Perspectives théoriques et stratégies persuasives - Theoretical Perspectives and Persuasive Strategies
Edited By Thierry Herman and Steve Oswald
This volume gathers contributions from two disciplines which have much to gain from one another – rhetoric and cognitive science – as they both have much to say in the broad realm of argumentation studies. This collection neither condemns the fallacious effects of specific argument schemes nor adds yet another layer to fallacy criticism, but studies how argumentation and fallacies work, hic et nunc. What are the linguistic and cognitive mechanisms behind the «performance » of fallacious arguments? How do rhetorical strategies work at the interface of cognition, language science and society?
Two-sided rhetorical strategies in top management’s letters to shareholders and stakeholders from corporate reports: Ioana Agatha Filimon
Two-sided rhetorical strategies in top management’s letters to shareholders and stakeholders from corporate reports1
Corporate reports are communication tools by means of which listed companies account in front of their multiple stakeholders for the activity developed during a financial year, in order to build trust, facilitate (and influence) shareholders’ investment decision, and legitimate themselves as responsible corporate citizens of the communities in which they operate. Although issued from past performance, corporate reports are future-oriented documents, aimed at influencing attitudes and decisions that are crucial for the future of a company. Both financial-economic annual reports (hereafter referred to as “annual reports”) and corporate social responsibility reports (hereafter referred to as “CSR reports”) share the same ontological roots – the practice of accounting for the (financial and non-financial) resources entrusted for administration – but stem from different rhetorical situations.
Introduced by Bitzer (1968), the concept of rhetorical situation designates
a complex of persons, events, objects and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence. (1968: 6)
As literature suggests (Rutherford 2005: 352–353, drawing on Miller 1984, and Yates & Orlikowski 1992), corporate reporting genres can be defined by ← 215 | 216 → the three main constituents of the rhetorical situation that generates them: the exigence (a situational imperfection adjustable by means of discourse), the audience, and the situational constraints that influence the discursive action needed to modify the exigence.
Thus, annual reports stem from the necessity to bridge the information gap between managers (as agents) and shareholders (as principals), so as to enable the latter to make informed decisions about the company, and to evaluate managers’ performance in administrating the resources entrusted to them (Schoonraad, Grobler & Gouws 2005). Seeking to “construct a particular visibility and meaning, rather than revealing ‘what was there’” (Hopwood 1996, in Stanton & Stanton 2002: 478), annual reports also have a pronounced persuasive character, their final goal being to attract investments in the company. Composed of both mandatory and discretionary disclosures, annual reports, as a whole, are obligatory for listed companies. The mandatory disclosures (mostly financial) must comply with reporting standards drawn in line with the accountability principle of a “true and fair view” (e.g. European Commission Directive 2006/46: 1; Financial Reporting Council (FRC), 2011) or “fair presentation” (e.g. US GAAP, in Sampsons 1985, Kirk 2006). This principle fosters an accurate presentation of a company’s performance, and a realistic and prudent outlook on its strategic position (Kirk 2006, van Hulle 1993, FRC 2011), constraining the managers to address potential counter-attitudinal information in their reports. According to Sampson (1985: 1), “a fair presentation is not determined based on whether it is ‘fair’ to the company to disclose bad news”; a fair presentation should provide “an objective, neutral measure of performance, whether that performance is ‘good’ or ‘bad’” (ibid: 2). The discretionary disclosures, on the other hand, are not a direct subject of the reporting standards, having thus more space for rhetorical manoeuvres. Still, they need to be aligned with the mandatory disclosures in order to be credible (Rutherford 2005: 350).
In spite of the reporting standards in place, the credibility of the annual reports might still be questioned, since their impression management ends might prevail over the accountability ends (Stanton & Stanton 2002) and prevent a “fair” presentation of the corporate shortcomings. This is particularly true for the discretionary narratives, for which more rigorous provisions for a “true and fair” account have been suggested (Clatworthy & Jones 2006). ← 216 | 217 →
This credibility issue is even more pronounced in the case of corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports – voluntary disclosures emerged from the need of the companies to legitimate their activity in front of a wider range of stakeholders (like governments, communities, environmentalists, but also shareholders and employees) whose interests go beyond profit maximization, to social, environmental and ethical issues. Although CSR reports are an emerging genre, with evolving communicative conventions (Skulstad 2005), they usually adhere to reporting guidelines (e.g. UN Global Compact 2010; GRI Guidelines 2004) that, although less rigorous than the standards of the annual report, encourage compliance with the “fair view” principle. Thus, “a good ‘ethical’ report should be transparent and represent a genuine attempt to provide an account which covers negative, as well as positive aspects of all material impacts” (Adams 2004: 732). Yet, CSR reports are often accused of “window-dressing” (Schaltegger & Burritt 2006, Greenwood 2007), and “reluctance to report on negative impacts” (Adams 2004: 733, Stanton & Stanton 2002).
Additional constraints to address counter-attitudinal information in corporate reports may derive from the ontology of the firm. If companies are accused of wrongdoing, they have to protect their image in front of key stakeholders because they “cannot continue without those stakeholders” (Rowland & Jerome 2004: 197). And corporate communication research (e.g. Hearit 1994, 2006, Rowland & Jerome 2004) revealed a range of strategies of corporate apologia – “a broad term that means to respond to organizational criticism by offering a vigorous and compelling defence” (Hearit 2006: 4) – that are used by companies in order to repair or maintain a responsible image.
So, there are various accounting-informational or defensive rhetorical constraints that may lead managers to address counter-attitudinal information in corporate reports. Yet, their audience might still be sceptical about their intention to actually comply with these constraints, especially in the case of discretionary disclosures, which have more room for impression management maneuvers. Persuasion research (O’Keefe 1999) suggests that the choice of a one-sided rhetorical strategy (exclusively pro-attitudinal) or of a two-sided rhetorical strategy (that includes both arguments and counter-arguments to the advocated position) may have different consequences on the effectiveness of communication, in terms of persuasion and credibility – as further detailed in section 2. Therefore, considering the role of corporate reports in stakeholders’ decision making, and the impact of the latter on the ← 217 | 218 → future of the companies, it seems worth investigating to what extent managers actually include counter-attitudinal information in their discretionary disclosures from annual and CSR reports, and with what possible rhetorical effects.
This paper will explore these aspects, narrowing the analytical focus on a sample of discretionary disclosures whose length and discursive structure are more appropriate for a detailed argumentative analysis: the introductory letters to shareholders (in annual reports) and stakeholders at large (in CSR reports). Arguably the most visible and influential narratives of corporate reports (Hyland 1998, Clarke & Murray 2000, Clatworthy & Jones 2006),2 these letters are signed by a member of the top management – usually the CEO and/or the Chairman of the Board of Directors (named hereafter “managers”).3 The explicit authorship increases the rhetorical complexity of the letters as compared to the “parent” reports since, according to Bitzer (1968: 8), an orator’s interests and communicative style can add to the constraints already in place in a rhetorical situation.
