Impression Management Strategies in Company–Consumer Interactions
Aalto University School of Business
This study examines interaction between corporate representatives and critical consumers in today’s
social media environment. Applying a microanalytical form of discourse analysis to a data set of
corporate Facebook page discussions, the study contributes to a better understanding of the
communicative resources that organizations use as part of their impression management for upholding
their acceptability and promoting their credibility. The study also reveals the complexity of the work
of corporate Facebook representatives, who need to align their individual impression management
with that of the organization while adjusting to the technologically mediated context.
impression management, social media, social networking sites, Facebook, discourse analysis
Consumer: First you have to “like” the company to be able to give a comment. If I liked you I
wouldn’t be on this page, but I’m so angry I will use any channel to make my point. ...
Company representative: ... I can only say I’m really sorry and, of course, will pass on your
feedback in our organization.
The preceding IText, or text-centered interaction mediated by information technology (Geisler et al.,
2001; see also, Geisler, 2011), which took place on a public transportation company’s Facebook page,
illustrates one of the challenges that company representatives face in the online environment—having
to react in public to critical comments from dissatisfied consumers. Social media make up a new, and
quite influential, textual space (Geisler et al., 2001, p. 281) for consumers to get their voices heard.
Interaction—or the reciprocal influence of individuals in each other’s presence (Goffman, 1959, p.
26)—is a crucial feature of the IText environment. Especially critical and negative comments (such as
those of the consumer in the preceding extract) call for companies to participate actively in the
interaction and make use of impression management (IM) strategies in order to establish and uphold
desired images of themselves (cf. Goffman, 1959).
In recent years, with the proliferation of Web platforms known as social media, on which
people interact, share and produce content, IText interactions occur on a scale that involves
unprecedented numbers of participants (e.g., Geisler, 2011; Fernheimer, Litterio, & Hendler, 2011),
and the concept itself has expanded to include texts such as voice recordings (Tulley, 2011). Today,
this IText2 (Geisler, 2011) environment spawned by social media has led to what might be seen as a
change of paradigm in corporate communication—or at least an opportunity for such a change.
Companies now have less control over their communication because for example real-time dialogue
with their stakeholders allows little opportunity to prepare messages (Argenti, 2006). Customers and
other stakeholders increasingly want companies to listen and respond to them (Kietzmann, Hermkens,
McCarthy, & Silvestre, 2011). Such spontaneous professional communication in social media spaces
can, in fact, be characterized as “conversation” (Spinuzzi, 2009, p. 257), and it leads to the
“juxtaposition of two voices in one intact written artifact” (Haas, Carr, & Takayoshi, 2011, p. 288)—
or, in many cases, more than two voices. Searls and Weinberger (2000) suggested that the corporate
voice heard in this interaction should be a “conversational human voice, ” which would lead to a more
engaging, natural style of corporate communication (e.g., Kelleher, 2009). The changes brought by
new technology certainly deserve further serious attention—as Geisler et al. (2001) noted in their
“IText manifesto” (p. 269) and several other communication scholars have emphasized (e.g., Argenti,
2006; Jackson, 2007; Reinsch & Turner, 2006; St.Amant, 2002).
Several recent scholars (e.g., Briones, Kuch, Liu, & Jin, 2011; Byrd, 2012) have suggested that
maintaining a dialogue—a conversation—with stakeholders is one way for companies to promote
(although not guarantee) good relations, and social media, by definition, can be useful for this
purpose. But, as Grunig (2009) argued, companies do not always make use of new digital media’s
dialogical, interactive, and relational properties. Particularly, companies often do not seem to see that
responding to negative feedback can be an opportunity to build positive relations with customers and
stakeholders (Dekay, 2012). Nevertheless, along with the rapid development of information
technologies, the use of social media in corporate communication is now increasing drastically
(Verhoeven, Tench, Zerfass, Moreno, & Ver, 2012; Wright & Hinson, 2009), and companies and
other organizations must learn to communicate in this new environment. Therefore, we need to
explore concrete ways in which companies participate and manage their impressions in social media
In this article, we introduce an empirical study that aims to (a) identify the central IM
strategies used on corporate Facebook pages, particularly in the context of responding to critical
feedback and (b) gain an understanding of the specific features of IM in the IText2 environment. To
achieve these aims, we use microanalytical discourse analysis to examine social media interaction. We
collected discussions from the Facebook pages of two large North European companies: Foody,a
food manufacturer, and Logy, a public transportation company. (Both company names are
The discursive perspective that we have adopted in this study has so far received little attention
in the context of social media (see, however, Haas et al., 2011)—which is somewhat surprising
because an understanding of social interaction and interpersonal communication, involving complex
meaning-making processes, is clearly relevant for this type of IText (see Geisler et al., 2001; Reinsch
& Turner, 2006). As Rogers (2006) has argued, certain age-old questions of communication stay
relevant in spite of rapidly changing technology. Indeed, the ever-changing technology intensifies the
need to study such issues as the linguistic choices of communicators in professional contexts. We
believe that employing a microanalytical discursive approach toward consumer–company interaction
will deepen the understanding of corporate IM strategies in social media (for discursive approaches
toward other corporate communication topics, see, e.g., Livesey, 2002; Mason & Mason, 2012). This
approach involves an analysis of discursive details, which enables the discovery of aspects of
interaction that would otherwise pass unnoticed (e.g., Brown & Yule, 1983; Paltridge, 2006; Wood &
Kroger, 2000), thus offering useful insight into IM in our particular research context, corporate
In what follows, we elaborate on the notion of impression management and then briefly
discuss the context for our study, corporate Facebook pages. Next, we introduce our method of data
collection and discourse analysis. Finally, we present our findings and provide a discussion and
conclusions about what this study has achieved.
