Paper – Literature Review

This literature review was an assignment


Boshoff, H. (2017). ‘Conceptualising Responsible Communication: A literature review’. [online] Responsible Available at: [Accessed dd mm. yyyy].



Assignment 5

Conceptualising Responsible Communication: A Literature Review

By H.P. Boshoff

 Business Philosophy and Strategic Communication Management

(BSF800 & KOB811)


Promoter: Dr. E. De Beer | Date of submission: 2017-06-26

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Table of Contents


Table of Contents. i

Figures and Tables. ii

Terminology. 1

1            Introduction and approach.. 1


2            Stakeholder Theory.. 1

2.1.1                 The stakeholder concept 2

2.1.2                 Stakeholder theory definition.. 3

2.2        Evolution, influence and criticism.. 3

3            The separation thesis.. 4

3.1        Responses. 5

4            corporate social responsibility (CSR) 5

4.1        A challenge of definition.. 6

4.1.1                 CSR Evolution: Responsibility as Virtue. 6

4.1.2                 And on to Corporate Citizenship. 7

5            The Dichotomy.. 7

6            Utilising the separation thesis.. 8

6.1        Sabadoz’s utilisation thesis. 8

7            PART I: Conclusion.. 9


8            Introduction.. 10

9            Responsibility as concept one.. 10

9.1        Overview.. 10

9.1.1                 Responsibility, Stakeholders and Organisations. 11

9.2        Definitional views. 11

9.2.1                 International Law.. 12

9.3        Discussion.. 13

9.4        Conclusion.. 13

10         Communication(+) as concept two.. 14

10.1     Communication and Relation as COMMUNICATION+. 16

10.2     Conclusion.. 18

11         Responsibility AND relation+ as treated by ‘Responsible Leadership’ 19

11.1     Definition.. 19

11.1.1              Responsibility. 20

11.1.2              Relationship+. 20

11.2     Discussion in context of the stakeholder view.. 21


12.1     Communication, responsibility and responsible leadership. 22

12.1.1              The responsibility to Communicate appropriate values. 22

12.1.2              The responsibility to remain informed. 23

12.1.3              Openness to signs of problems. 23

12.2     Discussion.. 24

13         the mainstreaming of the STRATEGIC management of responsibility, and CSR leadership.. 24

14         LITERATURE REVIEW Conclusion.. 27

15         LIST OF REFERENCES.. 29


Figures and Tables

Table 1: Four conceptualisations of opposing drivers of CSR.. 7

Figure 1: A Venn diagram of selected activities common to the two definitional approaches to PR/ CM   17

Figure 2: A Venn diagram depicting the conceptualisation of ‘communication+’ / ‘relationship+’ 18

Table 3. Two names for one concept 18



This paper uses the terms Public Relations (PR) and Communication / Communication Management (CM) interchangeably throughout, and a specifically contextualised argument for this approach is germane to the research outcome, but is only addressed midway through this paper.

1       Introduction and approach

This research into the conceptualisation of responsible communication is grounded in stakeholder theory, which will be analysed in part one with emphasis on two key challenges that have plagued stakeholder theory since its inception. The first is its lack of a universally agreed definitional conceptualisation. The second and main focus, is the ‘separation thesis’, framed as the question: “Which of two opposing positions, profit or moral purpose drives CSR?”. Both are challenges to the very validity and practicability of stakeholder theory and, as will be shown, other conceptualisations that build on it. This two-pronged lens will be cast first over stakeholder theory, then corporate social responsibility.

Next, a section is dedicated to one approach suggested by Sabadoz (2011) to solve, if not the polarising CSR conundrum of the profit-seeking versus pro-sociality dichotomy, then at least to frame this CSR dichotomy anew for the purpose of using; Firstly, its ability to serve as a supplement, a contextually adaptable counterpoint for profit seeking, and secondly, as a means to keep its viability as a normative, and useful discourse alive.


2       Stakeholder Theory

Stakeholder theory was popularised by Freeman (2010) with his seminal book ‘Strategic management, A stakeholder approach’. It effectively established the field of Business and Society (Katsoulakos & Katsoulakos, 2006:13). It is a comparatively new theory in how it introduces the concept of stakeholders into strategic management (Fontaine, Haarman & Schmid, 2006:26). The wide appeal of stakeholder theory is due in part to its conceptual breadth, which also leaves it wide open to critique (Phillips, 2003b:479). As a result several authors have contributed divergent explanations and applications for the theory and its concepts, and divergent or even contradictory arguments in support or against it (Donaldson & Preston, 1995:65).

The concept of stakeholder theory has been traced as far back as the work of Follet in 1918 (Schilling, 2000 in Fontaine et al., 2006:8) but its emergence in management theory, via the seminal work of Freeman (1984), propelled it to its current position of prominence.

Freeman’s goal was to develop a framework responsive to managerial concerns about being confronted with unprecedented levels of environmental turbulence and change  (Fontaine et al., 2006:10). Factors responsible for such change was no longer confined to the traditional organisational domain, and something more tangible than ‘environment’ was needed to plan for responses to change (Freeman, 2010:23).

Freeman had an additional intention which was to “revitalise the concept of managerial capitalism by replacing the notion that managers have a duty to stockholders with the concept that managers bear a fiduciary relationship to stakeholders.” (Gibson, 2000:248). In doing so, Freeman (2010) effectively uses stakeholder theory to radically redefine the very purpose of business as held at the time.

2.1.1     The stakeholder concept

Carroll’s (1993:60, in Gibson, 2000:245) definition of a stakeholder is “…any individual or group who can affect or is affected by the actions, decisions, policies, practices or goals of the organization“. Freeman (2001:41) defines stakeholders as “…  groups and individuals who benefit from or are harmed by, and whose rights are violated or respected by, corporate actions.” With this definition he breaks the focus of management only for the benefit of the organisation’s shareholders. It also highlights the moral case for not only the inception but also the  evolution of stakeholder theory, which Gibson (2000) confirms.

