To examine how Big Four auditors react to public scrutiny, we explore their evidence at a public inquiry on the Irish banking crisis. We use impression management theory to make sense of this evidence. By extending Goffman to a contemporary auditing context, we mobilize less-researched aspects of his dramaturgical framework. Drawing upon the prior literature, we develop a typology for examining how Big Four auditors impression-manage on a ‘frontstage’. Using meaning-oriented content analysis, we apply our typology to Big Four auditors’ public-inquiry evidence. Our findings indicate that Big Four auditors convey the following four impressions: (1) their hands are clean (i.e., they are not to blame for audit failure); (2) their hands were tied (i.e., they were powerless to prevent audit failure); (3) their work was good; and (4) their intentions are good. We conclude the paper by linking these four impressions to the professional beancounter character, and by considering whether the Big Four’s impression management succeeded in influencing their audience. Identifying impression management by Big Four auditors provides insights into their beliefs, ambitions and concerns, and on how they regard clients, regulators and the general public.
We examine how Big Four auditors respond to public scrutiny, and how they deploy impression management at a public inquiry. Impression management refers to attempts to control the perceptions of others (Leary & Kowalski, 1990). Organizations impression-manage for many reasons, for example to restore legitimacy after a crisis (Hooghiemstra, 2000), to secure acceptance of controversial changes (Arndt & Bigelow, 2000), and to manipulate perceptions of corporate achievement (Guillamon-Saorin, García Osma, & Jones, 2012). Often, corporate reports serve as the vehicles for organizational impression management (Aerts, 2005; Brennan, Guillamon-Saorin, & Pierce, 2009; Cooper & Slack, 2015; Ogden & Clarke, 2005). Using evidence from a public inquiry, we study how Big Four auditors impression-manage in response to public scrutiny.
Our motivation to study Big Four impression-management stems from recognition of the “wider social and political consequences of impression management [which] include unwarranted support of organizations and their activities by non-financial stakeholders or by society at large” (Brennan & Merkl-Davies, 2013, p. 110). We are especially interested in the impression management activities of Big Four auditors, whose societal impact is not trivial (Flint, 1971). As a state-approved oligopoly, the Big Four operate a closed-product market (Addison & Mueller, 2015), and thus wield considerable economic power among the business elite. Cooper and Robson (2006) highlight their centrality in matters of professionalization and regulation. The Big Four “dominate the global market for the audit of listed companies” (Humphrey, Loft, & Woods, 2009, p. 813). They are larger than many of their listed clients (Malsch & Gendron, 2011). They have also diversified beyond their “core product” of auditing (Detzen & Loehlein, 2018, p. 2043) to activities such as consultancy, mergers and acquisitions, information technology and securitization (Arnold, 2009; Gow & Kells, 2018; Suddaby, Gendron, & Lam, 2009). They fund academic research projects (Gendron, 2000) and advise governments (Cooper & Robson, 2006). They have a global workforce (Detzen & Loehlein, 2018), and their revenues (Rapoport, 2018) and partner salaries (Kinder, 2019) continue to rise.