As parts of corporate reports, introductory letters should present a true and fair view of the corporate reality; still, as non-audited discretionary disclosures, they enjoy a relative freedom of topical choice (especially in CSR reports) that leaves room for rhetorical manoeuvring. That gives introductory letters “an enormous rhetorical importance” in establishing a relationship with the shareholders and building credibility, and also in conveying a positive image of the company (Hyland 1998: 224, Skulstad 2005). That is why, in spite of the “fairness” constraints entailed by the management’s stewardship towards shareholders (and, to a variable extent, towards stakeholders), introductory letters are perceived as a rather promotional genre, that might tend to present an overly positive corporate image (Hyland 1998: 224) – so favouring one-sided communication.
On the one hand, this tendency may derive from managements’ vested interest in attracting stakeholders’ financial and non-financial resources, on which the companies ontologically depend. On the other hand, managers’ ← 218 | 219 → personal interests and communicative style may (intentionally or unintentionally) bias the information presented in the introductory letters – all the more as, although introductory letters represent the voice of the company, managers see them rather as representing them personally (Winsor 1993). Because their position depends on how their performance is evaluated by key stakeholders, managers may opportunistically try “to proactively shape shareholders’ and stakeholders’ perception of the organizational outcomes and events (impression management) and/or to retrospectively provide a self-serving account of events (retrospective sense-making)” (Merkl-Davies, Brennan & McLeay 2011: 320). Thus, managers may selectively report the events, so as to present themselves in a favourable, rather than in an unfavourable light (Clatworthy & Jones 2006). Also, they tend to attribute successful outcomes to internal corporate strengths (directly or indirectly pointing at management quality) and unsuccessful outcomes to environmental causes – a hedonic bias (Aerts 1994, in Stanton & Stanton 2002: 486) confirmed also by Bettman & Weitz (1983), Salancik & Meindl (1984), and Tsang (2002). In some circumstances, impression management motivation may conflict with professional credibility, managers finding themselves trapped in a double-bind accountability dilemma (Stapleton & Hargie 2011: 267), when all available explanations are avoidable due to their negative consequences at ethos level. For instance, if a manager admits that he has not foreseen a threat to the organization (e.g. a market fall), he indirectly admits his incompetence. But if he claims that he has foreseen the threat, but has not prevented the organizational loss, he’s likely to be seen as immoral. Therefore, he might try to avoid mentioning the event.
So, managers’ vested interest in conveying a positive corporate image (derived either from the ontology of the firm, or from their own opportunistic behaviour) may conflict with the rhetorical exigencies of this genre (that require the presentation of a “true and fair” view of the corporation) and influence the extent and the manner in which two-sided rhetorical strategies are actually employed in the introductory letters.
Therefore, this study conducted on two corpora of introductory letters extracted from annual, respectively, CSR reports will attempt to answer the following questions:
1.To what extent are two-sided rhetorical strategies actually used in the introductory letters of the two types of reports? ← 219 | 220 →
2.How do managers handle counter-attitudinal information in each category of introductory letters? Are there any corpus-specific patterns of two-sided argumentation?
3.What possible impact may two-sided rhetorical strategies have on the communicative effectiveness of each category of introductory letters?
2.Argumentation theory and persuasion research as analytical frameworks for the study of the two-sided rhetorical strategies of the corpus letters
The first two research questions of the study were answered by applying the analytical and interpretative tools of the theory of argumentation to the corporate reporting context. The argumentative reconstruction of the corpus letters – considered as an implicit argumentative exchange between companies (as protagonist) and their relevant publics (as implicit antagonist) – revealed the sidedness of managers’ rhetorical strategies, identifying, for each corpus letter, the standpoints, the arguments and (whenever possible) the counterarguments, as well as the inferential and dialectical connections between arguments, counterarguments, and standpoints.
The theoretical framework for the argumentative reconstruction was the pragma-dialectical model of critical discussion (van Eemeren & Grootendorst 2004). This model assumes four (explicit or implicit) dialectical stages of argumentative interaction: a confrontation stage (where parties acknowledge their difference of opinion in relation to a specific issue); an opening stage (where parties – positioned as protagonist, respectively antagonist in relation to a standpoint – establish, from an assumed common ground, the starting points of their attempt to solve the difference of opinion); the argumentation stage (the argumentative exchange between the parties); and the concluding stage (where parties should agree whether the difference of opinion has been solved). According to this model, in each dialectical stage, arguers may appeal to various forms of strategic maneuvering (van Eemeren 2010) in order to resolve the difference of opinion in their favour, while maintaining the dialectical standards of reasonableness. ← 220 | 221 →
The pragma-dialectical model of critical discussion has multiple analytical advantages. It provides a pragmatic guideline for the detection and interpretation of the argumentatively relevant elements of the discourse, and normative standards for the evaluation of the effectiveness of the argumentative exchange (cf. van Eemeren & Grootendorst 2004: 58-59). As further detailed in section 3, this study also used this model as a pragmatic instrument for the generic, empirical description of each corpus of introductory letters, and as a ground for the integration of other complementary theoretical models of argumentative analysis – like the Argumentum Model of Topics (Rigotti & Greco Morasso 2010) – and of the theoretical and empirical hints provided by corporate communication research.
In order to estimate the impact of two-sided rhetorical strategies on the communicative effectiveness of the introductory letters – that is, on their capacity to fulfil their rhetorical objectives – this study combines two complementary theoretical frameworks. As presented in section 1, the introductory letters should be both credible – so as to build trust and maintain the relationship with the relevant stakeholders – and persuasive – in order to influence shareholders’ and stakeholders’ decision making in favour of the company. Thus, credibility could be considered a rhetorical purpose in se for these documents, though secondary to persuasiveness.
A first account about the impact of two-sided rhetorical strategies on the persuasiveness (and, to a certain extent, on the credibility) of the introductory letters comes from the normative criteria of evaluation of the reasonableness of argumentation, provided by the model of the critical discussion. These criteria entail that unreasonable arguments (based on false premises, logically unsound, or irrelevant in the reporting context) cannot effectively support a standpoint (e.g. a corporate stance). Analogously, if the counterarguments invoked by managers in their letters are (proved) unreasonable, they are ineffective in rejecting the corporate standpoints and should not damage the persuasiveness of the letters. It must be mentioned here that the pragma-dialectical notion of effectiveness is not completely synonymous with persuasiveness. While persuasiveness applies only to the arguments advanced in the argumentation stage of a critical discussion, effectiveness refers to arguers’ efforts in all four dialectical stages in order to influence the resolution of the difference of opinion in their own favour (van Eemeren ← 221 | 222 → 2010: 39) – e.g. by strategically selecting or presenting the starting points in the opening stage.