IM is a fundamental interpersonal process by which individuals attempt to control the
impressions others form of them (Leary & Kowalski, 1990). A classic author in the field of IM,
Goffman (1959), has viewed human interaction as drama, with actors performing roles before
audiences. Goffman separated scenes that happen “frontstage” where an audience is present and IM is
most relevant, and “backstage” where people can relax because there is no audience (i.e., outsiders to
their own close-knit group). But this difference is not clear-cut; backstage moments, in which actors
step out of character, may happen in the middle of an otherwise frontstage interaction. Corporate
Facebook pages can be seen as a frontstage environment because communication there is public, and
participants are not close friends; however, because Facebook is an arena for interaction (unlike
traditional one-way corporate communication, such as leaflets), corporate Facebook communication
could include some backstage moments as well.
Earlier studies of IM have come from the realm of social psychology (e.g., Goffman, 1959,
Leary & Kowalski, 1990), but more recently this process has also been studied at work (Rosenfeld,
Giacalone, & Riordan, 1995), in the case of organizations as a whole (e.g., Allen & Caillouet, 1994;
Arndt & Bigelow, 2000; Elsbach & Sutton, 1992; Mohamed & Gardner, 2004; for a review, see
Bolino, Kacmar, Turnley, & Gilstrap, 2008), and online (e.g., Tong, Van Der Heide, Langwell, &
Walther, 2008; Walther, Van Der Heide, Hamel, & Shulman, 2009; Zhao, Grasmuck, & Martin,
2008). Although some scholars have combined these perspectives, using the IM framework to
examine, for example, organizational Web sites (Boyer, Brunner, Charles, & Coleman, 2006) and e-
mail signatures (Rains & Young, 2006), the impact of interactional social media ITexts on
organizational IM remains unexplored.
Like individuals, companies and other organizations (or rather their representatives and
spokespersons) may use IM to influence the perceptions that others have of them (Bolino et al., 2008;
Elsbach & Sutton, 1992; Mohamed & Gardner, 2004). But organizational IM is complex in nature—
for example, many different individuals may engage in IM on behalf of the organization (Bolino et al.,
2008). In earlier studies, a wide variety of defensive (protective) and assertive (acquisitive) IM
strategies have also been analyzed (e.g., Allen & Caillouet, 1994; Arndt & Bigelow, 2000; Rosenfeld
et al., 1995).
Studies of online IM often refer to social information processing theory. This theory explains
how impressions of others are developed on the Internet when few nonverbal cues for interpretation
are available (Walther, 1992; Walther & Parks, 2002). Communicators adapt to whatever cues they
can find in order to form an impression of others. For example, on Facebook pages, communicators
might look for cues embedded in content, style, and timing (cf. Walther & Parks, 2002). Therefore,
the importance of linguistic and discursive features, in addition to context-specific cues, such as
emoticons, is accentuated online.
Further, according to the warranting principle, information about a person is more credible in
online contexts when that information cannot be easily manipulated by the person in question
(Walther & Parks, 2002). This principle has been shown to apply to individual Facebook users—the
pictures, comments, and number of Facebook friends present in a profile influence the impressions
that others form of the profile owner (Tong et al., 2008; Utz, 2010, Walther et al., 2009; Zhao et al.,
2008). On corporate Facebook pages, followers’ posts seem to represent a type of warranting—
positive comments by consumers are likely to affect impressions positively and critical comments
negatively. In fact, the use of social media has caused organizations to be concerned over explicit
criticism, false information, and activist groups (DiStaso, McCorkindale, & Wright, 2011; cf.
Champoux et al., 2012; Veil, Sellnow, & Petrun, 2012); these may cause them to lose control of their
IM. Especially critical comments, then, seem to require companies to engage in active IM.
Corporate Facebook Pages
Social media could be defined as interactive Web platforms “via which individuals and communities
share, co-create, discuss, and modify user-generated content” (Kietzmann et al., 2011, p. 241). Social
networking sites, such as Facebook, are among the most popular social media today. The pages of
companies on Facebook work somewhat differently from individuals’ Facebook profiles (see, e.g.,
boyd & Ellison, 2007). Facebook users can join companies as followers (i.e., they may like the page),
but otherwise the pages more or less resemble discussion boards in that they involve public,
asynchronous (cf. Geisler, 2011, p. 253, on the IText2 trend “shift towards the asynchronous”) and
largely text-based interactions, although they may also include pictures, links, and videos. But these
interactions, unlike those on traditional discussion boards, are not anonymous because corporate
Facebook pages require that followers have a Facebook profile, which usually includes their real
The followers of corporate Facebook pages fall into two categories: those who actively voice
their views and those who only follow the discussions as lurkers (i.e., “a persistent but silent
audience,” resembling audiences for conventional mass media; Rafaeli, Ravid, & Soroka, 2004, p. 2).
