Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Persuasion, Probity, and Paltering: The Prudential Crisis

Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Persuasion, Probity, and Paltering: The Prudential Crisis

Article excerpt

In July, 1996, the Prudential Insurance Company agreed to pay a record fine of $35 million for misleading sales practices (Scism, 1996). This agreement followed a series of accusations of fraud and misrepresentation which have plagued Prudential since the late 1980's. After a 30-member task force with representatives from 11 states and the District of Columbia concluded that agents communicated improperly, Prudential Insurance is paying millions of dollars in restitution to over 10 million policy holders to settle allegations of impropriety. When evidence was uncovered showing agents had persuaded customers to convert the built-up cash value of older policies to finance newer, more expensive ones, it became clear that some customers did not fully understand the transactions ("Merrill Lynch," 1995; Gilpin, 1996). Prudential was guilty of misrepresentation and paltering.

Persuasion, whether executed individually, or as the collective behavior of individuals in an organization, is the act of motivating an audience to voluntarily change an attitude, belief or behavior (O'Keefe, 1990). According to Aristotle, coercion and manipulation, the sometimes subtle deviants of persuasion, occur when communicators lack character, goodwill, and the desire to be virtuous (Oswald, 1962). Paltering, or talking in an insincere, equivocal manner, occurs when communicators ignore ethical values. Character, goodwill, and virtue comprise the core of communication ethics, which attempts to distinguish normatively the roles and responsibilities of the ethical communicator and the boundaries of ethical communication. Reinsch's definition of management communication ethics as 'the study of the rhetorical rights and duties of persons performing the role of manager in business transactions" (1996, p. 350) focuses on both the obligations and the privileges inherent in communication. This essay explores communication ethics, including the rhetorical rights and duties of managers, by examining discourse and actions of The Prudential Company. Its corporate communicative behavior is contrasted against the fretwork of assumptions which lie behind ethical behavior. Documents which address Prudential's recovery from the ethical crisis have been analyzed to examine how the company has addressed the crisis and attempted to repair its reputation.

Organizational Crises

Like Union Carbide (Ice, 1991), Exxon (Tyler, 1997) and NASA (Suchan, 1995), Prudential suffered an ethical crisis. Because organizations build and maintain numerous relationships with diverse publics (Katz & Kahn, 1978), an ethical crisis, particularly if it is handled poorly, can strike a severe blow to the organization's reputation. Crises require that an organization manage its legitimacy (Allen & Caillouet, 1994) and restore its external image (Benoit & Brinson, 1994). In order to avoid a recurrence, the organization must develop effective external communication strategies along with a necessary cultural change in the organization (Ross & Benson, 1995). Corporate discourse, used to shape public perceptions of the corporation (Crable & Vibbert, 1986), is especially important in a crisis, yet the crisis management literature frequently neglects the communication component (Hearit, 1994). Public opinion must be managed to produce positive impressions and minimize damage (Sturges, 1994); different audiences must be addressed individually. If insufficient attention is paid to rhetorical strategies across diverse publics, organizations may not recover from their crises. Ice's cogent analysis of Union Carbide's Bhopal incident reveals its failure to analyze various audiences and respond accordingly (1991). In reviewing corporate accidents and crises, Marcus and Goodman found rhetorical strategies of accommodation useful to both victims and shareholders and evidence that stock prices responded positively when both were given due consideration (1991).

Scandals, perhaps the most organizationally devastating kind of crises, are events which disgrace, discredit, and compromise the organization's reputation. …

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