The second evaluative account comes from persuasion research. While argumentation theory enables a theoretical evaluation of the two-sided rhetorical strategies, depending on the reasonableness of their constituent arguments, it lacks the empirical support for an estimation of the effect of these strategies – especially, of the variations in their argumentative patterns – on the actually perceived persuasiveness and credibility of the introductory letters. This gap can be filled by persuasion research that shows that, depending on the context and on their argumentative structure, two-sided rhetorical strategies may have different persuasive and credibility effects than those of one-sided rhetorical strategies. In a meta-analytical study about the message sidedness effects in advertising and nonadvertising contexts, O’Keefe (1999) observes that, in general, two-sided messages are perceived as more credible than one-sided messages, although not always as more persuasive.4 Distinguishing between refutational two-sided messages that tried to refute somehow the opposing arguments, and nonrefutational two-sided messages, which acknowledged the opposing considerations without attempting to refute them, O’Keefe observed that in nonadvertising contexts, refutational two-sided messages appeared as more persuasive and more credible than one-sided messages. On the other hand, nonrefutational two-sided messages resulted significantly less persuasive than one-sided messages (presumably because they might have actually provided plausible counterarguments), and presented no credibility advantage (1999: 236–237). In contrast, in advertising contexts, two-sided messages did not result significantly more persuasive than one-sided messages – a persuasive advantage of the refutational two-sided messages being suspected, but not confirmed, due to insufficient available data. However, nonrefutational two-sided messages presented a credibility advantage over one-sided messages – an effect that has not been verified in the case of refutational two-sided messages (1999: 231, 237–238). ← 222 | 223 →
Drawing on the Elaboration Likelihood Model (Petty & Cacioppo 1986), O’Keefe explains that an enhancement in message credibility may have heterogeneous effects on persuasion. On the one hand, credibility may function as a peripheral cue that favours persuasion, due to an enhancement of the general believability of the message. On the other hand, credibility might increase message scrutiny, so either favouring persuasion (if the quality of argumentation is good), or decreasing it (if the quality of argumentation is poor).
These findings suggest that the impact of the two-sided rhetorical strategies on the persuasiveness and the credibility of the introductory letters would be more comprehensively evaluated by a mixed approach that could combine the normative analytical rigour of the theory of argumentation with the explanatory and predictive strengths of empirical research on persuasion. This study makes one step in this direction, trying to extend the results of O’Keefe’s (1999) meta-analysis to the context of corporate reporting, and makes a coarse estimation – at corpus level – of the impact of the two-sided rhetorical strategies on the persuasiveness and credibility of each category of introductory letters, depending on the relative proportion (and on the reasonableness) of refutational and non-refutational rhetorical moves they contain.
A precondition for the applicability of this mixed approach is to establish a correspondence between the types of contexts included in O’Keefe’s (1999) meta-analysis, and the communicative context of the introductory letters. The main criterion used by O’Keefe in distinguishing advertising from nonadvertising contexts is message topic. He opposes topics that involve the advocacy for products, services, or sociopolitical issues, to socially-relevant topics that involve public questioning and debate (1999: 215, 240, Note 2). Apparently, the difference behind this topical demarcation resides in the alignment between parties’ interests in the outcome of the communication, advertising contexts entailing a vested interest of the communicator in the success of the persuasive attempt, which cannot be a priori assumed in nonadvertising contexts.5 This impression is reinforced by O’Keefe’s ← 223 | 224 → hypothesis about the influence of the audience’s initial expectations about the communicator on the credibility of two-sided messages (1999: 237-239),6 which draws attention to the necessity of considering both audience characteristics and message topic in the estimation of message sidedness effects in a determined context.7 Drawing on the empirically confirmed credibility advantage enjoyed by the communicators who advocate unexpected positions – like those that go against their apparent self-interest (Eagly & Chaiken 1975, Eagly, Wood & Chaiken 1978, Walster, Aronson & Abrahams 1966, and Wood & Eagly 1981 in O’Keefe 1999: 237) – O’Keefe hypothesizes that the enhanced credibility of nonrefutational two-sided messages in advertising contexts could be the result of the context-specific scepticism of the audience towards the intention of the communicator to present both sides of the issue. Moreover, contrary to the initial meta-analytical estimations, he hypothesizes that nonrefutational two-sided messages might have a similar credibility advantage in nonadvertising contexts, if the audience expects the communicator to intentionally avoid mentioning counter-attitudinal information. This was confirmed for the corporate context (Rogers & Stocken 2005), where investors often interpret bad news forecasts as more credible than good news forecasts, being aware of managements’ institutional incentives to make earnings forecasts in a self-interested manner.
Thus, it can be assumed that, as an essentially accounting genre, introductory letters correspond to a nonadvertising context. As previously mentioned, managers are required to present a “true and fair view” of the corporate performance, and to account for the way they are fulfilling their duty towards the stakeholders whose interests they legally (or morally) represent. Yet, managers’ vested interest in presenting an “embellished” ← 224 | 225 → image of the corporation is likely to elicit audience’s scepticism about the impartiality of their report. In line with O’Keefe’s (1999) meta-analytical findings and considerations about the message sidedness effects, it can be argued that in the communicative context of the introductory letters, refutational two-sided rhetorical moves might present a persuasive advantage, while nonrefutational two-sided rhetorical moves might have an opposite effect. Ex hypothesi, considering the audience’s background expectations towards managers’ impression management motivation, it could be hypothesized that non-refutational rhetorical moves might improve the credibility of the introductory letters – as previously argued, a rhetorical purpose in se for this genre – but they would benefit the overall communicative effectiveness of the letters only to the extent that they do not endanger the managers’ perceived ability to fulfil their duty towards the relevant stakeholders.
This study was conducted on a corpus of 103 introductory letters (and equivalent interviews with top managers) extracted from 27 annual reports and 47 CSR reports, belonging to 22 listed companies, heterogeneous in terms of type of industry and country of origin. The reports covered the financial year 2007 and were published in 2008, in English, on the internet. One of the companies had 14 CSR reports and 23 corresponding letters, out of which 7 were identical. After the elimination of 6 identical letters, the final corpus of the study consisted of 44 introductory messages from annual reports, and 53 introductory messages from CSR reports.
