Meaning results from the creating, shaping, sharing, and interpreting of a word, text, symbol, concept, or action. Meaning conveys some form of significance, either implicitly or explicitly, determined by a combination of factors related to the sender and receiver of a message. Accordingly, a firm’s communication efforts are central to the process of meaning creation and how meaning about that organization is created, shaped, shared, and interpreted. Consequently, the meaning associated with an organization directly influences its reputation. This entry examines the process of meaning creation, the role of public relations in meaning creation, and the relationship between legitimacy and meaning creation.
The Process of Meaning Creation
There are four fundamental perspectives to meaning creation. The first perspective focuses on the sender, where meaning is created through information transfer. The sender embeds thoughts and feelings into his or her messages and actions. In the corporate context, this “sender perspective” is driven by organizational mission and business objectives, influenced by organizational culture, championed by leadership and employees, and focused through research regarding how best to ethically and effectively connect those objectives with targeted stakeholders. In public relations, effective information transfer requires effective environmental scanning, understanding the best tactics and tools that should be used to connect with the intended stakeholders.
Balancing the sender perspective is the receiver perspective and the understanding that senders and receivers are linked—they have a reciprocal/transactional relationship; this is the second perspective. Many factors beyond an organization’s control can affect a receiver’s perspective regarding the information shared, which in turn can influence the meaning inferred. For example, competing messages, conflicting messages, as well as varying levels of exposure, attention, involvement, and/or knowledge can influence the way in which a receiver perceives an organization’s messages and actions. The central aspect of this transactional model is the importance of receiver feedback and how meaning creation occurs through this continual, dynamic process. In this model, the public perspective balances with and informs the organization’s perspective.
The third approach to understanding how meaning is created is focused on shared meaning. From this perspective, meaning is contextual and created through interaction. Individuals construct shared understandings of an event, a message, or an action based on their relationships to one another and their shared relationship to that which is being interpreted. This interpretive approach focuses on meaning as socially constructed. The advent of social media provides added insight to how stakeholders can create meaning among themselves regardless of organization intent. Receivers create meaning through online discussions that can spread quickly and broadly. There have been many cases where large corporations, politicians, and opinion leaders whose perspective is not in line with that of the public—and/or who do not understand the power of social media—have fallen a victim to the power of online, co-constructed shared meaning. For example, in 2013, JP Morgan, a bank directly tied to the 2008 economic crisis, held a Twitter Q&A, which quickly turned into the public criticizing the company. Similarly, in 2015, presidential candidate and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal held an #AskBobby Twitter Q&A, which quickly became a forum for critiquing the governor’s record. In both cases, the shared meaning created by the public in specific contexts overpowered the intended meaning by the organizers.
Finally, a focus on strategic ambiguity acknowledges the diversity of meaning different people can ascribe to the same message. Accordingly, this fourth perspective emphasizes the balance between creativity and constraint, allowing for organizations to accomplish goals—to convey their core message(s)—while strategically limiting the amount of pinpoint clarity that could risk limiting the extent to which a message is received or risk alienating certain targeted groups altogether. For example, the message “Coke is the real thing” might translate to positive, productive meaning for a variety of stakeholders for a variety of reasons. The more pinpoint message of “Coke is the standard bearer in the cola industry, known for quality ingredients, and generations of happy consumers,” however, limits its possible reach. The resulting balance between creativity and constraint, therefore, acknowledges the plurality of meaning associated with the product while still conveying a core message.
Additional perspectives have teased out important additional factors that influence the process of meaning making. For example, the regulations put in place by governments and a society’s various power structures might influence and constrain meaning making. Certainly, the influence a government has over a state or country’s market has an impact on the meaning produced. Similarly, how something is produced establishes parameters for meaning creation. Throughout the process, meaning making provides important statements regarding culture. The way in which meaning is constructed, regardless of the perspective, makes implicit arguments regarding those messages that should be seen as more or less salient.