This audience is fluid in nature. Although a limited number of people participate at a given moment,
any audience member, at any time, may participate (Hogan & Quan-Haase, 2010, call this a “two-way
audience”) provided they are Facebook users, logged on, and like the page. They can also manifest
their presence in a discussion by using the like button which acts as a form of minimal feedback.
Furthermore, because corporate Facebook pages are public, anyone (not only followers) may
visit and read the discussions, and as is typical on the Internet, issues of particular interest may spread
to unexpected new arenas. This kind of publicity is important, because gaining larger audiences has
been shown to increase people’s motivation to engage in IM (Leary & Kowalski, 1990). In such cases,
making a positive impression on the majority may then take precedence over considering the opinion
of any individual participant.
In recent literature, corporate Facebook pages have received some attention. For example,
Champoux, Dugree and McGlynn (2012) argued that Facebook pages permit and even create an
expectation of interaction, thus allowing companies to establish rapport with existing and potential
clients. As companies struggle to adapt their communication practices to the new environment (Cho &
Huh, 2010; Grunig, 2009; Waters, Burnett, Lamm, & Lucas, 2009) researchers and other experts often
emphasize the need for genuine two-way engagement with stakeholders (e.g. Byrd, 2012). Corporate
responses even to negative feedback have been suggested as a good practice, but many corporations
still have not seemed to adopt strategies that “translate negative comments into useful opportunities”
(Dekay, 2012, p. 295). Furthermore, as Champoux et al. (2012) illustrated by analyzing Nestlé’s
Facebook page, responding to negative feedback has not always been very successful; examples of
successful outcomes also exist, of course, as shown in Byrd’s (2012) discussion of Toyota’s
communication in a crisis situation on their Facebook page. Men and Tsai’s (2012) study indicates
that there might be country-specific or cultural differences in companies’ practices of responding to
consumers’ posts and also in consumers’ criticism toward companies. Nevertheless, little is known
about specific communication strategies or practices that appear on corporate Facebook pages.
In this section, we describe our data and the discourse analysis that we used to identify IM strategies
and gain a better understanding of IM in this particular IText2 context.
We examined corporate Facebook pages because they provide ample possibilities for interaction
between consumers and companies—because of both the structure and the massive popularity of
Facebook. The data contain discussion threads that we collected from the corporate Facebook pages of
two large Finland-based companies. We chose these two after examining the Facebook pages of the
50 biggest companies in Finland (according to Talouselämä, 2010). We selected the pages according
to the following criteria: the page contained (a) active discussions between consumers and company
representatives, (b) more than just sporadic criticism toward the company, and (c) criticism that is
addressed by the company representatives. These criteria led to our selection of the corporate
Facebook pages of two well-known Finnish organizations that do business with consumers: Foody,
which produces dairy products, and Logy, which operates the railway traffic in Finland. These two
cases provided rich data for analyzing company Facebook pages as an arena for corporate IM. The
data collection and reporting complied with the Finnish guidelines for human subject research
(Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity, 2012).
Naturally, some noncritical discussion took place on the Facebook pages of both companies,
but considering the aims of this study, we only collected discussion threads containing criticisms and
responses. The data span a period of approximately 3 months for each page during late 2010 through
early 2011. We made a permanent copy of the material and organized the posts chronologically in a
grid to facilitate reading and analysis. The original posts were written in Finnish and we translated
into English extracts that are cited here. Table 1 contains a detailed description of the data.
INSERT TABLE 1 ABOUT HERE
As Table 1 shows, in the 3-month period of study, Foody’s page had nearly 18,500 and Logy’s
page more than 11,000 followers, which indicates that both pages were quite popular at the time. The
number of consumers participating (individuals who posted at least once during the 3-month period)
was 48 for Foody and 72 for Logy. Although during this period there were 130 posts by consumers on
Foody’s page, on average 2.7 posts per person, only 7 of these consumers were particularly active
participants posting from 6 to 18 times, and as many as 30 individuals posted only once. We observed
the same tendency for Logy—206 consumer posts, an average of 2.9 per person, but with only 10
individuals posting from 6 to 21 times. Naturally, the number of lurkers on these pages remains
Seven corporate representatives on Foody’s page and two corporate representatives on Logy’s
page engaged in dialogue with the consumers. We concluded these numbers from the representatives’
practice of signing posts by using their first name. Foody’s representatives also included a reference to
their departmental affiliation (e.g., marketing or communications). We use corporate representative as
a general term referring to all individuals posting for their company on its Facebook page, whatever
their actual job titles may be. Logy’s representatives replied to critical consumers 59 times, and
Foody’s representatives replied 23 times (some of their replies were quite long). Consecutive replies
by the same person to the same comment were counted as one response.
We retrieved slightly more text from Logy’s page (nearly 14,000 words divided into 43
discussion threads) than from Foody’s page (with nearly 9,000 words and 31 discussions). On
Foody’s page, critical discussion mainly dealt with the company’s involvement in a nuclear power
plant project, and it was initiated by Greenpeace activists. Some product-related issues were also
raised by consumers. On Logy’s page, consumers criticized the company for repeated delays and
other disturbances in train traffic during a harsh winter.