2.1.2     Stakeholder theory definition

Philips (2003a) describes Stakeholder theory as a theory of organizational management and of ethics with a centrality of morals and values that distinguishes it from other theories. Stakeholder theories are managerial by virtue of guiding and describing how managers operate (Freeman, Wicks & Parmar, 2004:364), and this paper follows this description. It is also defined as simply “…a theory of ethics” (Freeman et al., 2004:479).

Stakeholder theory has been deconstructed into three main aspects or approaches: descriptive/empirical, instrumental, and normative (Donaldson & Preston, 1995:66). Furthermore, while these approaches differ significantly, they are mutually supportive, with the normative serving as “the critical underpinning for the theory in all its forms.”

2.2      Evolution, influence and criticism

Stakeholder theory spread from its emergence in strategic management to organisation theory, business ethics and social responsibility, and later into sustainable development and beyond (Laplume, Sonpar & Litz, 2008:1156). However, as Pesqueux and Damak-Ayadi (2005:5) point out: Stakeholder theory has become so popular that: “…its current tendency is to impose itself as a point of reference by imitating corporate social responsibility policies, to such an extent that it has taken on the allures of a dominant discourse. This explains the proliferation of false arguments currently circulating on this subject.”.

King (2006) laments:  “…the real problem is that there are so many versions of stakeholder theory that it’s difficult to know where even to begin to offer critiques.” These statements bear testimony to the proliferation of stakeholder theory, or at least the concept of the ‘stakeholder approach’ and the broad impact it has on various disciplines, fields and theories in management science. It bears mention that several critiques of the stakeholder theory exist along a spectrum of mild criticism to outright rejection (Barter, 2011; Donaldson & Preston, 1995; Friedman, 2007; Mansell, 2013; Parmar, Freeman, Harrison, Wicks, Purnell & De Colle, 2010; Wicks, 1996).

Steurer (2006:55) indicates that “Stakeholder theory has evolved from a corporate-centric perspective into a more comprehensive research field, which addresses business–society relations from various points of view.” The three most notable stakeholder theories that developed after Freeman are the instrumental, descriptive and normative stakeholder theories (Donaldson & Preston, 1995:67). So prolific has responses to Freeman’s various conceptions of stakeholder theory been that he co-authored ‘What stakeholder theory is not’ (Phillips, Freeman & Wicks, 2003) to weed out some misinterpretations and narrow the technical meaning for future research.

Freeman and Gilbert (1989, in Maak & Pless, 2006) indicate that the originally functional conception of stakeholders as means to corporate ends has been replaced by one where stakeholders are an end in themselves.” This is also echoed by Friedman and Miles (2004).

Finally, operationalization of stakeholder theory yielded concepts like stakeholder management (Preble, 2005), stakeholder identification and stakeholder engagement (Rensburg & De Beer, 2011).

3       The separation thesis

Stakeholders are divided into two camps in terms of their interests. In the one camp, shareholder-stakeholders have business interest with profit as driver. In the other camp are other stakeholders with moral/ethical drivers like social-environmental interests on the opposing side. Freeman (1994:402) was the first to mainstream this opposition termed the separation thesis. It was an important development in the field of business ethics (Wicks, 1996:89). Freeman (1994:410) argues that the conceptual framework within which the concepts of business and ethics are perceived, makes them categorically distinct. Wicks (1996:91-92), identifies three value dichotomies within the realm of this separation thesis, as “ways to think about business activity”. These three are: First, objectives of the firm, secondly, moral norms used to discuss organisational actions, and third, how we conceptualise the actions of humans in organisations (Wicks, 1996:90). Furthermore, his intention is not to overcome these dichotomies, but to argue for an alternative way to ‘structure our enquiry’ in attempts to overcome the separation thesis. In brief, the separation thesis presents a philosophical and a practical conundrum for academics and managers with direct consequences for the organisation and its stakeholders. CSR’s inability to solve this conflict lies at the root of ongoing debates about the legitimacy of CSR.

3.1      Responses

Responses to Freeman’s separation thesis, and attempts to ‘solve’ it, came in various forms.

Attempts to refute separation theory were not successful nor generally accepted (Abela & Shea, 2015:32-33). Attempts to integrate what the separation theory divides include Freeman’s (2008) ‘Integration thesis’ and Dienhart’s (2008, in Abela & Shea, 2015:33) ‘Identity thesis’. However, Donaldson (1996, in Abela & Shea, 2015:33) affirms the impossibility of merging “… the normative and the empirical at the level of fundamental theory.” “Alzola’s ‘reconciliation project’, which is neither a separation nor an integration of the positive and the normative, nor a position in-between them, calls for ‘dialogue without hybridization’” (Alzola, 2011:32, in Abela & Shea, 2015:33). Abela and Shea (2015:31) argue that eliminating the separation thesis is either impossible, or ill-advised, citing the benefit of how the separation thesis provides “…  the usefulness of the positive/normative distinction’. This paper follows this utilisation approach.

4       Corporate social responsibility (CSR)

Stakeholder theory has evolved and has become so popular that: “…its current tendency is to impose itself as a point of reference by imitating corporate social responsibility policies, to such an extent that it has taken on the allures of a dominant discourse. This explains the proliferation of false arguments currently circulating on this subject.” (Pesqueux & Damak-Ayadi, 2005:5). This statement with its implicit warning affirms stakeholder theory as a major influence in related fields like, corporate citizenship (CC), corporate social responsibility (CSR) and more recently responsible leadership.

