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Organizations in Hiding: Appropriateness, Effectiveness, and Motivations for Concealment

Organizations in Hiding:
Appropriateness, Effectiveness, and Motivations for Concealment

Surabhi Sahay
Maria Dwyer
Craig R. Scott
Punit Dadlani
Erin McKinley

Rutgers University
New Brunswick, NJ, USA

Abstract: Organizational scholarship has rarely considered various hidden organizations in our society. Thus, little is known about how organizations and their members conceal their identity from others and how outsiders might evaluate the appropriateness of, effectiveness of, and motivations for organizational concealment. Our study reports survey data assessing 14 different hidden organizations and their perceived concealment efforts. Additionally, we examine the appropriateness of three motivations for concealment and three attitudes related to concealment. Results suggest similarities and differences in the effectiveness and appropriateness of concealment efforts by various organizations. Additionally, perceived motivations for concealment explain concealment efforts for some types of organizations, but not others. We draw several conclusions from our findings, discuss scholarly and practical implications of this research, and suggest directions for future scholarship related to organizational concealment.

For most people, the world of organizations is composed of large for-profit corporations, many small businesses, a variety of governmental agencies, and several nonprofits and NGOs—all of which represent relatively visible organizations in the contemporary landscape that actively communicate their identity to various audiences. Much more rarely do we consider secret societies, anonymous support programs, hate groups, terrorist cells, covert military units, organized crime, gangs, parts of the underground economy, front organizations, obscure political fundraising groups, stigmatized businesses, and even certain hidden enterprises tucked away in quiet office parks—all of which represent somewhat hidden organizations whose communication helps to conceal themselves and/or their members from certain others. Notable recent work has shed light on hidden organizations and their concealment practices, which represents a very useful start—but that only begins to touch on the relevant issues these organizations raise for us as communication scholars (Scott, 2015). These hidden organizations matter because there are real consequences associated with the successful and unsuccessful efforts of such collectives and their members to conceal and reveal their identity to key audiences. As Scott (2013a, p. xi) has argued,

Organizations and/or members who remain hidden may continue to commit terrorist and criminal acts without punishment. Yet, anonymous support groups and stigmatized businesses protect their legitimacy and their members’ safety by remaining hidden. Substantial embarrassment and even casualties can occur when covert intelligence operations are revealed; but people may be spared substantial harm and misinformation when the operations of front organizations are exposed. Beyond that, the financial and mental resources required to conceal or reveal identity can be enormous for certain organizations and their members.

Despite their importance, relatively few studies examine how these organizations and their members hide themselves and even fewer examine how others might react to such concealment efforts. Decisions made by organizations and their members to conceal themselves are eventually assessed and evaluated by others. For instance, the general public may find some forms of concealment satisfactory and others inappropriate; some strategies effective and others less reasonable. Similarly, the attributions we make as to why others are concealed may affect not only our assessments about the appropriateness of such strategies, but also the attempts we make as individuals and as a society to seek out and identify different organizations in hiding.

Our exploratory research focuses on assessments of appropriateness and perceived effectiveness of concealment efforts by organizations and their members. Additionally, this study examines the appropriateness of various motivations for hiding identity and how those—along with several associated attitudes—may link to the concealment assessments. We begin with a review of literature related to key scholarship in this area, then describe a series of exploratory research questions and survey methods used to answer them, and finally present results and conclusions to shed some needed light on these organizations in hiding.

Background: Hidden Organizations and Related Constructs

Organizations hide themselves and their members for various reasons. For instance, Hudson (2008) described core-stigmatized organizations such as bathhouses, swinger clubs, and the tobacco industry as those that had some type of stigma attached to the product or the service the organization had to offer. These organizations tried to protect themselves and their members from an irreparable negative image through the use of various hiding strategies in their communication, such as nondescript signage and discrete locations, in order to overcome the stigma. Similarly, Stohl and Stohl (2011) defined clandestine organizations based on the concealment strategies they used. Three basic characteristics that helped define the organizations were the members’ agreement to hide their association or others’ association with the organization, the internal structures kept hidden from public, and the attention gained by these organizations slowly over time. Furthermore, Scott (2013a) developed a comprehensive model describing transparent, shaded, shadowed, and dark organizations. In that work, a hidden collective is one where the identity of the organization and/or its members is communicatively concealed from relevant audiences. These efforts formed the basis for more recent empirical efforts that have examined terrorist organizations (Bean & Buikema, 2015), homeless shelters (Jensen & Meisenbach, 2015), legal brothels (Wolfe & Blithe, 2015), and other hidden collectives.

