Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Managing Organizational Legitimacy: Communication Strategies for Organizations in Crisis

Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Managing Organizational Legitimacy: Communication Strategies for Organizations in Crisis

Article excerpt

Crisis situations can cause internal and external stakeholders to question the legitimacy of organizations. When faced with a crisis, organizations are compelled to communicate strategically with stakeholders to manage legitimacy. This study synthesizes literature on organizational legitimacy, crisis management, and niche-width theory to provide an investigation of the effects of crisis-response strategies on perceptions of organizational legitimacy. Using a quasi-experimental, 2 X 2 X 4 design, the study tests the hypotheses that (a) organizations that produce consistent crisis responses across stakeholders will enhance their legitimacy, while organizations that produce inconsistent crisis responses will reduce theirs; (b) generalist organizations are perceived as being more legitimate than specialist organizations; and (c) when combined, niche-width and crisis-response consistency will produce differing effects on organizational legitimacy. Conclusions drawn from the investigation support these hypotheses.

Keywords: crisis management, image management, organizational legitimacy, niche-width theory

Organizations share an interdependent relationship with their internal and external stakeholders; indeed, they rely on one another for survival. Perhaps the most obvious interdependency results from the typical organization-stakeholder transactions, where, for example, goods and services are provided by businesses and paid for by consumers. There are other relationships that are less obvious but no less important for organizational survival. One such relationship involves the development of organizational legitimacy. "Legitimacy is a generalized perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, or appropriate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs, and definitions" (Suchman, 1995, p. 574). Illegitimacy occurs when an organization's actions "are seen as undesirable or as violating societal norms" (Patterson & Watkins-Allen, 1997, p. 293). Legitimacy management is a cultural process whereby organizations attempt to gain, maintain, and in some cases regain stakehold er support for organizational actions. It therefore depends on communication with the organization's audiences for its success (Suchman, 1995).

Organizations may experience a "crisis of legitimacy" (Seeger, 1986, p. 148) when untoward results, such as loss of human life, can be attributed to organizational (in)action. During crisis situations organizations can experience a loss of legitimacy if their actions no longer conform to what is considered to be appropriate organizational behavior (Suchman, 1995). Three elements are common to most definitions of crisis: (a) a threat to the organization, (b) the element of surprise, and (c) a short decision time (Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer, 1998). Barton (1993), for example, defines organizational crisis as "a major unpredictable event that has potentially negative results" (p. 2; cf. Barton, 2001). Weick (1988) argues that crises are "low probability/high consequence events" (p. 305) that threaten the organization and its goals. Pearson and Clair (1998) state that "an organizational crisis is a low-probability, high-impact event that threatens the viability of the organization and is characterized by ambiguity of cause, effect, and means of resolution, as well as by a belief that decisions must be made swiftly" (p. 60).

Despite the growing literature on crisis management and the well-developed research on organizational legitimacy, the relationship between crisis and legitimacy is unclear. Seeger et al. (1998) state that "substantial research will be required before a clear relationship is established between legitimacy and successful crisis management" (p. 258). The current investigation analyzes the relationship between legitimacy and crisis management. The analysis synthesizes three areas of theory and research to do so: organizational legitimacy, crisis management, and niche-width theory. …

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