Impression management, myth creation and fabrication in private social and environmental reporting: Insights from Erving Goffman
This paper explores the nature of private social and environmental reporting (SER). From interviews with UK institutional investors, we show that both investors and investees employ Goffmanesque, staged impression management as a means of creating and disseminating a dual myth of social and environmental accountability. The interviewees’ utterances unveil private meetings imbued with theatrical verbal and physical impression management. Most of the time, the investors’ shared awareness of reality belongs to a Goffmanesque frame whereby they accept no intentionality, misrepresentation or fabrication, believing instead that the ‘performers’ (investees) are not intending to deceive them. A shared perception that social and environmental considerations are subordinated to financial issues renders private SER an empty encounter characterised as a relationship-building exercise with seldom any impact on investment decision-making. Investors spoke of occasional instances of fabrication but these were insufficient to break the frame of dual myth creation. They only identified a handful of instances where intentional misrepresentation had been significant enough to alter their reality and behaviour. Only in the most extreme cases of fabrication and lying did the staged meeting break frame and become a genuine occasion of accountability, where investors demanded greater transparency, further meetings and at the extreme, divested shares. We conclude that the frontstage, ritualistic impression management in private SER is inconsistent with backstage activities within financial institutions where private financial reporting is prioritised. The investors appeared to be in a double bind whereby they devoted resources to private SER but were simultaneously aware that these efforts may be at best subordinated, at worst ignored, rendering private SER a predominantly cosmetic, theatrical and empty exercise.
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