Though quite insightful, this existing work on hidden organizations only tells us a little about the actual concealment efforts of organizations and even less about how others might react to such hiding. To provide additional backdrop for this study, we briefly review work on organizational impression management and reputation as well as relevant work on secrecy and anonymity as they apply to the organization.

Organizational Impression Management and Reputation

Reputations are perceptions of outsiders about core characteristics of the organization that tend to develop and last over periods of time (see Fombrun & Rindova, 2000; Spittal & Abratt, 2009). A great deal has been written about the importance of reputation for a number of very positive organizational outcomes (see review by Walker, 2010); thus, it is not surprising that management values it greatly. Generally, this work reflects an orientation that reputations can and must be managed for key audiences—which may regularly involve the clear and transparent communication of information about the organization to relevant stakeholders.

According to Highhouse, Brooks and Gregarus (2009), corporations and their members desire a positive image that flows from stakeholder approval and higher status. “Specifically, corporate attempts to gain approval from and impress constituencies map on to the individual self-presentation strategies of exemplification and self-promotion” (p. 1481). They propose that individual impressions are responsible for the collective reputation of the organization, making reputation an aggregate of shared impressions. It is the net reaction and impressions of these several constituencies that define the reputation of an organization (Fombrun, 1996).

Reputations are constructed from a mix of signals (e.g., accounting and market information, media reports) that often require deliberate manipulation by the organization, but may also occur inadvertently. These cues can have both positive and negative implications for an individual’s impression formation and can help (de)legitimize the organization for key stakeholders. According to Elsbach and Sutton (1992), “legitimacy is conferred when stakeholders—that is, internal and external audiences affected by organizational outcomes—endorse and support an organization’s goals and activities” (p. 700).

Importantly, impression management techniques are used by both positively branded organizations and by far less visible ones that may be engaged in less typical organizing. Indeed, organizations whose members conduct unlawful activities (e.g., Earth First! and ACT UP) use impression management in order to tap into their constituencies for endorsements (Elsbach & Sutton, 1992). Elsbach and Sutton found that innocence, justifications, enhancement, and entitling were all impression management techniques used by these organizations to help decouple illegal activities from an otherwise legitimate organizational structure. Thus, it seems clear that even some hidden organizations use various impression management strategies to manage their reputation with certain audiences.

Not surprisingly, it is often more difficult for most outsiders to assess a hidden organization’s reputation because too much information is concealed. Such concealment might also cause confusion that leads outsiders to impute an organization’s reputation in ways that are difficult to counter. As Scott (2013b) suggests, reputation still matters for hidden organizations but likely has to be managed differently—because there may not be a clear reputation or attributions may be made on the basis of other clues (especially if the secretive nature of the organization is the primary basis for its reputation). Scott (2013b) further concludes that some hidden organizations strategically seek to avoid certain reputations by tightly managing communication with external audiences—including the potential use of silence. Additionally, hidden organizations may have more favorable reputations in contexts where secrecy is valued. In short, hidden organizations have to be concerned about impression management. Their reputations may be created and evolve as certain external groups evaluate them—with their secretive nature potentially factoring into such assessments.

