Corporate Writing in the Web of

Postmodern Culture and Postindustrial Capitalism

 

David M. Boje

New Mexico State University

September 18, 2000

Essay for the Popular Management Forum for Volume 14, Number 3
of Management Communication Quarterly, Sage.

 

Author’s Note:

A longer version of this paper, including further documentation, may be found in Boje (2000e). Several other articles and essays by the author cited in this essay may be found at: http://business.nmsu.edu/~dboje/nike/nikemain.html. Much of the Nike writing cited in this essay may be found at: http://www.nikebiz.com.

 

An overlooked author of management communication discourse is the multi-national corporation (MNC), including Monsanto, Disney, McDonald’s, Wal-Mart and others whose annual reports, press releases, advertising, sponsored research and consultant reports become the basis of others' discourses. My thesis is that corporate writing has been imitated and celebrated by academic writers without much critical reflection regarding the kinds of issues that it raises. Further, there are several reasons why critical analysis of such corporations is difficult in universities. First, increasing partnerships between corporations and universities--as well as corporate sponsored writing--fashion a textual web from which academics create their pedagogy. In addition, corporate writing seeps into academic writing (student, doctoral, and professorial) that influences how groups such as unions, the state, women, minorities, and populist movements are characterized. Given these influences, I call for an examination of corporate writing not as a stand-alone, specifically, but as part of the web that fabricates management communication writing, more generally. In this brief space, I will outline how Nike corporate writing co-constructs post-industrial global capitalism and postmodern culture to legitimate industry-wide labor and ecological practices re-annunciated in academic writing.

Some (although not all) corporations repackage themselves in their writing. For example, Nike presents itself as an agent of economic development and ecology (Boje, 1998d, 1999). Monsanto positions itself as a company seeking a cure for world hunger (Rachel's, 1998). The World Bank is repackaged as an AIDS-elimination program. Finally, the World Trade Organization (WTO) gets restoried as an anti-poverty organization (Klein, 1999). There is evidence that this corporate writing is colonizing the university curriculum (Boje, 2000d; Noble, 1999).

Certainly, global networks of students, NGOs, organized labor and a hodgepodge of activist groups are deconstructing this corporate discourse and writing (Bissell et al., 2000; Carty, 1999; Cole, 1996; Hancock, 1996; Landrum, 2000). Yet, much of this critique is not being sufficiently referenced in management communication or business journals. This scarcity can be partially explained by corporate intimidation of resistance writers and potential publishers, using libel laws as a means to muffle critical voices. As a result, the vested interests created by corporate partnerships with universities raise important issues of free speech and academic freedom.

In my personal experience, a major corporation has intimidated both a book and a journal publisher to cancel publication of work that had been reviewed and accepted (Boje, 1998d, 2000c). Should we sit paralyzed before our keyboards, while global corporations proactively write a management discourse that scripts how we live and work and becomes fodder for the writing of academic business discourse? Without rigorous critique, such corporate writing is pure public relations, even propaganda, that re-circulates into business and communication classrooms (Nike, 2000a).

Consequences of Corporate Discourse on Academic Writing: What is Nike Writing?

Nike writing includes a proliferation of writing sponsored and contracted by Nike: the Andrew Young study (Young & Jordan, 1997); the Dartmouth studies (Mihaly & Massey, 1997); Kahle, Boush & Phelps's (2000) University of Oregon study replicating the Young study; and 16 St John's University students' first-hand inspections of some subcontract factories (Nike, 2000h). In addition, Nike writing includes extensive web-based communication with various publics. Consider, for example, the following Nike (2000a) post on its corporate web site, which praises a business professor for using Nike as a case study in her classroom:

[Nike President Phil] Knight succeeded of his own accord, of course. But luckily for Lehigh, some of his seminal business insight for the company that became Nike has gone into a class that Professor Karen Collins had designed for incoming freshman in Lehigh's College of Business and Economics at the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania school.