The first methodological step was to identify, by coarse argumentative reconstruction, those introductory letters that used a two-sided rhetorical strategy. Then, these letters were subject to a more detailed argumentative reconstruction, in order to isolate potential genre-specific argumentative patterns in the treatment of their counter-attitudinal information. These first analytical steps were carried out in line with the pragma-dialectical model of critical discussion (Snoeck Henkemans 1997, van Eemeren 2010) and the ← 225 | 226 → Argumentum Model of Topics (AMT) (Rigotti 2006, Rigotti & Greco Morasso 2010).
To guide and, then, synthesize the reconstruction and the evaluation of two-sided rhetorical strategies, this study also used the critical discussion as a pragmatic instrument for the generic empirical description of the two corpora of introductory letters. The basic configuration of the resulting generic critical discussions emerged from the rhetorical situation of each category of letters, and from the preliminary coarse argumentative reconstruction made in the first analytical step. Thus, the assumed generic protagonist of the introductory letters was the company, represented by the manager(s) that signed the letter. The generic antagonists were the (usually) explicit addressees of each type of introductory letter: the shareholders, in annual reports, and stakeholders, in CSR reports. Considering the persuasive ends of the annual reports, the generic issue of the letters to shareholders was whether the company was worth investing in, and the assumed pragmatic (and usually, implicit) generic standpoint was “You should (continue to) invest in this company”.8 The generic issue of the letters to stakeholders was whether the company was behaving socially responsibly, and the assumed descriptive generic standpoint was: “This company behaves socially responsibly”. 9
The AMT was used for the recovery of the starting points advanced in the opening stage of the two generic critical discussions, and the analysis of the main argumentative patterns employed in the argumentation stage, according to Rigotti’s (2006) taxonomy of loci.10 Particularly relevant was the concept of endoxa – context-bound material starting points consisting in ← 226 | 227 → explicit or implicit propositions that, being already accepted by the relevant audience, are used as major premises in argument schemes (Rigotti 2006: 527). If falsely assumed as already accepted by the audience, endoxa can be a source of fallacy.
Based on the results of the argumentative reconstruction, the third methodological step was to outline a rhetorical profile of each corpus of letters, based on the discrete two-sided rhetorical moves identified in the argumentation stage of the generic critical discussions (cf. Tables no.1 and no. 2). The two-sided rhetorical moves were classified according to two dimensions. The first dimension followed O’Keefe’s (1999) demarcation between refutational and nonrefutational two-sided messages, superposed onto Snoeck Henkemans’ (1995) distinction among refutations, concessions, and mere acknowledgements of counterarguments. Thus, a two-sided refutational move consisted of one standpoint advanced by the manager (either the main standpoint of a letter, or a sub-standpoint from the argumentative structure of that letter), a counterargument to this standpoint (e.g. a criticism or other negative aspect casting a doubt on the corporate performance), and the argument(s) by means of which the manager attempted to refute that counterargument. Direct refutations consisted of a refutation proper, i.e., a denial of the truth-value of the propositional content of the counterargument. Indirect refutations did not deny the truth-value of the propositional content of a counterargument, but denied (or attempted to diminish) its relevance – corresponding, thus, to Snoeck Henkemans’ concept of concession. Analogously, a two-sided nonrefutational move consisted of one standpoint advanced by the manager and a counterargument to this standpoint; here, the counterargument was acknowledged, but not refuted in any way in the text.
For a more accurate demarcation of two-sided rhetorical moves, considering also that managers see introductory letters as representing them personally (Winsor 1993), this study observed also Schütz’ (1998) taxonomy of defensive styles of self-presentation. This taxonomy includes: the denial of the negative facts; the recognition of the facts, but not of their relevance or connotation (by reframing or dissociation); the recognition of the facts, accompanied by justifications or excuses; and the full recognition of responsibility for the negative facts accompanied by apologies and some sort of remediation (Schütz 1998: 619). Considering the factual exigencies of the reporting genre, for analytical reasons, both apologetic elements and ← 227 | 228 → justifications were included in the same two-sided nonrefutational rhetorical move as the negative event they accompanied – without ignoring, though, their potentially different consequences for managements’ image.
The second dimension of classification of the two-sided rhetorical moves was the time of occurrence of the negative event referred in the counterargument. Some moves were related to past corporate events, being included in managers’ strategies of retrospective sense-making. Other two-sided rhetorical moves addressed future risks for the corporate performance, while a third category of moves referred to problems affecting the companies on a continuous basis. It is true that argumentation intervenes only when the truth-value of a certain claim is under doubt; hence, past results – which are already a fact and whose existence cannot be put under doubt – can only be subject of explanations.11 But when managers explain past results, they attribute them causes, which come either from inside the organization (internal attributions) or from outside of the organization (external attributions). These causal attributions are an indicator of the extent to which companies assume the responsibility for the reported results; therefore, they can be transformed in arguments for the ability of a company (as agent) to produce the effects expected by the stakeholders (like profits, ethical behaviour, etc.) – in other words, in arguments from the efficient cause.12 Also, managers may use argumentation in order to diminish the relevance of past negative events in relation to the overall corporate performance (e.g. by presenting a minor loss as a means for the achievement of a major good).
The fourth methodological step consisted in the coarse estimation – at corpus level – of the possible impact of two-sided rhetorical moves on the communicative effectiveness of the corpus letters, based on the rhetorical profiles outlined in the precedent step. As presented in section 2, this estimation was made in line with O’Keefe’s (1999) meta-analytical observations and hypotheses about message sidedness effects, taking into account the nonadvertising topic of the introductory letters, and the potential initial scepticism of the audience towards managers’ intention to present both sides of the corporate activity. ← 228 | 229 →
This estimation was then confronted to the argumentative analysis of the most representative two-sided rhetorical patterns identified in the two corpora of introductory letters.
30 out of the 44 letters to shareholders, and 33 out of the 53 letters to stakeholders used a two-sided rhetorical strategy. Thus, at first glance, more than two thirds of the introductory letters met the audience’s requirements, addressing both positive and negative aspects of the corporate activity. In total, there were 114 two-sided rhetorical moves in the letters to shareholders (cf. Table no. 1), and 77 in the letters to stakeholders (cf. Table no. 2) – a difference that may have resulted from the different length of the two types of documents, the letter to shareholders being generally longer. However, of interest for this study was the relative proportion between refutational and nonrefutational rhetorical moves in each corpus of letters, and not the total number of two-sided rhetorical moves.