Meaning Making and Public Relations
While all communication functions within an organization play a role in meaning creation that ultimately influences organizational reputation, the public relations function arguably has the greatest mandate. The public relations function must research and ethically leverage the most relevant and appropriate words and symbols that will help connect an organization’s mission, objectives, and actions with its publics. Accordingly, public relations must choose the most relevant and appropriate tools and tactics to reach those publics. Embedded in each step of the process—from the words and symbols chosen to the tools and tactics used—is meaning. Early models of public relations emphasized the organization’s role in the process—how organizations create meaning and share that intended meaning to key publics. As public relations theory has developed, however, there has been a shift toward the public’s role in the process, the importance of quality organization-public relationships and how various publics receive and interpret an organization’s actions and messages in different ways. In this regard, the public relations function must understand the effect of an organization’s actions and the corresponding meaning produced as a result. The process of meaning construction and sensemaking is dynamic and ongoing rather than static and unidirectional.
Because meaning is created and understood largely through communication (visual, verbal, written, and symbolic), public relations therefore plays a key role in helping manage corporate reputation. Central to this understanding is knowing that different stakeholders infer different meanings at different times, depending on their relative relationship with an organization. A quality, positive corporate reputation positions an organization as responsive and adaptive to public expectations—that the meaning created for and decoded by stakeholders conveys an organization’s authentic understanding of and care for stakeholder needs. Moreover, quality corporate reputation requires a clear understanding of how stakeholders perceive one organization versus its peers.
Legitimacy and Meaning Creation
Given that meaning creation investigates perspectives of the sender/receiver, shared/constructed interpretation, and strategic balance, while acknowledging the regulatory and cultural mandates that inform the process, then at the heart of the process is the added concept of legitimacy, where legitimacy is understood to be an organization’s demonstrable adherence to a society’s norms and expectations. Here, the public relations and mass communication lens provide additional guidance, as most major models specifically address the importance of legitimacy and its role in effective corporate communication. As mentioned, an organization’s messaging must reflect that its business objectives, operations, and actions adhere to the norms and expectations of the community(s) it serves. Moreover, organizations must involve the public in the process, which requires organizations to be in the communities they serve, demonstrating investment and commitment over the long term. Doing so provides a crucial foundation for stakeholders in the process of meaning creation. Organizations must also invite ongoing dialogue with the public, where the public voice is allowed to contribute to, inform, and potentially influence organizational action. In this regard, the public plays a key role in meaning creation. The ways in which meaning is created, however, will differ depending on the varying degrees of legitimacy different stakeholders wield in the eyes of an organization and the varying ways by which stakeholders perceive an organization’s legitimacy. Simply put, in the process of meaning creation, an organization’s reputation is associated with its ability to communicate with legitimacy.
Barker, J., Gilmore, S., & Gilson, C. (2013). Rhetorical profiling: Modes of meaning generation in organizational topoi. Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences, 30(4), 280–291.
Barnlund, D. C. (2008). A transactional model of communication. In C. D. Mortensen (Ed.), Communication theory (2nd ed., pp. 47–57). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
Buhr, H., & Grafström, M. (2007). The making of meaning in the media: The case of corporate social responsibility in the Financial Times. In F. den Hond, F. G. A. De Bakker, & P. Neergaard (Eds.), Managing corporate social responsibility in action: Talking, doing and measuring (pp. 15–32). Leicester, UK: Ashgate.
Donnellon, A., Gray, B., & Bougon, M. G. (1986). Communication, meaning, and organized action. Administrative Science Quarterly, 31(1), 43–55.
Du Gay, P., Hall, S., Janes, L., Mackay, H., & Negus, K. (1997). Doing cultural studies: The story of the Sony walkman. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Eisenberg, E. M. (1986). Meaning and interpretation in organizations. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 72(1), 88–96.
Eisenberg, E. M., Goodall, H. L, & Trethewey, A. (2007). Organizational communication: Balancing creativity and constraints. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Heath, R. L. (1993). A rhetorical approach to zones of meaning and organizational prerogatives. Public Relations Review, 19(2), 141–155.
Li, C., & Bernoff, Josh. (2008). Groundswell: Winning in a world transformed by social technologies. Boston: Harvard Business Press.
Motion, J., Davenport, S., Leitch, S., & Merlot, L. (2013). Corporate reputation and the discipline of public relations. In C. Carroll (Ed.), The handbook of communication and corporate reputation (pp. 62–71). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Smircich, L., & Morgan, G. (1982). Leadership: The management of meaning. Journal of Applied Behavioral Sciences, 18(3), 257–273.