The formalisation and mainstreaming of Freeman’s (1984) stakeholder theory effectively established the field of Business and Society (Katsoulakos & Katsoulakos, 2006). Furthermore, this theory, although newer than CSR, has heavily influenced the definitions of CSR since.

4.1      A challenge of definition

While “CSR has become indispensable in in modern business discourse.”, there are many interpretations of what specifically it refers to (Okoye, 2009:613). A debate has emerged around the absence of a coherent definition for CSR (Sabadoz, 2011).  “Although CSR can be defined normatively, the understanding of CSR is always dynamic, evolving and contextual, rather than homeostatic, mechanistic and context-free… Thus, while CSR may have some converged principles across the world such as universal human rights, the practical perception of CSR is always embedded in societal context of place and time.” (Stewart, Pollard & Sun, 2010:5).

Katsoulakos & Katsoulakos (2006:13) define CSR as: “CSR and corporate sustainability represent the way companies achieve enhanced ethical standards and a balance of economic, environmental and social imperatives addressing the concerns and expectations of their stakeholders”. This paper follows this definition because it includes what Sabadoz (2011:77) points out as an often overlooked aspect of the wide conceptualisation of CSR, namely that it ambivalently affirms both opposing drivers, profit-seeking and pro-sociality, which he argues is a necessary contradiction.

4.1.1     CSR Evolution: Responsibility as Virtue

In his seminal work ‘The Market for Virtue: The Potential and Limits of Corporate Social Responsibility’, David Vogel equates, or reframes CSR to ‘business virtue’ from a perspective of “practices that improve the workplace and benefit society in ways that go above and beyond what companies are legally required to do.“ (Vogel, 2005:2). Whether framed as virtuous behaviour or responsible behaviour, these engagements refer to the same principle, beset with the same self-contradictory implications in the organisational context.

4.1.2     And on to Corporate Citizenship

In its broad and common definition corporate citizenship encompasses the concepts of social responsibility, responsiveness and performance (Carroll & Buchholtz, 2006). A. Different approach states that corporate responsibility is commonly held to be “…generally comparable in the practical usage of the term ‘corporate citizenship’.” (Scherer & Palazzo, 2008:62). McIntosh (2003:16) views Corporate citizenship as “…a progression from CSR comprising a fuller understanding of the role of business in society.” It is significant that Carroll (1998:5), who developed the first model of corporate responsibility, appears to agree since he reformulated the four responsibilities of his seminal Corporate Responsibility Pyramid as the “four faces of corporate citizenship”.

Evolutions of CSR, with whatever it adds to it, inherits the separation thesis, and hence the same philosophical question about what motives drive them. This represents a dichotomy.

5       The Dichotomy

The Online English Oxford living Dictionary (Oxford_Dictionaries, Not Dated) defines dichotomy as “…  A division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different.”  Various ways to label the opposing concepts within some of the fields already discussed in this paper are tabled below.

Business Drivers Non-business Drivers Model / Scholar
Profit Moral purpose Several; Freeman -1984
Economic responsibilities Ethical and moral responsibilities CSR Pyramid; Carroll -1979
Corporation Environment & Society Triple bottom-line; Elkington – 1999
Corporation Environment & Society Four faces of CC; Carroll -1998
Table 1: Four conceptualisations of opposing drivers of CSR

The philosophical question: “Which of two opposing positions drives CSR, profit or moral purpose?”, is important to an organisation on a practical level for a key reason: It has consequences.

As organisations have discovered, it is also possible to achieve a desired CSR driven outcome on one level, but suffer other undesirable consequences on another level. By example, Van de Ven (2008:342) points out that “Without the proper motivation behind the marketing of CSR these initiatives may have good consequences but are not to be admired as virtuous conduct.” Doing CSR does not necessarily equate to benefit for the organisation, and it can cause harm, intended or not. While the above addresses the practical impact of the dichotomy, the philosophical contradiction is a moral/ethical issue.

6       Utilising the separation thesis

This author aligns himself with Sabadoz’s (2011:77-91) response to the challenge inherent to the separation thesis: Utilisation. Like Abela and Shea (2015:31) Sabadoz also aims to retain what they term a positive/normative distinction, or, ethics from observation, but does so in order to nurture a discursive environment, and unlike them does not seek to eliminate the separation thesis, but rather to utilise this characteristic of CSR as a supplement in two ways: (1) CSR as a supplementary discourse and (2) CSR as a supplement for Profit-seeking capitalism..

6.1      Sabadoz’s utilisation thesis

Pertaining to CSR’s ambiguous definition, Sabadoz argues not for a solution to the debate, but that CSR’s inherent ambiguity is what makes it useful as a normative discourse. Pertaining to the profit versus pro-sociality tension, he argues for viewing the debate through Jacques Derrida’s philosophy (Derrida 1988 in Sabadoz, 2011) because it can unfold the debate productively, by viewing CSR as a Derridean ‘supplement’. He defines this concept as “… a type of perpetually ambivalent discourse which assists other discourses that seem insufficient and troubled.” (Sabadoz, 2011:78). Furthermore, supplements achieve this by substituting for such troubled discourses and adding to them.

If Derrida is correct that “the meaning of concepts only exist in contested relation to one another…”, then it would be counter productive to seek to eliminate the separation thesis induced tension between its contradictions, “…

because this ambiguity permits us to functionally supplement profit-seeking capitalism with CSR in the first place.” (Sabadoz, 2011:78).

This is the ingenuity of CSR, it seeks to change capitalism by adding to it and substituting for it, while demanding pro-social attention within a capitalist frame. This ‘fruitful contradiction’ is why Sabadoz argues for the retention of the unresolved contradiction inherent in CSR.