To examine the interaction between critical consumers and corporate representatives, we use
microanalytical discourse analysis (DA; see, e.g., Gee, 1999; Paltridge, 2006; Potter, 1996; Potter &
Wetherell, 1987). The DA framework allows analysis at various levels: particularly discourse with a
small d, or language in use, and Discourse with a capital D which signifies a “form of life” (Gee,
1999, p. 7) and emphasizes what is sayable or thinkable about a topic in any given political, social,
historical, or cultural context (e.g., Wodak & Meyer, 2009). In this study, our focus is on language in
use in a particular social media context; thus, our approach can be characterized as a small-d analysis.
But the two d’s are by no means entirely separate but intertwined, as larger Discourses accumulate
from repetitive patterns of language in use and can be used again as communicative resources in new
instances of language in use.
Our first close reading of the data enabled us to identify a set of distinct passages, which we
classified under two broad categories of IM strategies: (a) upholding social acceptability and (b)
promoting credibility. Because DA enables us to use and combine such discursive and rhetorical tools
that are relevant for a particular study, we used three analytical concepts—footing (Goffman, 1981),
category entitlement and stake (Potter, 1996)—as conceptual lenses for further analyzing the two
broad categories. These three conceptual lenses relate both to argumentation and to the negotiation of
social relations, which is why they seemed particularly fitting for analyzing IM in consumer–
corporate IText interactions.
Footing (Goffman, 1981, p. 144) refers to the participative roles that speakers can adopt—they
can act as a principal (to present their own position), an author (to use their own words), or an
animator (to speak for someone else). The participative roles are, as Johansson (2009) noted,
particularly relevant for the corporate communication context because they may affect whether people
perceive the organization as trustworthy. In fact, different footings may function as IM tools because
they allow speakers to vary their relationship to what they are saying (closer or more distant), thus
varying their degree of accountability.
Further elaborating the concept of footing, Potter (1996) presented related dynamics
concerning trustworthiness as a result of expertise and objectivity. Potter claimed that people are, on
the one hand, treated as knowledgeable in certain contexts based on their expertise; that is, they are
automatically granted the legitimate right to speak (p. 133). Potter called this expertise-based
credibility category entitlement. On the other hand, there are also negative rhetorical consequences to
being deeply involved in something: The fact that speakers have something to gain (a stake) may
undermine their argument. In other words, if speakers are shown to have a stake, their objectivity will
be questioned. As we show in the next section, both Goffman’s (1981) and Potter’s (1996)
frameworks are indeed relevant for social media dialogue between consumers and corporate
In this section, we present the IM strategies that we found were most relevant in the context of
corporate Facebook pages. Although our focus is on the corporate IM strategies, we also point out
some strategies used by the critical consumers that are relevant in the interaction. First, we discuss the
strategies for upholding social acceptability and then those for promoting credibility. As we discuss
the strategies, we point out the IText-specific features of the data.
Upholding Social Acceptability
We identified three types of IM strategies that corporate representatives (and consumers) used to
uphold social acceptability: (1) conventional politeness, (2) moral discourses, and (3) diversion. These
strategies worked to uphold and increase social acceptability by complying with the cultural system of
norms and values.
Communicative acts of conventional politeness, such as greeting, thanking, apologizing, using
emoticons, and signing the posts seemed to play an important role in company interactions with
consumers. Corporate representatives frequently greeted the other party and signed their posts, but
more rarely used emoticons. Except for thanking, all of these politeness forms are exemplified in
Extract 1. Corporate representative (Foody): Hello [name]! Apologies for the
delay in posting prizes for our promotion campaign! I will check the situation
and get back to you soon. Br. Niina from customer services :)
As Dresner and Herring (2010) argued, the standard smiley (smiling emoticon)—as used in Extract
1—often serves a mitigating function, just as a polite smile would in face-to-face interaction. Because
emoticons are an obvious resource in computerized interaction, their sparing use in the data is
Direct apologies, such as in Extract 1, are quite rare in the data, but an expression such as
unfortunately occurs from time to time and may serve an apologetic function (e.g., “Unfortunately
there are problems concerning feedback and refund forms”). When speakers use unfortunately in this
way, they present the circumstances are as being beyond their control and do not take accountability.
But the use of the expression adds a touch of polite sympathy to the response.
The second type of strategy that corporate representatives used to uphold social acceptability involved
appealing to common moral discourses—Discourses with a D (Gee, 1999)—in order to present
themselves as moral or the other participant as immoral. In Extract 2, the corporate representative uses
this strategy to undermine the social acceptability of a consumer who disagrees with him (or the
company). The Logy representative refers to environmental considerations and presents his argument
as one that is generally accepted:
Extract 2. Corporate representative (Logy): Today, choosing the train or another
form of public transport should, I guess, also be partly motivated by the
The interaction subsequent to Extract 2 reveals that the consumer did not agree with the company
representative’s view that protecting the environment should be a motivation for a person’s transport
choice. In this extract, then, the representative appeals to common moral discourses (or Discourses)
and makes the consumer look immoral (using the word should) and old-fashioned (referring to today)
while giving the impression that he—or the company—is more moral. In many instances, it is in fact
impossible to interpret whether the representatives are voicing their own view or that of the company
(i.e., to detect footing), which undoubtedly gives them room to maneuver in case of differing
opinions. Widespread moral discourses (Discourses) such as protecting the environment are, however,
unlikely to raise opposition, and are therefore a safe choice in terms of appearing socially acceptable.