Refutational two-sided moves outnumbered nonrefutational two-sided moves in both corpora, though more visibly in the letters to shareholders (82 to 32 tokens) than in the letters to stakeholders (43 to 34 tokens). As previously argued, considering the accounting exigencies of the reporting context, this proportion seemed advantageous for the persuasiveness of the corpus documents. A more precise estimation of the persuasive and the credibility impacts of these distributions on each category of introductory letters was possible after a thorough consideration of the structure and the reasonableness of the main two-sided rhetorical patterns identified in the two corpora. Here are the results of this analysis. ← 229 | 230 →
The most numerous two-sided rhetorical moves from the letters to shareholders were the concession (63 tokens), which basically followed two main rhetorical patterns. The first pattern acknowledged certain internal weaknesses of the company, and then tried to minimize their relevance in relation to the overall corporate performance. 14 concessions acknowledged past unfavourable results, then tried to alter their connotation (e.g. strategically reframing them as “in target”) or relevance (by comparison with the totality of the results, or mentioning some remediation). Similarly, the risks coming from inside the corporation were countered with remedial actions in course or – less effectively – with a commitment to remediation.
The most visible concessive (and, in general, two-sided rhetorical) pattern of this category of letters (25 moves in 18 letters) acknowledged some external risks to the future corporate performance, then, tried to offset them by summarizing the main internal strengths of the company (e.g. assets, portfolio, strategy, etc.). These moves were mainly related to the concluding stage of the managerial messages, appearing as a natural precaution in front of the unpredictability of the future (Example 1):
(1)…our Group is embarking on its 136th year with growing assets and a solid equity and financial structure. We are ready to take up new challenges, albeit in a macroeconomic and market context that is far from easy. (Pirelli & C. S.p.A. Directors’ report 2007: 13)
The next category of two-sided rhetorical moves, nonrefutational, were mostly related to past shortcomings (23 out of 32 tokens) and, to a smaller extent (7 moves, out of which one was rhetorical), to long-standing and unavoidable (usually external) threats for company profits. These moves did not try to alter the perceived importance of the negative events, but manoeuvred strategically the perception of the corporate responsibility for their occurrence. Only in seven cases (mostly safety incidents) managers overtly assumed the company’s responsibility for the negative events, expressing its compassion (in case of fatalities) and commitment to remediation, bolstered by safety standards in place and previous accomplishments. But most of the time (18 tokens), the negative outcomes were attributed to causes that were external to the company (governments, market falls, competitors, providers, even customers). Some of these factors were strategically attacked and used as scapegoats for the corporate losses, ← 232 | 233 → being less likely to endanger managements’ perceived capacity to control the operational environment. In Example 2, for instance, a manager reframes the role of authorities – from combatant to enabler of an illegal activity affecting the company – by strategically selecting the starting points of his argumentation (i.e., the causes of the respective illegal activity).
(2)Illicit trade remains a key challenge and is fuelled by many factors including tax-driven price increases, poor enforcement of borders, weak laws, loosely regulated Free Trade Zones, a lack of intellectual property rights protection and the growth of the internet as a trading medium. […] We remain fully committed to tackling the problem, and are liaising with governments, customs and law enforcement agencies around the world. (British American Tobacco (BAT) Annual Report and Accounts 2007(b): 11)
The justificatory strength of such external attributions – that eventually aim to refute an alleged managerial incapacity in meeting shareholders requirements – depends on the soundness of their supporting argumentation. Example 3, for instance, presents a questionable attempt of scapegoating, where a manager tries to blame a scientific journal and the media for the company’s financial loss.
(3)[I]n May 2007, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) suggested that there may be cardiovascular risk associated with Avandia, our second largest product. This was followed by intense media coverage and despite our efforts to explain the entirety of the data, which did not confirm this risk, doctors were reluctant to prescribe Avandia for new patients without further FDA guidance. […] Sales of Avandia dropped significantly and this had a negative impact on our share price. […] Following clarification from the FDA in October 2007, we now have a new approved label and can move ahead with more clarity. (Glaxo-SmithKline Annual Review 2007(f): 6)
The manager relies in his argumentation on the implicit assumption that risks signalled by limited data are irrelevant. However, the soundness of this assumption depends on the nature of the parts - whole relationship between the data used by the scientific article and “the entirety of data” provided by the company – a piece of information that is missing from the letter. For example, if the risk was erroneously inferred in the article because essential data was missing from the reasoning, and, later, the entirety of data did not confirm the risk, then the existence of a risk could be denied, and the NEJM article (and its consequences) could be considered unreasonable. But if the risk was correctly inferred (although from a limited number of cases), and the entirety of data just diminished its probability to an “acceptable” level, ← 233 | 234 → then the existence of a risk could not be denied. In this case, considering the life-threatening consequences of that risk, media’s and doctors’ reaction might not have been unreasonable, and the company would have been responsible for the resulting financial loss. And the manager’s own statements seem to go in this direction; by mentioning that the FDA has required a new label for that medicine, he implicitly admits the presence of some risk-related issues within the original label. If so, his attempt to shift the responsibility for the financial losses would not only be potentially manipulative, by ambiguity, but also inconsistent.
Finally, direct refutations – less numerous in this corpus (19 tokens) – were mostly used for defending the managerial strategy and the investment value of the company (Example 4).
(4)Should we sell NBCU? The answer is no! I just don’t see it happening… […] It doesn’t make sense. The business has outperformed its competition and GE average for the last 20 years. Content is increasing in value […]. We are in a good cycle […]. This is true now, and its will be true in the long term as well. (GE Annual Report 2007: 6)
The most visible rhetorical pattern of this category (6 tokens) was the dissociation between (management’s) knowledge and (critics’) opinion.13 For example, in a sequence of proleptic argumentation belonging to the locus from the parts and the whole and the locus from difference (Example 5), the manager refutes the reasonableness of the investors’ anticipated reluctance towards a profitable branch of the company, opposing the “real” value of the business to the investors’ a priori evaluation.14 He refutes the starting point of their supposed uncritical transfer of image from sector (the whole) to the company (the part) – more precisely, the implicit endoxon that all the companies of a sector are equally profitable.
(5)[…] in 2007, “financial services” took on a negative connotation for investors. The equity value of banks and consumer finance companies declined […]. Conversely, our financial services earnings grew […]. Our financial services businesses are inherently more valuable than those of traditional banks or other services companies. Why? Because we have significant global origination in end-user ← 234 | 235 → markets that we understand better than others. Because we have deep expertise […] sound risk principles […] great global position [etc.]. (ibid: 6)
Viewing these results from the perspective of their impact, it can be hypothesized that the pronounced prevalence of refutational two-sided moves in this corpus is beneficial for the communicative effectiveness of the letters to shareholders (in terms of persuasiveness and credibility). Being mostly backed by factual data, direct refutations are likely to provide a compelling defence of the managerial expertise, contributing to the overall effectiveness of the letters. Concessions, though, seem to have a particular advantage in this context (suggested also by their high frequency of occurrence), due to their ambivalent nature. By their nonrefutational component – i.e., the acknowledgment of the possible risks to shareholders’ objectives – these moves may enhance management’s credibility and perceived professionalism (e.g. honesty, accuracy and precaution in the evaluation of the operational environment). At the same time, by (soundly) refuting the consequences of the respective negative aspects, they may reinforce management’s perceived capacity of control, thereby contributing to the persuasiveness of their account.
