The environment in which companies navigate is increasingly uncertain and competitive. Social movements dictate opinion, health while environmental crises transform societies. Moreover, the cult of transparency and accessibility forces organizations to adapt their practices and management. At a time when a simple tweet can destroy an organization’s reputation, organizations need legitimacy as well as efficiency and effectiveness. In this context, public relations can help managers to build and preserve this capital.
The importance of legitimacy in management is becoming increasingly important in the scientific literature. It is generally described as “the perception that an entity’s actions are desirable or appropriate within a system of norms and values” (Suchman, 1995). An organization can be legitimate at three levels:
- Pragmatic: the firm provides a tangible service to its customers,
“The product that this company offers is of quality”.
- Moral: the company respects the norms and values present in its environment,
“This company seems to respect the rules of the game”.
- Cognitive: the degree of institutionalization is such that it is taken for granted,
“This organization has always been there, it is impossible to imagine that one day it will disappear.”
Companies that neglect their legitimacy run the risk of being quickly sidelined, criticized and sanctioned. They have an obligation not only to conform to the values present in their environment, but also to influence them. Public relations are therefore central to any legitimacy strategy.
New companies or new services need to build this capital quickly. It has been shown that simply respecting the standards of the profession significantly increases their chances of survival (Dimaggio & Powell, 1983; Ruef and Scott, 1998). An organization has every interest in influencing its environment so that it is favorable to it. Public relations help to achieve this goal by providing institutional communication, public affairs, rhetoric, framing and media relations strategies (Suddaby & Greenwood, 2005; Benford & Snow, 2000).
Once an organization has gained legitimacy, it must maintain it. This is done by highlighting its accomplishments, innovations, and products (Suddaby et al., 2017). In practical terms, this means sending out press releases and creating institutional and digital content reminding the public of the company’s pragmatic utility and moral compliance while continuing to occupy the institutional landscape.
At this stage, an organization should anticipate changes and address threats by implementing a crisis management process as early as possible. Many companies neglect this step, even though it is probably the most important. Every organization will eventually face a crisis of legitimacy and it is important to be sufficiently prepared beforehand to deal with it. Public relations firms offer crisis communication strategies that include auditing, training and writing, and that helps avoid and minimize the impact of a crisis on legitimacy and reputation.
A company may find itself in the perilous situation of having to regain its legitimacy. This loss can be the result of a poorly managed organizational crisis, but it often comes from a lack of understanding of its institutional environment. The emergence of the internet and social networks has accelerated the speed of societal change. Practices that once took centuries to evolve are now losing their legitimacy in a matter of weeks. How should KFC react to the emergence of the vegan movement? How should organizations position themselves in relation to the #metoo movement and CSR requirements? Companies no longer have the luxury of leaving these questions aside.
Building, maintaining, or regaining legitimacy is a long-term task that requires establishing a dialogue between the institution and its environment. In this context, public relations firms become privileged partners capable of accompanying and helping organizations build and preserve the relationship of trust that links them to their market.
Benford, R., & Snow, D. (2000). Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment. Annual Review of Sociology, 26, 611-639. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.26.1.611
Dimaggio, P., & Powell, W. (1983). The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields. American Sociological Review, 23.
Suchman, M. (1995). Managing Legitimacy: Strategic and Institutional Approaches. Academy of Management Review, 20, 571-611. The Academy of Management Review, 20, 571. doi:10.2307/258788
Suddaby, R., & Greenwood, R. (2005). Rhetorical Strategies of Legitimacy. Administrative Science Quarterly, 50(1), 35-67.
Suddaby, R., Bitektine, A., & Haack, P. (2017). Legitimacy. Academy of Management Annals, 11(1).
Ruef, M., & Scott, W. R. (1998). A multidimensional model of organizational legitimacy: Hospital survival in changing institutional environments. Administrative Science Quarterly, 43(4), 877-904.