The above defines two of Sabadoz’s three contributions; Firstly, viewing CSR through a Derridean lens to better understand it, second, retaining CSR’s definitional ambiguity. Thirdly, of importance to the discipline of communication management, he suggests more research on the concept of CSR as a discursive phenomena (Sabadoz, 2011:78). The discursive approach to CSR research that Sabadoz proposes should support CSR practitioners who must “…

act according to fluid standards of responsibility that cannot be authoritatively defined, but which can be better understood than they are at present.” (Sabadoz, 2011:77).

7       PART I: Conclusion

Part 1 explored the question of whether profit or moral purpose drives CSR and required an understanding of the nature and impact of two fundamental issues around the conceptualisation of CSR. Firstly, the ambiguous and incoherent definition of CSR, and secondly that of the separation thesis. The contradictory nature of this concept lies at the root of this second question. It was found that most scholars sought to eliminate this contradiction, but their proposals were not entirely accepted. Sabadoz (2011) however proposed that it be retained and used in support of CSR, firstly as a counterpoint, or supplement to the argument for profit as sole responsibility of the organisation, and hence driver of CSR, and secondly to provide a frame for a normative discourse to facilitate ongoing stakeholder engagement.

I have shown how the tension between profit or moral purpose and the important question it raises about which one drives CSR is significant philosophically and in practice because the answer in a given contextual application of ‘business virtue’ has consequences that can be helpful or harmful to the organisation. In broadly answering which of the opposing positions drive CSR, the answer in principle is: Both.


8       Introduction

The two concepts of this research are ‘responsibility’ and ‘communication’. The later, which will be argued, is reconceptualised as ‘communication+’.

The study focusses on communication management at the strategic level (Steyn and Puth, 2000), and tentatively presumes to conceptualise ‘responsible communication’ as something that will fall into the role of a corporate communication strategist (Steyn, 2002).

The conceptualisation of responsible communication comes with the immediate challenge that both responsibility and communication lack universally accepted definitions that emerge from diverse and even contradictory conceptualisations. This research narrows the context by setting two boundaries: Firstly, this research grounds analysis inside the boundaries of stakeholder theory and related management disciplines as explored in part I. Secondly, in addition to literature on Public Relations (PR) and Communication Management (CM) the thematic analysis was confined to responsible leadership, and the strategic management of responsibility.

9       Responsibility as concept one

9.1      Overview

Several terms in management and organisational theory contain the word responsibility. Examples include Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) and Responsible Leadership. Responsibility has been called “the new business imperative” to the extent that it has led to the emergence of systems to do ‘total responsibility management’ for organisations (Leigh & Waddock, 2006). However, a sincere inquiry into the meaning of responsibility at the organisational level is absent (Pruzan & Miller, 1989 in Maak & Pless, 2006:112). Waddock and Bodwell (2004:35) indicate: “There is as yet no global standard for responsibility, no global code of conduct that is universally accepted, no standard reporting system for social, ecological, and economic (so-called: triple bottom line) (Elkington, 1999) reporting, and no generally accepted monitoring mechanisms.”

9.1.1     Responsibility, Stakeholders and Organisations

As discussed in part one, organisations have responsibilities towards its stakeholders (Carroll & Buchholtz, 2014; Carroll, 1991). Stakeholder theory is focussed by two key questions; “What is the purpose of the firm?”, and “what responsibility does management have towards stakeholders?” (Freeman et al., 2004:264). This second question directly links stakeholder theory to, and makes it a defining factor in the concept of responsibility in the wide gamut of “corporate responsibility” as Carroll (1991) framed it.

9.2      Definitional views

Blowfield and Murray (2008:16), citing the plethora of definitions of corporate responsibility, prefer to use it as an umbrella term that circumscribes “…

the various ways in which business’ relationships with society is being defined, managed and acted upon.” Moreover, they emphasise that no unifying vision of corporate responsibility exists, and offer three ways to view corporate responsibility: (Blowfield & Murray, 2008:17-18): (1) In terms of the values that companies have to guide their engagement with other entities in society. The values approach links corporate responsibility to business ethics. (2) In terms of the role of the business in society and the resultant types of society-business interactions. (3) In terms of the different categories or areas in which companies have to take action in.

Along a similar divergent path, Carroll, Lipartito, Post and Werhane (2012:6) argue that “Corporate responsibility is not a unitary idea.” They note that responsibility exists as a concept, as a theme for academia, as a reality for business to grapple with, and as a field of practice. Furthermore, their discussions centre around themes of values, ethics, obligations and morals. Freeman, Harrison, Wicks, Palmer and De Cole’s (2010:8) treatment of “the responsibility principle”, in a footnote, acknowledge that “responsibility is a troublesome concept” that has been debated about since the time of Plato. Furthermore, they expressly do not intend to provide a definition or a particular view of responsibility. Instead they intend it as: “Whatever you think about responsibility, something like this principle is necessary” (Freeman et al., 2010:8). Similarly, and in conclusion, Blowfield and Murray (2008:16) conclude their similarly sparse treatment of responsibility with: “But, as citizens, we tend to know it when we see it or don’t see it.” Seeger and Ulmer (2003:62) describe responsibility as “…

the fundamental moral principle from which other, more specific ethical frameworks flow.” Furthermore, and of importance for this research, they point out the relationality inherent in responsibility, since responsibilities exist between parties.

9.2.1     International Law

In search of a definition of responsibility, international law, which recently extended its reach from sovereign states to include multi-national organisations (Crawford, Pellet, Olleson & Parlett, 2010), offers some useful insights.