Consistently with previous studies in the field, the data analysis confirmed for this corpus of letters a “hedonic bias” in the managers’ causal attributions. However, confirming audience’s potential scepticism, external attributions are unlikely to provide a rhetorical advantage, especially when they appear in justifications within nonrefutational two-sided rhetorical moves. In these cases, the attempt to exonerate the management for the negative outcomes may conflict with its perceived capacity to control the operational environment.
Data analysis also suggests that a possible moderating role of time (the time-orientation of the standpoints and of the two-sided rhetorical moves) might be worth of further investigation. For example, a nonrefutational acknowledgment of a risk might weigh differently in investors’ decision making than a non-refuted past negative event. Also, a future-oriented standpoint might limit the effectiveness of proper refutations, but may increase the effectiveness of concessions.
Part of these observations were also confirmed for the corpus of letters to stakeholders, but data analysis has also revealed significant differences, presented in detail in the following section. ← 235 | 236 →
In the letters to stakeholders (in CSR reports), the distribution of two-sided rhetorical moves followed a different pattern (cf. Table no. 2). A first difference regarded time-orientation, remarkable being the extensive coverage of issues affecting the companies on a continuous basis – 24 out of 77 tokens, compared to 8 out of 114 tokens in the letters to shareholders. A second difference was the more balanced distribution of the three types of two-sided rhetorical moves, and the prevalence of nonrefutational moves (34 tokens) over concessions (28 tokens) and direct refutations (15 tokens). However, 13 similar nonrefutational two-sided moves were found in letters that belonged to subsidiaries of the same company; so, this could be a company- or industry-specific pattern that might have biased the primacy of nonrefutational moves in the corpus. A third difference regarded managers’ attributional style in relation to the acknowledged shortcomings (in both nonrefutational and concessive two-sided moves). Contrary to the letters to shareholders, the letters to stakeholders show prevalence of internal attributions (31 internal attributions compared to 11 external attributions) – a possible benefit for the credibility of these letters. Illuminating for a better understanding of the potential persuasive and credibility effects of this distribution was the analysis of the main rhetorical pattern encountered in the corpus.
The most visible rhetorical pattern of the letters to stakeholders was the nonrefutational acknowledgment of past safety incidents (19 tokens). Only in six cases did managers admit company responsibility for the incidents. In the other 13 cases, they made no reference to the causes of the incidents – possibly, due to legal considerations, given the recency of the events – limiting themselves to statements of regret (in case of life-losses) and a commitment to remediation. A common strategic manoeuvre within this rhetorical pattern – consistent with previous observations on the “Pollyanna Hypothesis” in the letters to shareholders (Thomas 1997)15 – was to positively reframe safety shortcomings by placing emphasis on their overall incidence rate (usually in progress compared to the previous year) rather than on single incidents (Example 6). ← 236 | 237 →
(6)In pursuit of our zero harm objective, [our company] achieved a 16,2% reduction in the Total Recordable Injury Frequency Rate (Xstrata Copper Ernest Henry Mining Sustainability Report 2007: 2)
A second category of two-sided nonrefutational moves (eight tokens) anticipated various challenges for the companies, without mentioning whether or how these challenges would be overcome. When related to job cuts, these moves included also a justification and mentioned various reparatory actions, bolstered with claims of responsible corporate behaviour towards the employees (Example 7):
(7)The company restructuring programme announced in 2007 will help us remain a competitive and sustainable business. These changes are necessary but have inevitably required us to reduce employee numbers. We aim to treat our employees with dignity and respect and offer a wide range of support for all affected staff. (GlaxoSmithKline Corporate Responsibility Report 2007 (b): 7)
Arguably the most critical component of this rhetorical pattern, the justification should prove – in line with Schütz (1998: 619) – that the negative event was inevitable, being necessary for the achievement of a more important corporate objective; therefore, the company should not be blamed. The justification presented in Example 7 relies on a common domain-specific assumption (endoxon) that the reduction of personnel helps companies to maintain their competitiveness and business sustainability. However, since the reduction of personnel is only one way of reaching these objectives, this endoxon might not be unanimously shared by the stakeholders (e.g. by the employees); therefore, this justification might be seen as neither credible nor persuasive.
In what regards the refutational two-sided rhetorical moves (43 tokens), they were divided between concessions (28 tokens) and direct refutations (15 tokens).
Two concessive patterns were similar to patterns observed in the letters to shareholders, being employed in relation to past sustainability shortcomings (5 moves) and to (usually external) risks for the future sustainability of the company (6 moves). But the distinctive feature of the two-sided refutational moves from the letters to stakeholders was the extensive coverage of the issues affecting the companies on a continuous basis – 24 from 43 tokens, compared to 8 from 82 in the letters to shareholders. ← 237 | 238 →
Particularly relevant for the credibility of the letters to stakeholders were the two-sided refutational moves that defended the position of the companies on matters of principle related to their voluntary agency towards the stakeholders. Some of these moves reinforced the agency of the company; while others set limits to it. Thus, two concessive moves defended the very possibility of a company to be sustainable, in spite of the counter-attitudinal connotations of its industrial profile – e.g. oil and gas (BP), tobacco (BAT). Other concessive moves (4 tokens) defended the actual sustainability of the companies with “risky” profiles (e.g. fuel, energy production), relying on factual arguments (like on-going action plans) and/or on value-based arguments (e.g. commitments, corporate values and business principles). Sometimes, the commitment to principles itself was defended (Example 8):
(8)[We] have established principles for the climate change debate consistent with […] our company’s values. [For example] we are a large independent power generator, but our principles […] do not promote free emissions allowances under a cape-and-trade program to power generators. […] We recognize that it could be argued that our principles are flawed. The company would be better off supporting free allowances for all generators based on output. But that’s why they call them principles. (Entergy Sustainability Report 2007: 3)
Value-based arguments rely on an ontological principle (maxim) that states that the quality of the cause may influence the quality of the effect. In this example, for instance, the sustainability entailed by the corporate values (the final cause of the corporate behaviour) that underlie those business principles (as formal cause of the corporate behaviour) may bring about a sustainable corporate behaviour. However, considering the factual exigencies of the corporate reporting, such arguments might constitute an insufficient defence and be potentially misleading – unless supported by relevant facts. That is because, in reality, they entail a commitment to how things should be (a deontic argument), and not a course of action, i.e., how things actually are (an ontological argument).16
Representative for the letters to stakeholders were also the refutational patterns that addressed a major CSR topic – the historically assumed opposition between shareholders’ and stakeholders’ interests, and the debate about their priority for the corporate management (Smith 2003). There were ← 238 | 239 → two main (contrasting) approaches to this issue. The first approach – basically concessive – aimed to prove that the two categories of interests are not mutually exclusive, companies being able to operate socially responsibly in spite of the acknowledged priority of shareholders’ interests. One argument in this direction was the moral sense of the employees (the efficient cause of the corporate behaviour), who “have their own good sense about the right thing to do [and would not] want to work for a company that only cares for profits” (BAT Sustainability Report 2007: 3). Thus, the social responsibility of the company would result from the social responsibility of its employees – a rationale entailed by the locus from the whole and the parts and the locus from the efficient cause. A second argument in this direction – met in two concessive moves (Example 9) and one refutational move based on dissociation (Example 10) – was the potential contribution of corporate social responsibility to the achievement of the companies’ financial goals:
(9)Our [company’s] goal is to create sustainable shareholder value. […] But if a business wants to succeed long term, it makes absolute sense for it to operate responsibly. (BAT Sustainability Report 2007: 3)
(10)[Reporter]: So sustainability contributes to growth and value creation.