In Extract 3, a representative of Foody also seems to be appealing to moral discourse by
labeling nuclear power critics as rulebreakers.
Extract 3. Corporate representative (Foody): Hello [Foody’s] fans. Lately our
pages have been targeted by outside campaigns. ... The site is not meant for
marketing or covert marketing by third parties. ... Moderators will remove
impertinent messages. If a user repeatedly breaks the rules of the site, she/he
may be banned. Best regards, Outi from marketing
This post was followed by consumer replies that included references to freedom of speech and the
negatively evaluated phenomenon of censorship. The critics, then, seemed to use a similar strategy of
undermining the other speaker’s social acceptability, implying in their critical comments that
removing messages was immoral. Therefore, although moderating messages (including deleting
comments that do not comply with rules) is common on discussion boards and in similar contexts,
using this power on corporate Facebook pages can lead to negative impressions (cf. Champoux et al.,
The third type of strategy for upholding social acceptability, diversion, was essential in these
interactions. Active critical consumers insisted on presenting their particular concerns, often using
only a feeble link to the topic of conversation or without even attempting to connect their viewpoint to
what was being discussed. The corporate representatives (of Foody in particular) responded to the
persistent critics by using a diversion strategy, which appears to be an attempt to avoid further
attention to the issues that could cause consumers to have a negative impression of the company by
undermining its social acceptability. At first, Foody’s representatives answered the nuclear energy
critics quite thoroughly, but as the critics repeated their questions, the corporate representatives started
to answer only (new) parts of the criticism or to just refer to their earlier answers. Although earlier
discussions remain available on company Facebook pages, a specific post can be difficult to find,
requiring scanning through considerable amounts of text because there is no page-specific search
feature and linking to earlier posts, although possible, is not commonly done. Therefore, referring to
earlier posts may be quite an effective way to avoid further attention to an issue. In addition, even
though this strategy may be completely uninformative, the fact that the representatives give some kind
of an answer may convey an impression of politeness and openness for those members of the audience
who are not particularly concerned with the issue.
In addition to their practice of referring to earlier posts, corporate representatives used another
type of diversion by changing the subject of the discussion. In the case of Extract 4, that subject was
the censorship issue that was sparked in Extract 3:
Extract 4. Corporate representative (Foody): A question to you Greenpeace
activists: we would like to know why you don’t advance the cause of GMO free
food here in Finland? ...
Consumer A: ... Does [Foody] intend to start genetically manipulating its dairy
products, or why did you want to bring this up?
This strategy of changing the subject seems unlikely to satisfy consumers who have a genuine interest
in the subject that is being changed. In Extract 4, Consumer A’s reaction to the Foody representative’s
question suggests that the consumer did not accept the diversion strategy and even managed to use the
change of subject to the advantage of the critics. Although this diversion tactic did not seem to
convince the critical consumer in Extract 4, it might have a positive impact on other readers and thus
contribute to corporate IM in a wider sense.
In summary, we identified a set of IM strategies in the data that were significant for upholding
and increasing social acceptability by using (a) conventional politeness (b) appeals to common moral
discourses in order to undermine others’ social acceptability and to increase one’s own and (c)
diversion tactics to avoid uncomfortable subjects. We also detected ITtext specific issues such as the
use of emoticons, the problematic practice of moderating, and features that enable diversion.
Furthermore, both the consumer critics and the company representatives made use of the medium’s
asynchronous nature by leaving questions or comments unanswered and by responding off-topic as
best suited their IM goals in the particular context.
Geisler et al. (2001) predicted that in the IText environment the significance of credibility in
communication will increase (p. 283). Our analysis of the IText data from corporate Facebook pages
supports that assumption because we found that the corporate representatives’ strategies to promote
their own credibility or to undermine that of others were central. These strategies involved the use of
(a) category entitlement and stake, (b) varying footings, and (c) ridicule.
Category Entitlement and Stake
Potter’s (1996) dynamic concepts of stake and category entitlement apply to the corporate
communication context that we examined because in company-related issues, corporate
representatives are, in fact, experts who have inside knowledge, which should increase their
credibility (category entitlement). For example, if company CEOs speak about the current market
situation in their area, we readily assume that they know what they are talking about. Similarly, in our
data, the corporate representatives were entitled to correct faulty—or seemingly faulty—claims by
consumers without having to specifically justify their own credibility. Corporate representatives’
interest (stake) to protect their company, however, strongly counteracts this entitlement, reducing their
credibility; this is particularly essential when responding to criticism toward the company. We
identified this loss of credibility, for example, when a critical consumer expressed doubts concerning
a Logy representative’s honesty by posting: “Thank you for your reply, which, however, does not
seem to be true”.