Pellet (2010, in Crawford et al., 2010:4) argues that “Responsibility is the necessary corollary of law itself,… No responsibility, no law.” It is significant to note, in view of stakeholder approaches, that international law has had to amend principles regarding responsibility in view of modern realities and principles of fairness. Bringing these principles closer to the responsibilities of organisations in a stakeholder society, Pellet (2010, in Crawford et al., 2010:14) explains: “A State which breaches one of its obligations under international law incurs responsibility, independently of any injury which may result for another State, since it is in the interests of the international community as a whole that international law should be respected.” (italics added). Because responsibility is equated with obligation in law, entities are obliged to accept the potential risks and accountability for the consequences that ensue -even from lawful actions.

9.3      Discussion

According to Blowfield and Murray (2008):21], the four categories of Carroll’s (1979) pyramid of corporate responsibilities represent four ways in which “…

business manages its relationships with wider society.” Furthermore, they argue that companies have obligations, and not only options, even in matters where no laws compel them.

In terms of a definitional construct, and as a concept for the conceptualisation of this research, responsibility will be confined to the context of stakeholder theory, and business and society. I further treat it as a Derridean supplement after Sabadoz’s (2011) approach. This author argues that in constructing the their quoted definitions, Blowfield and Murray (2008) and (Freeman et al., 2010) effectively, if not intentionally, did just that.  Based on an integration of the elements of their conceptualisations, and that of Seeger and Ulmer (2003:62), I tentatively conceptualise the following working definition:

Responsibility is the necessary moral/ethical principle we tend to know when we see it, or don’t see it.

It is prudent to note that within this research, the noun ‘responsibility’ and its grammatical derivations like the adjective ‘responsible’ retain their conceptual root meaning.

9.4      Conclusion

I have explored the concept of responsibility within the boundaries of corporate responsibilities and stakeholder theory as well as international law, which it seems has not escaped the pervasiveness of stakeholder perspectives. Few scholars would commit to a definition, but most agree that whatever these ‘corporate non-financial responsibilities’ are, they are context dependent in practice, but inherently moral/ethical in principle, which is why they are intuitive to grasp. Most important, corporate social responsibility is a necessary principle and organisations will have to tend them.

10    Communication(+) as concept two

This section confines exploration of the concept ‘communication’ to the disciplines of Public Relations and Communication management at the conceptual and strategic level. The later is where matters of stakeholder inclusivity and practices to analyse, plan and manage ‘stakeholder matters’ originates in organisations (Freitag, 2008; Grunig, 2006; Malmelin, 2007; Steyn & De Beer, 2012).

Grunig and Dozier (1992:ix) use the term Communication (management) interchangeably with Public Relations, because they use both to denote: “…the management of communication between an organisation and its publics.” (emphasis added). There are however two issues with this approach.

Firstly, many scholars view Public Relations (PR) and Communication Management (CM) as distinct disciplines. Second, a universally accepted definition for PR does not exists, and scholars differ on how that definition should be conceptualised (Hutton, 1999; Verčič, Van Ruler, Bütschi & Flodin, 2002). The second issue, regarding definition, is the focus in this paper and is broadly divided into two camps, the largely U.S. relation-centric view on the one hand, and the European (and others’) non-relation-centric view on the other.

Representing the U.S. view, Hutton (1999:199) defines Public Relations as “managing strategic relationships”. Similarly, Ledingham (2003) argues for the explication of relationship management as general theory of public relations, and at the very least for the central role of ‘relationship management’ in the practice of public relations. Bruning and Ledingham (2000:85) observe that: “Increasingly, scholars and practitioners are defining public relations as the management of relationships between organizations and publics.

Grunig and Dozier (1992), represent a middle ground, perhaps unintentionally, since the debate addressed here was less prominent at the time of their writing. They use the terms Public Relations interchangeably with Communication (Management), because they use both to denote: “…the management of communication between an organisation and its publics.” (Grunig & Dozier, 1992:ix)

In Europe and South Africa, amongst others, the term ‘Communication Management’ is used but the reasons for associating the discipline with communication differ from the U.S. (Verčič et al., 2002:379). This author Agrees with their view which was confirmed by European research indicating: “It is no use making a distinction between communication and relationships.” (Verčič et al., 2002:379). In response to the U.S. view of the preceding authors, Verčič et al. (2002:380) define four dimensions of Public Relations:  managerial, operational, reflective and educational, of which the last two fall outside Hutton’s definition.

However, Verčič et al. (2002) propose a method to bridge the two sides using an approach taken from Stanley Deetz (2001 in Verčič et al., 2002:382). The approach Deetz suggests is to ask “What is the specific characteristic of the public relations approach to organizing and organization? Relationships are not, since they are claimed by…”  general management and other disciplines.  Deetz (2001 in Verčič et al., 2002:382) proposes an approach to a definitional construct that “…describes the organisation and organizing from a public relations point of view, just like other management sciences do from the point of view of their own disciplines.” It is by following this approach that these same authors highlight the importance of the reflexive role, indicating that the public relations manager:

“…brings to the table a special concern for broader societal issues and approaches to any problem with a concern for implications of organizational behaviour towards and in the public sphere… It is… a strategic process of viewing an organisation from an outside view… Its primary concerns are the organization’s inclusiveness and its preservation of the “license to operate”.” (Verčič et al., 2002:382).

While this approach has not yielded the universal definition Hutton (1999) seeks it broadens the restrictions of his relational boundaries. The importance of the relational dimension of Public Relations is however not diminished. In his review of literature Ledingham (2003) cites seminal contributions regarding the relational dimension, firmly confirming its place within the discipline. Similarly the very language in the quote of Verčič et al. (2002:382) above is now found in the likes of stakeholder theory, stakeholder engagement, corporate social responsibility, corporate citizenship, corporate social performance and responsible leadership.

10.1   Communication and Relation as COMMUNICATION+

The author argues that the discipline of Public Relations, by its own self-description regards the management of the relationship between an organisation and its stakeholders as part of its function and role. As argued above, communication is indivisible from these practices. In agreement, in relation to the stakeholder management component in the discipline of communication management, Steyn and Puth (2000:188) indicate with reference to an interactive approach to building relationships, that: “Interactivity implies communication and communication has the natural consequence of relationship.” (emphasis added).