[President]: Absolutely. Initially people thought of it as a cost factor, which indeed it is when you treat it as an add-on. However, if it’s designed into the way you do things from the beginning as it is here at Philips, it saves you money because you’re operating more effectively. So today we recognize that sustainability offers significant business opportunities. (Philips Sustainability Report 2007: 8)
This “win-win” rhetorical pattern relies on a maxim of the locus from the efficient cause and the locus from the final cause that states that “an agent’s commitment is reliable if it is bound to its strongest interest” (Rigotti, Greco Morasso, Palmieri & Palmieri 2007, in Filimon 2011: 471). However, being expressed in a deontic modality, the pro-attitudinal argument of Example 9 is less effective in supporting the actual responsibility of the company than the ontological pro-attitudinal argumentation of Example 10.
The second approach to the “stakeholders-shareholders” debate, met in five moves, was essentially refutational. Managers acknowledged the priority of the shareholders’ financial interests in order to set limits to the stakeholders’ expectations towards the company (Example 11) and refute the opinion – “shared by many” – that corporations should be “all things to all stakeholders” (GE Citizenship Report 2007–2008: 11). ← 239 | 240 →
(11)Businesses have to be honest about what they are and what they can do. Our goal is to create sustainable shareholder value. Businesses can’t assume the role of governments, charities, political parties, action groups or the many other bodies that make up society. (BAT Sustainability Report 2007: 3)
Example 11 relies on a maxim of the locus from the final cause, according to which an agent cannot be reasonably expected to assume roles that are not related to its final goals (Filimon 2011: 472). Other dissociative attempts were less reasonable. In Example 12, a manager fallaciously assumes that in a multi-agent system, the smaller the size of an agent, the smaller is its influence on the effect produced by the system:
(12)With healthcare, there are multiple issues and more stakeholders. Our contribution overall is modest when you consider that we are just a relatively small part of the total healthcare value chain, in addition to doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, insurers, etc. (Philips Sustainability Report 2007: 10)
By strategically dissociating and (re)defining in a self-serving manner the roles in social responsibility, managers were able to claim the fulfilment of the corporate social duty, and to eventually attack the other social co-agents for not having fulfilled their part of responsibility – that is, the role they were strategically assigned by the managers themselves (Example 13):
(13)As a business we need to ensure that everything we do reflects what our customers want and need. We must make healthcare accessible and affordable for everyone, not only in advanced markets but also in new and emerging markets. Governments and insurers must also do their part. […] I believe that a marriage of stakeholder needs and meaningful, cohesive policies will lie at the heart of successful strategies to meet the healthcare challenge. (ibid.)
The pragmatic rationale of Example 13 relies on the same argumentative locus as Example 12, but on a different maxim, according to which if a necessary effect requires the collaboration of multiple agents, then all agents must do their part in order to produce that effect. There are, however, a number of weak points in this attack. Although the necessity to make healthcare accessible for everyone is a common-sense endoxon, the acceptance of the other starting points of the manager cannot be taken for granted – e.g. his unilateral opinions about who should do what in making healthcare accessible. But in the wider context of CSR reporting, this attack could be considered, in essence, a strategic manoeuvre based on conciliatio. Governments and insurers are important stakeholders of the company, and the collaboration between corporate and non-corporate agents is ← 240 | 241 → recommended by stakeholders themselves – that is., by the initiatives that represent stakeholders’ interests (e.g. UNCG 2010, GRI 2004–2011). Thus, the necessity of cooperation, in se, can be considered an effective starting point for this attack – although the same does not hold for the manner of the cooperation.
As these examples reveal, the marked credibility issue of the CSR reports (detailed in section 1) is plainly reflected in this corpus of letters by the large space allotted to the defence of the corporate positions in agency-related matters of principle, and by the complexity of the corresponding argumentation. A persuasive advantage of the extensive use of two-sided refutational moves in relation to these topics cannot be taken for granted. The argumentative reconstruction highlighted a number of weak points and fallacies, especially in direct refutations (e.g. self-serving definitions, an abusive use of starting points, logically unsound or insufficient arguments) that may damage the communicative effectiveness of the corporate messages (in terms of persuasiveness and credibility). However, considering the likely scepticism of the audience towards the corporate candour in relation to CSR principled topics, concessions might enjoy a credibility advantage, due to their non-refutational component. Also, due to a generally better quality of their pro-attitudinal argumentation (as compared to direct refutations), concessions might actually provide a persuasive advantage.
The large number of nonrefutational two-sided moves (many of them associated with internal attributions) may increase the credibility of the informative account of the letters to stakeholders. However, this favourable effect is likely to be offset by the potentially detrimental effect of these moves on the persuasiveness of the letters. That is because non-refutational moves mainly appeared in the “material performance” area (32 out of 34 tokens), where they significantly outnumbered the two-sided refutational moves (11 tokens), conveying thus a negative impression on the managerial performance in the field. ← 241 | 242 →
This study investigated the use of two-sided rhetorical strategies in two corpora of introductory letters to shareholders, respectively stakeholders, from annual and CSR reports.