In Extract 3, the Foody representative seemed to be using a stake argument to undermine the
credibility of the nuclear power critics by referring to their activities as “outside campaigns”. At least,
the consumer in Extract 5 seems to interpret the representative’s comment in this way because he
responds by using “stake inoculation” (Potter, 1996), protecting his own credibility by claiming to
have no connection to Greenpeace and emphasizing his right to speak:
Extract 5. Consumer B (Foody): I am not Greenpeace, I am [name], even though
I agree with Greenpeace in nuclear power issues. I buy [Foody’s] products, and I
don’t want my opinion to be disregarded just because it is similar to that of
In their responses, the corporate representatives of both companies also varied their footing (Goffman,
1981), that is, their relationship to what they were saying (close versus distant), thus assuming
different degrees of accountability. In Extract 6, the representative distances himself from what he
probably knows is an unsatisfying answer (to a question about why e-tickets differ from other tickets
in terms of their validity period) by referring to his colleagues (“people who know more than me”). In
the actual response, he acts as a mere animator (p. 144) when repeating the direct quote, qualifying the
answer as “somewhat bureaucratic”, and claiming to “hope” that the answer is satisfactory.
Extract 6. Corporate representative (Logy): Hello [name]. I will ask people who
know more than me and get back to you. -mikko.
Corporate representative (Logy): Hi [name]. Here’s a somewhat bureaucratic
answer to your question: “The terms of the transaction vary according to
channel. According to e-commerce terms an e-ticket cannot be exchanged and
therefore it is only valid in the train which it is sold for. ...” I hope this answered
your question... -mikko.
Thus in Extract 6 the Logy representative uses footing to distance himself from a response that
does not actually answer the customer’s question, thereby protecting his own personal credibility. In
addition, by presenting the company as consisting of a variety of actors and departments (instead of as
a single, unified whole) the Facebook representative may also be trying to limit potential damage to
the company’s credibility; at least part of the company––the representative—still appears reasonable.
Then, if the consumer does not accept that explanation, the representative can switch positions. In
Extract 7 (which continues the dialogue of Extract 6), the representative does just that—he now agrees
with the consumer:
Extract 7. Consumer C (Logy): The answer did not make it clear why the e-
ticket is only valid in the train marked on it ...
Corporate representative (Logy): Hello [name]! I agree with you but I can assure
you that there will be some kind of change to this issue within this year.
Finally, we found that both consumers and corporate representatives used ridicule to promote their
own credibility by undermining the credibility of others. For example, a consumer who was a nuclear
power supporter described the nuclear power critics as irrational extremists, as “fanatics” who believe
in their views “in spite of facts”. Consumers also applied the strategy of ridicule by using
straightforward insults, such as when a consumer referred to Logy management as “clowns who wear
a tie”. Somewhat unexpectedly, the Logy’s representative’s also used ridicule, for example in the
Extract 8. Consumer D (Logy): The right price of a train ticket from Lahti to
Helsinki would be about five euros because when you drive a car, it costs less
than ten. ...
Corporate representative (Logy): Considering the costs of using a private car, it
is good to remember that no car moves without, e.g., the costs of service and
insurance. And buying a car also costs something, I suppose...
In Extract 8, the Logy representative makes the consumer’s statement look ridiculous by presenting
his own view as factual and self-evident. He emphasizes his factual claim with the verb “remember”
and an extreme case expression, “no car”. In addition, the representative uses an ironic “I suppose” in
conjunction with the other self-evident fact that “cars cost something”.
In summary, we found that in their IM strategies related to promoting their own credibility and
undermining the credibility of others corporate representatives and consumers used category
entitlement, stakes, various footings and attempts to make the other party seem ridiculous. Our
findings suggest that, in participating in discussions on their corporate Facebook page, company
representatives faced the dynamic tension between having increased credibility (due to category
entitlement as company insiders) and yet having reduced credibility (due to having a stake in
protecting the company). Consumers also accused each other of having stakes, but, unlike company
representatives, they could defend themselves by simply denying that they had any such stake.
Company representatives used distant footing to avoid accountability and protect their credibility
when the criticism was about company messages that came from elsewhere in the organization. They
also resorted to attacking the credibility of consumers by referring to consumer stakes and by making
them look ridiculous, which were perhaps attempts to ward off any negative warranting effects—that
is, to prevent consumers’ negative comments from having a pronounced impact on other consumers’
impressions of the company. Such attempts may work on two levels: by making the critic seem less
credible and by making others hesitant to voice similar criticisms. But such strategies could also make
the company representatives seem contemptuous or otherwise unlikable, thus working against their
strategies for upholding social acceptability.
Discussion and Conclusions
This study had two aims: to identify the central IM strategies on the Facebook pages of two Finnish
companies and to gain an understanding of how this social media context might affect corporate IM.
We used discourse analysis to gain a detailed understanding of the interaction on these pages. Overall,
we met these aims; the data revealed salient IM strategies and text features that were specific to social
media. Thus our microanalytical approach proved fruitful in revealing these strategies and providing
us with a better understanding of the nature of corporate Facebook pages.
We identified two significant categories of IM strategies: social acceptability and credibility.