By depicting the two definitional approaches as sets in an overlapping, two-set Venn diagram (Preece, 1976), one can place the common activities of both definitional approaches in the overlapping area -as depicted below:


Figure 1: A Venn diagram of selected activities common to the two definitional approaches to PR/ CM

This does not solve the issue about whether PR and CM are the same or distinct disciplines, nor the issue regarding the definition of PR as a discipline. However, these solutions are not required for the conceptualisation of this study. What this research requires is a concept for the construct being investigated.

Based on (1) the above, and (2) in the context of stakeholder theory, and (3) in accepting the arguments (Steyn & Puth, 2000; Verčič et al., 2002) for the indivisibility of communication and relationships,  this author argues for a more precise concept than ‘communication’ as concept for this study.

To achieve this, I argue that ‘relationship’ and ‘communication’ be applied as concepts to construct what I tentatively term ‘communication+’. The ‘+’ indicates the relationship component of this created concept. Using a Venn diagram (Preece, 1976), this conceptualisation can be diagrammatically depicted as below:


Figure 2: A Venn diagram depicting the conceptualisation of ‘communication+’ / ‘relationship+’

In terms of the definitional approaches to PR/CM, the working term ‘communication+’ describes that group of communication/relation behaviours and activities encapsulated in both definitional approaches to Public Relations and/or Communication Management, that serve to ensure organisational inclusiveness in a responsible stakeholder approach.

Since the term ‘relationship’ is at times semantically easier to use when referring to my conceptualisation of ‘Communication+’, I will in this paper use and regard the term ‘Relationship+’ as its equivalent -as a second name for the same concept:

Relationship + = Communication+
Table 3. Two names for one concept

10.2   Conclusion

I have explored the concept of communication and discovered divergent approaches to defining both the disciplines that function in this area, as well as the very conceptualisation of communication itself. I have argued for a conceptualisation of communication that includes relation to posit the concept communication+. For practical reasons, I assign the concept a second name relation+. This contextualised and focussed concept serves as the second concept for the conceptualisation of ‘Responsible Communication’.

11    Responsibility AND relation+ as treated by ‘Responsible Leadership’

Following Siegel’s (2014)  interdisciplinary approach, this section analyses how the emerging discipline of Responsible Leadership approaches responsibility and relationship+ (communication+) in the context of stakeholder theory.

Often leaders are required to engage with stakeholders in order to create the ‘goodwill’ that translates into social capital (Maak, 2007), and as Pless (2007:438) affirms, corporate responsibilities ultimately lie with the leadership. “Responsible and stakeholder leadership provides a convincing perspective on how to connect leadership to stakeholder theory” (Pless & Maak, 2011:6). Waldman and Galvin (2008) also emphasize a stakeholder-perspective of leadership.

Siegel (2014:221) highlights the importance of the interdisciplinary aspect of responsible leadership given a debate about how responsibility should be defined, especially since any definition is heavily impacted by the context within which it takes place. While he supports the view that leaders are responsible only to shareholders to maximize profit, Waldman and Siegel (2008:121) defines responsibility with a much larger scope that includes other stakeholders. Their approach ties responsible leadership to disciplines rooted in stakeholder theory  and, like Maak and Pless (2006),  makes of the leader a champion of movements like corporate social responsibility, corporate social performance, and corporate citizenship.

Hitt and Duane (2002) argue from a resource based view of the organisation that the management of human and social capital is the essence of strategic leadership. This link between leadership and strategy through social capital links leadership to the stakeholder view of the organisation and through that to responsibilities towards stakeholders.

11.1   Definition

Definitions of responsible leadership are scarce. Maak and Pless (2006:99) offered one of the first definitions of responsible leadership: “A socio-relational and ethical phenomenon, which occurs in social processes of interaction with those who affect or are affected by leadership and have a stake in the purpose and vision of the leadership relationship.” (emphasis added)

They also indicate defining qualities of responsible leaders as ethics, morals, being authentic and staying true to these and to agreed and societal values and standards (Maak & Pless, 2006:101). Pless (2007:438) further argues for understanding responsible leadership as “… a value-based and through ethical principles driven relationship between leaders and stakeholders.” (emphasis added). The elements of relationships with stakeholders and ethics are core to these definitions. Voegtlin, Patzer and Scherer (2012:1) extend the work of Maak and Pless “… by offering a philosophical basis for the ethical principles that are called for.”

11.1.1  Responsibility

A more oblique approach to describe responsible leadership is to point to the results of leadership that lacks responsibility, or is irresponsible. Pless and Maak (2011:4) argue that: “Irresponsible leadership was the primary cause of the global economic crisis of 2008”. Furthermore, these authors view responsible leadership as a response to what other frameworks of leadership lack. In agreement, Waldman and Galvin (2008:327), in pursuit of defining effective leadership, argue that other leadership theories lack the element of responsibility and that this is a key omission because: “Responsibility constitutes the heart of what effective leadership is all about”, adding for emphasis that “to not be responsible is to not be an effective leader.”

11.1.2  Relationship+

Maak and Pless (2006:99) contend that relationships are at the centre of leadership. Maak (2007:340) describes responsible leadership as a functional role as “a weaver of stakeholder relationships and as broker of social capital in the pursuit of responsible change.” (emphasis added). Similarly Waldman and Galvin (2008:327), who also approach the topic from a stakeholder perspective, convincingly argue for a relational approach to responsible leadership.

11.2   Discussion in context of the stakeholder view

The ‘heart’ (responsibility) and ‘centre’ (relation/ship+) of leadership combine as concepts to form a core construct describing the essence of what leadership is about: Responsibility and Relationships+. Responsible leadership, by its own definition, is stakeholder-centric.