By means of a mixed methodological approach that combined the analytical tools of argumentation theory with insights coming from the persuasion research on message-sidedness effects, the study explored the extent of use, the argumentative structures, and, ex hypothesi, the potential impact of two-sided rhetorical strategies on the communicative effectiveness (in terms of persuasiveness and credibility) of each category of introductory letters. This impact was estimated at corpus level, based on the relative proportion of refutational and nonrefutational two-sided rhetorical moves (identified by argumentative reconstruction) in the two corpora of letters, and on the potential credibility and persuasive effects of the two-sided rhetorical moves in the communicative context of each category of introductory letters. This estimation was then confronted to the argumentative analysis of the main two-sided rhetorical patterns identified in the two corpora of letters.
The rhetorical profiles delineated by the distribution of two-sided rhetorical moves in the two corpora of introductory letters served as a guide for seizing rhetorical tendencies, and not as a statistical indicator – that could be a subject for further research.
Data analysis showed that more than two thirds of the letters of each corpus employed a two-sided rhetorical strategy – apparently meeting the genre-specific rhetorical exigencies for an account on both positive and negative aspects of the corporate activity. The characteristics of the rhetorical situation of each category of introductory letters were reflected in the main topics addressed by the two-sided rhetorical moves in the respective corpora, and in the way managers handled the counterarguments. Performance-related topics prevailed in the letters to shareholders, while impression management topics were more visible in the letters to stakeholders, which allotted more space to the defence of the corporate ethos. Although a self-serving attributional bias was observed in the letters to shareholders, the prevalence and the good argumentative quality of refutational two-sided moves, especially of concessions – whose ambivalent nature might provide a ← 242 | 243 → rhetorical advantage in this context – seemed beneficial in terms of persuasiveness and credibility. In the letters to stakeholders, the refutational two-sided moves prevailed as well, but mostly in relation to impression management topics, which are more likely to elicit audience scepticism towards the managers’ impartiality. In this context, concessions might have a credibility advantage and, due to the better quality of their underlying argumentation, be more persuasive than direct refutations. But the prevalence of non-refutational moves in performance-related arguments seemed detrimental to the overall communicative effectiveness of these letters, a possible positive effect in terms of credibility being likely to be offset by the negative consequences on the persuasiveness of the corporate claims of responsible behaviour.
Data analysis has also suggested that a possible moderating role of time (the time-orientation of both standpoints and two-sided rhetorical moves) might be worth of further investigation.
This study tried to make a step towards a more comprehensive methodological approach to the evaluation of the two-sided communication, able to integrate the normative analytical rigour of argumentation theory with the explanatory and predictive strengths of the empirical research on persuasion. At the same time, by its applicative side, this investigation aimed to contribute to the study of corporate apologia and, in general, of the effectiveness of the communication between corporations and their multiple stakeholders.
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1This study was elaborated within the framework of the ProDoc research project “Endoxa and keywords in the pragmatics of argumentative discourse. The pragmatic functioning and the persuasive exploitation of keywords in corporate reporting”, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (Grant PDFMP1_124845/1) and coordinated by Andrea Rocci at Università della Svizzera Italiana (USI Lugano).
2Most studies focused on the introductory letters of the annual reports, and less on their CSR counterparts, but Skulstad (2005) pointed out a number of rhetorical similarities between the two types of letters.
3Although the CEO and the Chairman have different roles in the management of the firm, they are both agents of the shareholders, on whose evaluation (based on the corporate performance) their position eventually depends. Besides, in many cases, the person who signed the letter was simultaneously both CEO and Chairman.
4The terms ‘one-sided rhetorical strategy’ and ‘two-sided rhetorical strategy’ employed in this study are, in principle, synonymous with O’Keefe’s (1999) terms ‘one-sided message’, respectively ‘two-sided message’. The term ‘rhetorical strategy’ is preferred due to the heterogeneity of two-sided argumentation in the corpus documents, which often includes both refutational and nonrefutational argumentative moves that can be considered distinct two-sided rhetorical units in themselves.
5For example, producers ontologically depend (as a company) on the sale of the products they advertise. In contrast, participants to a debate aimed to resolve a social problem are more likely (although no necessarily) to be equally interested in any solution reasonably achieved through the debate.
6Audiences’ initial expectations towards the communicator should not be confused with audiences’ initial attitude towards the topic or the conclusion of the message. The consulted literature did not provide sufficient evidence for a reasonable assumption of audiences’ initial attitude towards the corporate claims. If such an assumption would have been possible, it could have been connected to O’Keefe’s meta-analytical findings in this respect (1999: 219, 229-230).
7O’Keefe (1999) does not include audience’s expectations within the context, which seems to be reduced in the meta-analysis to ‘message topic’ (e.g. 1999: 239, second paragraph). However, both Bitzer’s (1968) model of rhetorical situation, and other models of communicative contexts (e.g. Rigotti & Rocci 2006) suggest that message topic and audience expectations are part of the same ontological frame.
8The concept of generic standpoint for the argumentative analysis of a large corpus of documents was previously used in Filimon (2011).
9Although the heterogeneity of the stakeholders and of their interests may generate distinct sub-discussions within the same introductory letter (between the company and various categories of stakeholders) these sub-discussions are eventually aimed to defend the social responsibility of the company as a whole. Therefore, this study assumed only one generic antagonist (stakeholders, at large) and one generic issue for the CSR letters.
10Argumentative loci are indicated in the argumentative reconstruction by the maxims that underlie the argumentation schemes. Maxims are implicit procedural starting points consisting in the inferential implications entailed by the ontological relations on which the argumentative reasoning is based (i.e., loci) (Rigotti & Greco Morasso 2010: 495). Examples of loci are the ontological relations between cause and effect, whole and parts, etc. An example of maxim is “if the cause is the case, the effect is too” (ibid: 495).
11The distinction between argumentation and explanation was made according to Walton (2006).
12In general, in the corpus letters, managers’ attributions referred to the responsibility of the corporation; only exceptionally (e.g. Chairman’s Letter, in BP Annual Report) did they refer to the personal responsibility of a member of the management.
13The “knowledge/opinion” dissociative pattern was first signalled in corporate crisis communication by Hearit (1994).
14Proleptic argumentation is a rhetorical device consisting in “anticipat[ing] and answering of an objection or opposed argument before one’s opponent (the audience) has put it forward” (Walton 2008: 144).
15The ‘Pollyanna Hypothesis’ refers to managers’ propensity to employ positive language regardless of the financial state of the company. (Hildebrandt & Snyder 1981, in Thomas 1997: 48–49)
16More on this distinction and on the use of modalities in argumentation can be found in Rocci (2008). An example of the potentially manipulative exploitation of the two modalities in CSR reporting is presented in Filimon (2009).