Table 2 provides an overview of the types of strategies that we found in each category including their
percentage of occurrence in the total number of responses for each company. Because this is a
qualitative study based on a detailed analysis of a small data set, however, the percentages should be
interpreted with caution.
INSERT TABLE 2 ABOUT HERE
The types of strategies for upholding social acceptability that we found included the use of
conventional politeness, moral discourses, and diversion from topics that might reflect negatively on
the company. Conventional politeness was the type of strategy that was used by far the most, which
perhaps indicates that unlike the other types of strategies, politeness needs to be used consistently
rather than occasionally. Perhaps politeness is also used more consciously than are other types of
strategies. For instance, company representatives might have used politeness to appear professional
(role constraints as a determinant of impression content; see Leary & Kowalski, 1990), thereby
contributing to their own IM which in turn contributes also to the IM of their company.
A look at the percentages for the occurrences of the other strategy types reveals that the
approaches of the two companies vary significantly and that the individual representatives’ writing
style of seems to have a major influence on their choice of strategies. For example, in the category of
promoting credibility, we found that ridicule was a strategy preferred by one Logy representative, who
used it to undermine the critics’credibility and thereby increase his own. We were surprised that a
company representative would use this IM strategy because it seems to conflict with upholding social
acceptability. Overall, the struggle over credibility was indeed a crucial factor in this IText interaction
(cf. Geisler et al., 2001, p. 283), and as Geisler et al. have suggested, affiliation and autonomy (cf.
category entitlement and stake) emerged as interesting components of credibility in our data (p. 284).
As for the effect of this social media context on corporate IM, we detected certain text-specific
issues, as well as more general ones. On the text level, we found that emoticons were quite rarely used
in the data even though they could have provided a useful resource for building social acceptability. A
possible explanation may be that a considerable proportion of the participants are from a generation
older than that of the digital natives (e.g., in Finland 26% of 50-year-olds had Facebook profiles in
2011; Pönkä, 2011), which may explain a more traditional style of writing. This phenomenon might
also be connected to the communication context. For example, Derks, Bos, and von Grumbkow
(2007) found that fewer emoticons to be used in task-oriented contexts, especially in negative ones,
than in socioemotional contexts—the context of our data could be regarded as more task-oriented than
socioemotional. Whether the infrequent use of emoticons is a general tendency in professional social
media communication and what the reasons might be for such a tendency, should be examined in
Further, we argue that the computer-mediated and asynchronous context of Facebook plays a
part in making diversion-type IM strategies possible: In face-to-face interaction, it is more difficult to
avoid answering a direct question or to bring up issues that are unrelated to the current topic whereas
in asynchronous computer-mediated communication, the time delays between messages and perhaps
also the reduced normative social pressure (Bordia, 1997) that participants experience make such
strategies easier to implement and more acceptable. Facebook’s lack of such features that allow
searches within one page and linking to earlier posts also facilitate diversion strategies. Furthermore,
the consumer comments revealed that moderating, or “censorship,” which seems to be quite a
common practice (Dekay, 2012), is potentially a sensitive issue in corporate social media contexts.
Indeed, as Champoux et al. (2012) argued, even though companies have the right to delete posts and
comments, they may be better served by using these comments to start an interaction. Yet, we do not
categorically recommend or discourage the use of any strategy. Instead, IM on corporate Facebook
pages seems to require sensitive, case-by-case consideration.
On a more general level, our study shows that the IText environment of Facebook enables
interactive corporate communication, which leads to a more personalized communication style than
that found in traditional corporate communication. This shift toward a more conversational
communication style moves corporate communication closer to interpersonal communication and
makes way for warranting effects. Warranting effects in turn mean that companies lose some of the
control they had in earlier unidirectional communication practices (c.f. Argenti, 2006). This is, in fact,
an important difference between individual and corporate IM in IText contexts because individuals
may, in fact, gain more control over their impressions due to the asynchronous and text-based nature
of online communication (Walther, 1996).
The shift toward a more personalized style in corporate communication, then, complicates
companies’ IM. Thus, the most striking conclusion that we draw from this study relates to the
paradoxical situation that social media can cause for corporate representatives. Because the context
allows communication to become interactional and fastpaced, resembling the day-to-day
communication between individuals, the representatives are on the one hand communicating on
Facebook as individuals and this makes their own persona and their individual IM highly relevant. On
the other hand, their organizational role is to communicate on behalf of the company, requiring them
to align their own individual IM with that of the organization. (For an interesting pre–social-media
discussion on how “literacy as a human skill is recruited as an instrument of production in the
knowledge economy,” see Brandt, 2005, p. 179.) Furthermore, corporate Facebook pages are public,
and a wider audience is ever present. This characteristic causes another paradoxical situation:
although Facebook provides an informal textual space where addressing individuals is natural, in
doing so, corporate representatives must always be mindful of the impressions they are giving their
To illustrate the complexity of corporate IM in social media, Figure 1 depicts the dynamics
involved in the (at times) contradictory role of a corporate representative on Facebook. In Figure 1,
“Talking as the company” represents the traditional standpoint of external corporate communication,
nonpersonalized corporate communication (used e.g. in static Web sites, press releases, and leaflets).