True stakeholder inclusivity requires the involvement of stakeholders to a degree where they have real influence (Waddock & Bodwell, 2002:145). An organisation’s ability to engage with its stakeholders is a fundamental issue in corporate citizenship (De Jongh, Rensburg & De Wet, 2005). It is the responsible leader who must champion such meaningful stakeholder engagement by weaving and having relationships that make the discharge of various types of corporate responsibilities possible.

While responsible leadership has no universally accepted definition. It would, however, be unacceptable to claim that modern organisations do not have a sense of the expectations their stakeholders have of them, or how to determine it. This is highlighted by Carroll’s reframing and renaming of stakeholder ‘expectations’ to ‘responsibilities’ in his seminal Corporate Responsibility Pyramid more than three decades ago (Carroll, 1979:499).

This exploration of responsible leadership provided an applied context for both responsibility and relation+, and serves as additional exploratory perspective and context for the next two sections.


What happens when leadership fails to be responsible in the context of communication+ and responsible leadership? A case study of the 2001-2002 Enron debacle by Matthew Seeger and Robert Ulmer, titled ‘Explaining Enron: Communication and Responsible Leadership’  (Seeger & Ulmer, 2003:58-84), offers a useful perspective:

“The Enron collapse at its most fundamental involved a system wide breakdown in the most basic forms of communication-based responsibilities.” (Emphasis added),(Seeger & Ulmer, 2003:58).

Key to the Enron scandal is the denial by senior managers, who alleged that they did not know about the misconduct and deceptions perpetrated by their subordinates, and that they themselves did not do anything wrong (Seeger & Ulmer, 2003:58). Furthermore, the authors view this scenario as a violation of two elements. Firstly, the failure of communication-based responsibilities of senior managers, and secondly  a disparity between their actions and the requirements of responsible leadership  (Seeger & Ulmer, 2003).

Seeger and Ulmer (2003:59) base their explanation for Enron’s demise in  the principle of responsibility. Here they offer three specific types of communication-based responsibilities demanded from leaders, which they drew from ethics and leadership literature, namely: (1) the communication of appropriate values to establish an ethical climate, (2) the maintenance of adequate communication to enable them to be informed of operations, and (3) the maintenance of an awareness of and openness to indications of problems (Seeger & Ulmer, 2003:59). These three are explored below.

12.1   Communication, responsibility and responsible leadership

Seeger and Ulmer (2003:62) describe responsibility as “… the fundamental moral principle ...” Furthermore they point out the relationality inherent in responsibility since responsibilities exist between parties. Several authors are cited who confirm that it is only through communication that moral-ethical standards and expectations can be clarified, and that such dialogues are in fact “…the Fountainhead out of which ethics originate” (Seeger & Ulmer, 2003:61-62). Seeger and Ulmer (2003:63-64) confirm both the ethical responsibilities of leaders, and leadership as a process founded inherently in communication.

12.1.1  The responsibility to Communicate appropriate values

The three senior executives evaluated by the authors exemplified, non-virtuous behaviour and were happy to exploit loop-holes, break rules, standards and codes in that pursuit (Seeger & Ulmer, 2003:71). Furthermore, the economic success of such behaviour made it easier to perpetuate it, and leadership rhetoric reflected that and demanded this of employees. Several agreements were clearly deceptive and in conflict of interest (Bryce, 2002 in Seeger & Ulmer, 2003:72). In addition to promoting risky, rule-breaking and even unsound behaviour, these executives enforced secrecy, even to the extent of not committing instructions or decisions to paper (Seeger & Ulmer, 2003:72).

12.1.2  The responsibility to remain informed

The three Enron executives did not ensure they were informed about the operations of the organisation. This resulted primarily through decentralizing business units and their decision making with little or no oversight. The direct result was that multi-million dollar deals went ahead with little or no oversight, and management “simply lost track of company operations” (Witt & Behr, 2002 in Seeger & Ulmer, 2003:73).[1]A fundamental characteristic of responsible organizational leadership involves maintaining a close connection to and awareness of operations through monitoring.” (Seeger & Ulmer, 2003:65). Furthermore, it is regarded as common knowledge that leaders cannot possibly make informed decisions without receiving relevant information. Finally, it is precisely because leaders are ultimately accountable for the organisation and its activities and impacts that remaining informed is regarded by Seeger and Ulmar (2003) as a communication-based responsibility.

12.1.3  Openness to signs of problems

Enron executives focussed on inflating the value of stocks, and to achieve this, purposefully prevented the emergence or maintenance of an environment in which problems could be identified and addressed (Seeger & Ulmer, 2003:74). Furthermore, a norm of secrecy and “no bad news” was enforced and whistle-blowers worked out or fired. Being open to bad news is regarded by Seeger and Ulmar (2003:66) as a specific manifestation of the responsibility to remain informed. A responsible leader would welcome knowledge of warning signs so that potential problems may be prevented or dealt with pro-actively.

12.2   Discussion

I tentatively posit that failure in “communication based responsibilities” equates to irresponsible communication, and therefore a failure in responsible communication+. Seeger and Ulmer highlight and conceptualise three specific types of communication-based responsibilities demanded from leaders. They argue for the importance of these responsibilities and their role in responsible leadership, thereby adding communication-based responsibilities to the conceptualisation of the responsible leader. In addition, I cite Seeger and Ulmer’s (2003) article as an important contribution towards the conceptualisation of responsible communication+.

13    the mainstreaming of the STRATEGIC management of responsibility, and CSR leadership

This section investigates the mainstreaming of CSR as a strategic phenomenon and further argues for the application of Sabadoz’s (2011) Derridean approach to CSR management by the strategic communication manager (Steyn & De Beer, 2012) as steward and leader for the management of CSR.

