Addressing dark corporate histories in Germany and the United States. Discourses of historical responsibility between organizational apologia and reconciliation

Claudia I Janssen, Purdue University


This dissertation examines corporate rhetoric in response to public discourse about a corporation's past complicity with historical injustice, namely slavery in the United States and forced and slave labor in Nazi Germany. Furthering evolving criticism of (corporate) apologia the study situates the discourse about dark corporate histories within perspectives of reconciliation, public memory and remembrance as well as public apology. More specifically, it identifies what a corporation may traditionally perceive as a "threat" to its image as an invitation to reconciliatory discourse that demands corporate rhetoric beyond established crisis response strategies. Taking a rhetorical approach to public relations, the dissertation then analyzes two instructive corporate discourses; Aetna Inc.'s response to public pressure concerning its past involvement in the slave insurance business and Volkswagen's response to the issue about its abuse of forced and slave labor during WW II. ^ Based on the studies, a concept of corporate historical responsibility (CHR) is introduced. CHR, which is grounded in tenets of reconciliatory rhetoric, (re-)legitimation, and corporate social responsibility, provides a framework for corporations to address their past by embracing and remembering it. It emphasizes dialogue and relationship restoration over a rhetoric of self-defense and holds that organizations adhere to four central principles when addressing their past; respectfulness and remembrance, an attitude of remorse, accountability for corporate history, and commitments to justice in the present and future. The practice of CHR finally hinges on the corporation's ability to break their silence about the past, to transition from initial statements to long-term commitments and policies, to balance communication with different audiences, and to seek re-legitimation without neglecting or trivializing the relevance of their dark corporate histories for the present.^




Joshua Boyd, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Business Administration, Marketing|Language, Rhetoric and Composition

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