For the third year, Collins will use Nike as the model for a class of some 260 freshmen taking her Introduction to Business course. With full cooperation and support from Nike, students get a firsthand look at how the global athletic company does business, including marketing, finance and global responsibility issues. Students then ultimately design business plans for fictitious companies based on what they learn…

In the first year of her program, Collins used a large American automaker as the model, but student interest was low. She polled the class about which company they'd rather learn about, and the nearly unanimous vote was for Nike. "They buy the product, they know the ads," she says. "It was a natural fit."… When the business plans are done … Nike awards a $2,000 prize for the best plan.

We must ask ourselves whether such a course would consider that Nike is also a writer of ghettoized race, questionable labor practices, (Bissell, et al., 2000), and questionable gender portrayals (Cole, 1996, 1997). Or, would it consider Nike’s writing as a form of rhetoric designed to effect economic development, the ecology (Boje, 1998c, 1999) or global postmodern consumerism culture (Carty, 1999)?

The interplay of Nike writing and resistance writing may often occur around acts of grassroots, populist protest, such as those witnessed in WTO-Seattle. There were post-WTO acts of global networking, and a corresponding proliferation of Nike-writing deconstructing these movements as "simply not credible" (Bissell et al., 2000; Carty, 1999; Nike, 2000a, 2000g). Similarly, Nike apologist writing trivializes the efforts of student groups (e.g., United Students Against Sweatshops) on 150 college campuses to the rant and rave of youth misguided by leftist unionists unwilling to accept the necessity of the free market economy (Kahle et al., 2000; Kidd, 1999). In each of these cases—and others like them--Nike actively enters into management communication writing by deconstructing its critics for using "poor methodology" (e.g., interviewing workers outside the factory gate, not checking worker reports of income against factory records) "re-circulating reports from the Internet," "having an ax to grind" and "being a front for labor unionists" (Boje, 1999, 2000a).

 

Intertextual Web of Nike Writing

There is also a more subtle and intertextual aspect to the network that constitutes corporate writing. Corporate writing can become disguised as independent academic writing. For example, many writing opportunities are corporately financed, staged, and otherwise controlled. For example, Nike (2000d, 2000e, 2000h) sponsored 16 students from St. John's University to study code of conduct compliance auditing practices of Price Waterhouse Coopers and visit "some" Nike factories. The reports are posted on Nike's (2000h) corporate web site along with a transcript of a conference call (Nike, 2000e) and Nike's (e.g., 1998, 2000d) response to issues raised. Critics are skeptical of Nike-arranged factory tours that included only 32 of 600 locations. The question is, do the factories excluded from on-site visits operate in ways that violate Nike's code of conduct and, therefore, are not being reported in studies by the Fair Labor Association, Global Alliance, and Price Waterhouse Coopers (Bissell et al., 2000; Boje, 2000e)?

For example, Kahle et al. (2000) conducted a pre-announced and corporate-sanctioned factory tour in Vietnam and used the corporate writing to vindicate Nike of all ethical accountability. "Overall, we did not see anything that struck us as out of the ordinary for a manufacturing facility" (p.46). They also noted, at length, that their findings were consistent with those of Andrew Young (former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations). At Phil Knight's (and Nike's) request, Young visited 12 factories he observed to be "clean, well-organized, adequately ventilated, and well-lit" and both groups found "no evidence or pattern of widespread or systematic abuse or mistreatment of workers" (Young & Jordan, 1997). Both studies used the same methodology (walking tours through a factory with Nike translators).

Not surprisingly, writing by academics journalists, investors, consumers, and activists produces a more critical view of Nike. The challenge, then, for management communication scholars and practitioners is to move beyond academic/tourist, staged, corporate-packaged spectacles that are little more than rewrites of corporate-sponsored public relations. We must also be cautious about how corporate writing finds its way into our academic pages, often without critical scrutiny (e.g., the tables, wage statistics, and other data included in the Kahle et al. study come from Nike web pages and corporate representatives).