In discussing corporate social responsibility, Carroll (1979:499) begins with “the entire range of obligations business has to society.” He creates four categories of “expectations” which he later renames “responsibilities”. The Stakeholder view popularised by Freeman (2010) brought mainstream emphasis to Carroll’s third and especially fourth categories, ethics and discretion as the role of secondary and tertiary stakeholders became recognised (Andriof, Waddock & Rahman, 2002:134). “Built-to-last companies”, those that have sustained themselves profitably over a long period of time, succeed because “they have woven themselves into the very fabric of society” (Collins & Porras, 1994 in Waddock & Graves, 2000:393). The same study shows such organisations seek more than mere profit and seek value for all stakeholders as part of their “core ideology” (Collins & Porras, 1994 in Waddock & Graves, 2000:413). This success factor or “organisational DNA” (Verschoor, 2004:19) amounts to a strategic feature or an element of strategy.

Thanks initially to Freeman’s (1984) popularisation of CSR as a strategic level consideration, it has started to feature in boardrooms, but increasingly its influence on organisations on various levels increases. Mainstreaming CSR is a real need in modern business. Berger, Cunningham, and Drumwright (2007:132-133) define ‘mainstreaming’ as embedding CSR into the day-to-day culture, processes and activities of the organisation. Leigh and Waddock (2006:411) confirm the need in organisations to formally manage the increasingly complex landscape of identifying and managing organisational responsibilities, but assert that this starts at the strategic level.

In response, Katsoulakos and Katsoulakos (2007:355) built on the corporate responsibility model of Carroll (1979), and six strategic management theories to create a ‘stakeholder-oriented integrative strategic management framework’ with the specific goal of “the integration of corporate social responsibility principles and stakeholder approaches into mainstream business strategy”. The framework contains six strategic management theories set against three dimensions; The first two, value and responsiveness deal with traditional economic responsibilities. Their third dimension of responsibility deals with ethical aspects of intrinsic stakeholder approaches (Katsoulakos & Katsoulakos, 2007:358). Significantly, the management framework by these authors breaks from the conception of corporate responsibility as a separate focus of strategy.

Following Steyn and Puth (2000), Freitag (2008) calls firstly, for Public Relations to be elevated by taking on a strategic role in the organisation and secondly, for Public Relations to stake its claim as owner of shaping CSR policy.  This author supports Freitag’s call and agrees with his two arguments. On the first account, Freitag cites Clark (2000, in Freitag, 2008) whose analysis of the parallels between CSR and PR processes, concerns and activities involved, especially in the areas of stakeholder engagement. In brief Freitag views PR leaders as uniquely positioned to guide CSR. On the second account, Freitag agrees with Utting (2000, in Freitag, 2008:39) that CSR is not yet mature enough to sufficiently address irresponsible behaviours and that its proliferation amounts to a need to “… develop concrete measures of accountability applied universally.” This need takes the direction of stakeholder governance, in which area communication scholars (De Beer & Rensburg, 2011), have already made contributions. This includes direct input into the formulation of the King III governance report for South Africa (IOL, 2009).

While this researcher agrees with a need for CSR policy development,  I posit that the strategic communication management role is ideally suited to lead such efforts principally due to its capability and experience to engage the “… perpetually ambivalent discourse which assists other discourses that seem insufficient and troubled.” (Sabadoz, 2011:78). In short, PR plays in the same often ambiguous and contradictory discursive space as CSR. The emerging discipline of strategic communication management (Steyn & De Beer, 2012) is ideally positioned to support CSR, since those tasked with this role must “… act according to fluid standards of responsibility that cannot be authoritatively defined, but which can be better understood than they are at present.” (Sabadoz, 2011:77). In a time when the discipline is increasingly having its domain being intruded upon (Hutton, 1999:199), the reasons for such intrusions should present an opportunity rather than a threat. More than ever organisations need expertise in matters pertaining to the ‘responsibilities’ of the organisation to be transparent, involved with and functionally engaged with increasing categories and numbers of ‘stakeholders’. Amongst others, such calls come under terms like ‘stakeholder engagement’ (Andriof et al., 2002). Calls for responsible leadership (Maak, 2007; Maak & Pless, 2006) and total responsibility management (Andriof et al., 2002:20) and the like, offer PR/CM an opportunity to reassert its value by managing and facilitating the communication+ that the discharge of corporate social responsibility requires.

Finally, this author recognises the contribution by Sabadoz as an addition to existing arguments  (De Jongh et al., 2005; Rensburg & De Beer, 2011; Steyn, 2002; Steyn & De Beer, 2012; Steyn & Puth, 2000) for the need and role of Strategic Communication Management in organisations to drive or support strategic CSR.

14    LITERATURE REVIEW Conclusion

This literature review explored and contextualised the two main concepts of responsibility and communication(+) in the context of stakeholder theory and corporate social responsibility. In addition, responsible leadership theory and the mainstreaming of the strategic management of responsibility were investigated with a focus on the intrinsic role of responsibility and communication+ to their conceptual essence and expected deliverables.

This literature review explored the two main concepts of responsibility and communication(+) in the context of stakeholder approaches. In addition, responsible leadership theory and the mainstreaming of the strategic management of responsibility were investigated with a focus on the intrinsic role that responsibility and communication+ plays in their conceptual essence as well as their expected deliverables.

This author believes at this stage that it possible to conceptualise ‘responsible communication(+)’ (or, responsible relations(+)).



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[1] While it falls outside the scope of this research, this author notes that an appropriate organisational structure, is considered a communication-based responsibility. This precisely because – following McLuhan and Fiore’s (1967) ‘The medium is the message’ theory, it impacts on organisational communication.


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