A journey to justice

Addressing dark corporate pasts raises ethical dilemmas for communicators

Corporate history can be a valuable resource for communication managers to strengthen corporate culture, reputation and brands. But what happens when dark episodes of a corporation’s past become contentious public issues after many years or even generations have passed? Indeed, as societies around the world seek to come to terms with past atrocities, corporate complicities with historical injustices and oppressive regimes are commonly revisited as well.
Examples are manifold. Swedish furniture giant IKEA is currently struggling to answer questions concerning its production in East German prisons until 1989. In the 1990s, several US corporations faced lawsuits and public pressure because of profits they had gained from the institution of slavery. During the same decade, several Swiss banks came under public scrutiny for their unethical handling of bank accounts of Holocaust victims after 1945. A few years later, the role of German corporations during the Third Reich became a prominent international issue. While reconciliation after the Holocaust had been a central concern in post-war Germany, corporate complicity with the system of forced labour long remained a forgotten chapter. With lawsuits filed in 1998, major German corporations faced significant pressure to confront their pasts.

Claudia Janssen

Claudia I. Janssen is an assistant professor for communication and media at the Berlin University for Professional Studies. Her research focuses on the intersections of corporate rhetoric, public relations, crisis communication, and corporate citizenship. This is a version of an article published in the Journal of Applied Communication Research, 2013, 41(1), titled Corporate Historical Responsibility (CHR): Addressing a past of forced labor at Volkswagen.