University Contracts with Corporations

Corporations can also control writing through their contracts and endowments with universities. Nike recently canceled a $40 million dollar donation and lucrative endorsements to three universities (University of Oregon, University of Michigan and Brown University) that were critical of Nike. Is there academic freedom to ask critical questions of corporations that provide substantial university funding? The pressure against such work is great (see Wilcox, 1999 for an exception).

As an example of this corporate pressure to limit academic freedom, some (but not all) contracts include a clause such as the following between the University of Wisconsin and Reebok: "The university will not issue any official statement that disparages Reebok [and] will promptly take all reasonable steps to address any remark by any university employee, including a coach, that disparages Reebok" (Luce, 1999, p.1). James Keady, a St. John's graduate assistant soccer coach, discovered that violating such contracts may have negative consequences. Keady wrote a term paper critical of Nike's labor practices as violating the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and the mission of the university. He put his conviction to the test when he refused to wear shoes and clothing with the Nike logo, thereby violating a contract requirement between Nike and St. John's that coaches and players wear Nike apparel during games. Keady was given the choice to wear the Swoosh logo-apparel or resign. He resigned (McCall, 1999).

Conclusion

The Swoosh is a more recognized world symbol than the crucifix. Though "Just Do It" is not translated by Nike in its writing to various countries, young and old consumers know what it means. Writing by Nike has saturated popular culture and capitalist business culture. As a result, there is a need to deconstruct Nike writing—and other corporate writing—in our classrooms. In addition, I would like to suggest that management communication scholars pay closer attention to recent dissertation research and activist texts, to gain a more critical and balanced perspective on corporations such as Nike, Disney, Monsanto, RJ Reynolds, and Wal-Mart, among others. Otherwise, corporate writing will seep into academic writing without questioning an important marriage of postindustrial capitalism and postmodern popular culture. An examination of the dynamic web of texts and counter-texts over time could allow us to propose ways to improve the dialogue among apologists and critics.

 

Notes

1. For example, Boje (2000c) was to appear in a special issue on Complexity Theory in Journal of Organizational Change Management, but was pulled by the MCB publishers to avoid any possibility Nike might take offense.

2. A new trend relevant to management communication scholarship is the profusion of recent dissertations about Nike writing and acts of corporate-globalization and commodification (Athreya, 1995; Carty, 1999; Cole, 1996; Hancock, 1996; Landrum, 2000). These are focused studies of management communication, such as Landrum's (2000) contrast of Nike’s and Reebok’s annual reports during the last decade. Studies by Carty (1999) and Landrum (2000) suggest that other athletic apparel manufacturers engage in less (defensive) writing about management practices, and do less deconstructing of their critic's writing. Hancock's (1996, 1997) studies raise issues about how writing about corporate behavior produces unforeseen changes. Nike reacted by closing one of two subcontract factories Hancock (1996) studied in Indonesia when that writing was reported in the media. Nike issued a press release stating that the problem no longer existed and the story was not pursued further (cited in Hancock, 1997).

3. My point is that with recent research on Nike writing and practices (Athreya, 1995; Boje, 1998a, 1998b, 1998c, 1998d, 1999, 2000b, 2000c; Carty 1999; Cole, 1996; Hancock, 1996; Landrum, 2000) and the growing list of NGOs and labor and student groups (Bissell et al., 2000), such pronouncements are being challenged at an accelerated rate.

4. These campuses signed up for Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) monitoring, rather than the corporate-initiated Fair Labor Association (FLA). Nike and Reebok both contract for apparel production and endorsements with a score of major universities, but often the contract prohibits critique of the apparel manufacturers by university employees and athletes. This makes publication of articles critical of Nike (or Reebok) grounds for action (Asher & Barr, 2000).

5. Although work by the Clean Clothes Campaign in the Netherlands (and other NGOs) seeks to write the name and location of factories and the working conditions on the label of each garment, polls (e.g., ESPN during the 1998 Olympics) still show that most consumers do not care where their apparel is made, as long as the cost can be kept low (Nike, 2000f).

 

References

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