We could see some examples of this approach also in our Facebook data—in companies’ general
status updates that were unsigned and devoid of personalized features. In contrast, “Talking as I”
embodies the personalized corporate communication that has been noted and even encouraged in
previous literature (e.g., the “conversational human voice,” Kelleher, 2009, Kelleher & Miller, 2006,
Searls & Weinberger, 2000) and exemplified in this study. “Talking as I” appears particularly in the
conversation sequences that have been the focus of this study.
INSERT FIGURE 1 ABOUT HERE
In the corporate Facebook interactions that we analyzed, on the one hand, a main recipient
(“You” in Figure 1) was often distinctly present (see also Goffman, 1981, p. 131), usually addressed
by first name in the beginning of the reply. On the other hand, public social media environments such
as corporate Facebook pages also have an audience made up of nonaddressed recipients and
bystanders (i.e., lurkers) (cf. primary and secondary recipients, Skovholt & Svennevig, 2006). We
argue that talking to this potentially wide audience is crucial for the company. Corporate
representatives seemed to be focusing on a wide audience, for example, when they used diversion
strategies (i.e., when they referred to earlier answers or brought up a competing topic). Although this
diversion strategy probably did not satisfy the critics, it may have managed to persuade a wider
audience—the representatives may have appeared forthcoming and polite even though their answers
were uninformative. Therefore, their use of diversion may contribute to upholding their company’s
social acceptability. Furthermore, representatives use of a more personal style also contributes to
boosting their company’s social acceptability; a personal style of communication is expected due to
the nature (or the genre-specific features) of Facebook as a space for communicating and having
relationships—that is, as a space “specifically dedicated to forming and managing impressions,
relational maintenance, and relationship-seeking” (Tong et al., 2008, p. 532).
The main limitation of the study is that it is rather specific: We analyzed only two corporate
Facebook sites for a period of 3 months. Also, some features noted in this study, such as the use of
first names, may well be culture-specific, so further work should be carried out in other cultural
contexts—and also multicultural ones. Particularly, the complex role (see Figure 1) of corporate
representatives in social media interaction with consumers merits further attention from several
perspectives (e.g., genre, cultural, technological, competence). These are central concerns in the
corporate communication field, because along with the continuous development of the Internet
corporate communication continues to globalize and this requires a variety of new competencies of
companies and company representatives (see, e.g., Louhiala-Salminen & Kankaanranta, 2011).
In conclusion, this study provides a close-up perspective on social media interactions between
consumers and companies, and the findings reveal salient IM strategies. The study contributes to three
areas. First, it builds on the body of IText research, particularly in the IText2 environment (Geisler,
2011). Second, it further develops IM theory by combining corporate and social media perspectives.
Third, it adds to the work in corporate communication by revealing the complexity involved in
corporate representatives’ the day-to-day IM efforts in social media.
We would like to thank David R. Russell, Lori Peterson and the two anonymous reviewers for their
valuable suggestions. We are also grateful to Geert Jacobs (Ghent University), Sylvain Dieltjens
(Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) and Johanna Moisander (Aalto University School of Business) for
their helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.
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Ella Lillqvist is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication at the Aalto University
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Leena Louhiala-Salminen is a professor of international business communication in the Department of
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Table 1. Description of the Data.
Facebook Page Foody Logy
Period Oct. 22, 2010–
Jan. 30, 2011
Jan. 4, 2011–
Mar. 23, 2011
Followers 18,407 11,295
Active consumer participants 48 72
Company participants 7 2
Words 8,902 13,813
Discussion threads 31 43
Consumer posts 130 206
Company responses 23 59
Main topics of criticism nuclear power,
delays in train
Table 2. An Overview of the Strategies for Organizational Impression Management on Facebook
Type Description Example % of Total
“Hello [name]! Apologies for
the delay in posting prizes for
our promotion campaign! I will
check the situation and get
back to you soon. Br. Niina
from customer services :)”
97 % 70 %
Presenting oneself as
moral or the other as
immoral in some way
“Today, choosing the train or
another form of public
transport should, I guess, also
be partly motivated by the
2 % 26 %
included in the
answering only some
part of the feedback,
referring to earlier
“A question to you Greenpeace
activists: we would like to
know why you don’t advance
the cause of GMO free food
here in Finland?”
7 % 39 %
answers, changing the
People’s connection to
entitlement) or puts
their credibility in
a) Consumer: “Because of
lactose problems, Foody
should start processing milk in
the same way as is done in
Representative: “Milk is
processed in Finland in the
same way as in other European
b) Representative: “The site is
not meant for marketing or
covert marketing by third
Consumer: … “I don’t want
my opinion to be disregarded
just because it is similar to that
of Greenpeace.” (stake)
10 % 17 %
from an answer or the
lack of an answer
“I will ask people who know
more than me and get back to
25 % 26 %
… Here’s a somewhat
bureaucratic answer to your
Making the other’s
view look ridiculous
(e.g., by presenting an
opposing view as
factual and self-
“Considering the costs of using
a private car, it is good to
remember that no car moves
without, e.g., the costs of
service and insurance. And
buying a car also costs
something, I suppose...”
22 % 0 %
Figure 1. The complexity of corporate IM in social media.