufacture, and disposal, to a great extent, exerts impact on the environment where people live. For energy companies, on one hand, they are under regulation of the government in the aspect of human health and environmental protection. On the other hand, it is necessary for them to project positive identity, legitimize their activities and gain trust from the public.
As for data type, this study selected letters to stakeholders included in corporate annual reports as research data. As one kind of corporations’ formal documents for public communication, corporate annual reports incorporate both legally required and voluntary information about a company’s financial situation, performance and prospects. Although the readership is large, it is mainly addressed to the company’s shareholders, including public and private investors, financial experts, government authorities, specialized media, brokers, creditors, and employees (Anderson & Imperia, 1992; Ditlevsen, 2012). Corporate annual reports serve two functions, informative function and promotional function. The former is supposed to inform stakeholders a true view of the company’s performance and situation, whereas the latter aims to persuade stakeholders into continuing their support. Recently, it is indicated that the latter, promotional function, has gained increasing prominence (Beattie et al., 2008; Ditlevsen, 2012). This implies that corporate annual reports are becoming common and significant public relation tools by which companies build a positive corporate image and promote trust (Beattie et al., 2008; Breeze, 2013; Ditlevsen, 2012; Wang & Bu, 2016).
CHAPTER 2 LITERATURE REVIEW
2.1 Previous studies on corporate identity
2.1.1 Definition and features of corporate identity
Research into identity cover a wide range of topics, and it is assumed by scholars that corporate has its identity as well (Coupland & Brown, 2004; Wagner & Pedersen, 2014). It is commonly agreed that corporate identity is the presentation of the organization itself (Christensen, 2008; Westcott Alessandri, 2001). In addition, this kind of self-presentation is arranged with purposes and strategies.
Corporate identity is featured as dynamic, multifaceted and multidimensional (Balmer, 1998; Bhatia & Lung, 2006) and comprising several tangible and intangible elements or aspects of a company (Balmer, 2001; Schmidt, 1995; Steidl & Emery, 1997). This means that corporate identity is changing and carries much different information. Therefore, in the domain of business, it is assumed as central to an organization, and its features as dynamic and informative can serve as “a strategic resource for building credibility and support amongst a variety of stakeholders and gaining competitive advantage in this new business environment” (Melewar, 2003, p.195).
This study adopts the concept of corporate identity defined by Westcott Alessandri that it is “a firm’s strategically planned and purposeful presentation of itself” (2001, p.177). The following part further reviews previous studies on corporate identity from the theoretical perspective and the practical perspective.
2.2 Previous studies on trust
2.2.1 Concept of trust
As discussed in the previous part, some scholars contended that the communicative purpose of constructing a positive corporate identity is to meet the expectation of the audiences and to gain their trust. Trust is considered as a crucial element in this process. Assumed as valuable resource for both business and nonprofit organizations, trust has already been a significant notion in the fields of business and management, and investigated and defined by many scholars. Among various discussions about trust, the model of interpersonal and organizational trust developed by Mayer and other scholars (1995) presents as one of the most complete and influential models about trust in business and management fields. In this model, trust refers to “the willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that other party” (p.712).
In their later work, they also claimed that “[o]ur model was designed to understand the major factors that explain trust from not only the individual level but from the group and organizational perspectives as well” (Schoorman et al., 2007, p.345), and they encouraged the application of the model in interpersonal or inter-organizational levels of analysis in different disciplines. So far, many research have corroborated its suitability for explaining trust relation between an organization and its stakeholders (Greenwood & Van Buren, 2010; Ingenhoff & Sommer, 2010; Schoorman et al., 2007; Xie & Peng, 2009). On the whole, this model is also appropriate for explaining corporation’s behavior.
CHAPTER 3 THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK ........................... 18
3.1 Stance and stance marker ...................................... 18
3.2 The model of organizational trust .......................... 21
3.3 A proposed analytical framework for the current research ................ 26
CHAPTER 4 METHODOLOGY ..................................... 27
4.1 Research questions ................................ 27
4.2 Research method .............................................. 27
4.3 Data collection ................................. 28
CHAPTER 5 ANALYSIS AND DISCUSSION OF THE USE OF STANCE MARKERS .... 32
5.1 General distribution of stance markers ...................... 32
5.2 Distribution and analysis of attitudinal stance markers ................... 33
CHAPTER 6 ANALYSIS AND DISCUSSION OF TRUSTWORTHINESS FACTORS AND TRUSTWORTHY CORPORATE IDENTITY CONSTRUCTION
Based on the organizational trust theory (Meyer et al., 2005), ability relates to a company’ skills, competencies and characteristics that can help it have influence within a specific domain (Mayer et al., 1995). A company’s ability involves many aspects since multiple stakeholders hold different expectations. To be specific, external stakeholders, such as suppliers and customers, attach more importance to a company’s technological ability and product quality. Internal stakeholders like investors and employees tend to consider operational ability and profitability as more important factors. Based on the analysis, results reveal that these aspects all got addressed in the data, with the heaviest emphasis on addressing their ability with relative objective stance expression.
Financial situation and profitability presented as the most frequently aspect in the letters to stakeholders so as to meet the expectation of investors, who are the principal intended readers of annual reports and seek to maximize profits and minimize financial risk (Johansen & Nielsen, 2016). For example: in (1), the leader of the company stated that the company’s financial situation still stays sound in a challenging environment. In (2), the company announced its focus on areas bringing more profit, indicating its profitability in that year. Profitability also was reflected by the increase of dividends, which can be directly understood by the investors, as showed in example (3).
CHAPTER 7 CONCLUSION
7.1 Summary of major findings
Based on the data analysis and discussion in above chapters, a summary of major findings in accordance with the research questions are generated.
Firstly, this study investigates stance markers used in 42 pieces of letters to stakeholders from 17 international energy companies’ annual reports from the fiscal year of 2019 to the fiscal year of 2020. Result reveal that all three major types of stance devices are utilized across these letters to stakeholders. Modality presents as the most frequent types. Beside, a similar frequency is reported between the two less common categories of stance resources, attitudinal stance and epistemic stance.
Secondly, in terms of organizational trust, these companies have addressed the three important factors by using stance resources to construct trustworthy identities. The amount of the three factors is not identical, as ability is significantly emphasized, whereas benevolence and integrity are less stressed.
Thirdly, the constructed trustworthy corporate identities are summarized. As for ability, these companies present themselves as objective, profitable, competent and promising. Concerning benevolence, these companies construct themselves as perspective-taking and socially responsible. In terms of integrity, these companies portray themselves as law-abiding and faithful.