Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Negative Messages as Strategic Communication: A Case Study of a New Zealand Company's Annual Executive Letter

Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Negative Messages as Strategic Communication: A Case Study of a New Zealand Company's Annual Executive Letter

Article excerpt

It is generally agreed that the greatest strategic advantage in business communication is gained from positive emphasis. We argue here that this is not always true. In some contexts, being negative makes strategic sense.

One such case is the annual executive letter of a small New Zealand business. This letter was brought to our attention by a stockholder who felt uneasy about it but was unable to say precisely why. He did, however, make two observations that turned out to be significant. He said that he understood the content of the letter, but not why the writer had chosen to focus on particular topics. He also said that he felt that the writer might be concealing something. An analysis of the letter in terms of its surface linguistic features revealed little more than the stockholder had already observed, except for the fact that there was a marked lack of orientation towards the reader. A further, more detailed, analysis that took account of the context in which the letter was written, and that looked at both explicit and implicit messages, was more revealing. We found that although the letter refers to a number of problems, these are relatively minor ones. Most of them had either already been solved when the letter was written or were in the process of being resolved. However, their inclusion in the letter appeared to serve strategic functions: to distract attention from more serious issues; to undermine the credibility of potential challengers; and to present the directors positively as problem solvers. In focusing on negatives, the writer adopted a high-risk strategy. Even so, his short-term objective seems to have been achieved: The annual general meeting was over within eleven minutes, and no major issues were raised. As a longer-term strategy, however, the focus on negatives may have backfired, as more recent communications to stockholders appear to reveal.

The contextualized approach to the analysis of a single executive letter that we have adopted here has revealed what appears to be the strategic use of bad news. We believe that further analyses of this type, applied to both oral and written business messages, are likely to reveal additional instances of similar communication strategies. The more widespread such strategies prove to be, the more reason there is for making space for them in business education programmes.

Contextualized Survey of Relevant Literature

Lee and Tweedie (1975) and Courtis (1982) have both shown that the executive letter is the most widely read section of the annual report. Perhaps partly for this reason, there is an increasing interest in the rhetoric of persuasion in accounting literature. Fogarty (1994), for example, argues that rhetoric should be included in a new agenda for accounting research. This is a particularly significant argument in view of the fact that Cross (1990) found that the projection of a successful image in the executive letter can take priority over the readers' need for accurate and useful information.

Hyland (1998) analyzed 137 annual executive letters, using the metadiscourse taxonomy developed by Crismore (1993). He focused on textual features which, he argued, created a positive corporate image. We believe that examining context is also useful in examining either oral or written business messages (see Smeltzer & Thomas, 1994; Suchan & Dulek, 1998; Shelby, 1986; and Faris, 1997). In reviewing a number of textbooks and research papers dealing with bad news, Limaye (1997) called for investigations of explanations, investigations that must, in his opinion, take context into account. As early as 1992, Kohut and Segars, who examined 50 executive letters for the relationship between thematic concerns and business success, observed that future research on strategic communication should investigate communication in the context of surrounding events. In our view, the examination of surrounding events should, where appropriate, be accompanied by an examination of contextually significant documentation. …

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