Organisational legitimacy has been extensively employed in the explanation ofcompanies’ environmental disclosures. However, the effect of disclosures onlegitimacy judgements of individuals who receive the disclosures has been subject to little research. This is surprising as legitimacy resides in the ‘eye of the beholder’. Instead individuals are typically assigned to a role of ‘passive consumers’ of disclosures in social and environmental accounting (SEA) research. However, persuasion and political communication literatures indicate that individuals do not passively accept information that they receive (Petty et al. 2002). Many moderating factors characterise the cognitive process underlying their reactions to mass media information. Drawing from these literatures, a conceptual model was developed. On the basis of this model, information attributes, new to SEA research – environmental value frames and company credibility together with level of individual environmental value importance of individual recipients, were predicted to effectively influence individual social legitimacy judgements and behaviour. These were tested by way of an experiment.Results indicated that a value frame transmitted by environmental groups negatively affected individuals’ social legitimacy judgements, but value frames transmitted by companies were not found to have an effect on individuals. However when the credibility of companies transmitting the frames was perceived as high, the effect of company frames was found to be significant.Because the study concentrates on factors that produce a successful reaction in the ‘beholders’ of legitimacy, results add to the SEA research. Significantly, findings demonstrate elements of companies’ environmental disclosures which successfully impact the legitimacy judgements and resultant behaviour of individuals. Further, current understanding, in the SEA field, of the role of news media, media frames and company credibility is advanced by the study. From a public policy perspective, study findings indicate that organisations can, via disclosures in local news media, potentially sustain operations that can damage the local environment of the communities in which they operate. This has implications for the power that communities hold in protecting their local environment and it questions the efficacy of the UK’s Localism Act as a mechanism for affording such power.
- legitimacy theory
- Environmental Accounting
- corporate social and environmental reporting