Secrecy and Anonymity

Ethicist and philosopher Sissela Bok (1982) defines secrecy as intentional concealment. What is concealed could be almost anything, including one’s identity. As Bok contends, “control over secrecy and openness preserve central aspects of identity” (p. 21). Others have also noted the virtues and challenges linked to organizational secrecy, claiming “secrets and the safeguarding of secrets are necessary, if not essential, to organizational survival and competitiveness. Secrets are delicate, however, and the controlled and deliberate management of secrets poses serious leadership and organizational challenges” (Dufresne & Offstein, 2008, p. 102). As far as organizational secrecy, Bok finds it especially problematic because it usually combines power with secrecy. Organizational cultures that foster secrets or are themselves generally secretive may also encourage the organization to conceal aspects of its identity from others. In some cases, identity issues are intentionally concealed. For example, Bok discusses investigative journalism that may involve disguising the identity of the journalist and his/her employer to key others; secret police who operate in very different ways from uniformed officers because they do not openly record arrests and name their units; and undercover law enforcement that may hide the identity of officers and organizations during an investigation. In all these cases, a legitimate and identifiable organization is behind these efforts, but that identity may be hidden to aid accomplishment of organizational goals.  When it comes to secrecy and national security, keeping the identity of individuals (i.e., secret agents) and the organizations for whom they work hidden is so vital that it is usually a crime to identify covert operatives (see Sales, 2007). Some scholars have even gone further and talked about the ubiquitous nature of organizational secrecy, where secrecy is woven into the very functionality of the organization. Therefore, secrecy provides support for organizational functioning (Grey & Costas, 2016).

Also relevant to the topic of organizational concealment is research about anonymity—though in general anonymity is not widely studied in the organizational context (see Scott & Rains, 2005; Scott, Rains, & Haseki, 2011). Anonymity in communicative terms has been defined as the “degree to which a communicator perceives the message source as unknown or unspecified’’ (Anonymous, 1998, p. 387). Scholars have also described anonymity as a social and continuous concept that is in flux rather than fixed (Bronco, 2004; Marx, 1999; Rains & Scott, 2007); thus, an individual or an organization can be perceived as having varying degrees of anonymity. Anonymity from a user’s perspective has been found to have several benefits and is known to encourage freedom of speech and reporting of stigmatized events (Bronco; 2004; Marx, 2001). Further, it protects sources from persecution and provides more voice to participants. A recent Pew survey discovered that 86% of Internet users have, at one time or another, attempted to conceal information about themselves or their activities online, where 17% tried to conceal themselves out of fear of criticism or harassment (Rainie et al., 2013). This same study notes that the number of Internet users voicing concern about the accessibility of their online information has risen over the previous four years from 33% to 50%. Such concerns are becoming even more prevalent in countries that enforce “real name” registration of Internet users. Given this strong interest in protecting oneself and one’s information, it is useful to see how others’ attempts to hide themselves or information about themselves in the online environment is interpreted and judged.

We know organizations sometimes wish to be anonymous. Leaks to the media from unidentified organizational spokespersons/officials; use of certain names or changing of one’s name to disconnect from certain actions; choosing certain media channels for interaction (e.g., an anonymous corporate blog); and the absence of a physical address, online presence, and/or other key contact information can all be seen as providing a sense of organizational anonymity. Perhaps the most extensive effort to look at anonymity of organizations comes from recent work on various types of hidden organizations. As part of that emerging literature, Scott (2013a) develops a model based in part on the extent to which organizations are recognizable or anonymous as they communicate their identity to various audiences. That model, like most work on anonymity, looks at the strategic efforts of internal communicators to conceal; consequently, far less attention has been paid to external others’ assessments of anonymity.

Although anonymity has been considered from various angles involving the anonymous sender, Rains and Scott (2007) emphasize the importance of further exploring the under-examined receiver perspective. According to the authors, receivers of anonymous messages feel uncertain about anonymous sources and information. “Exploring message receivers’ responses to anonymous communication provides an opportunity to gain insights into fundamental aspects of human interaction by shedding light on individuals’ assumptions, cognitions, and responses when information about the identity of another is withheld” (p. 67). Here, they introduce a model of responses to anonymous communication, where the type of communication context (i.e., interpersonal or mass communication) influences the perceived anonymity of senders. This in turn affects the receiver’s desire and ability to identify senders. In this model, message receivers make judgments about anonymous individuals who are trying to conceal their identity and the channels they are using to do so. Their model looks at perceptions of how appropriate it is to try to keep certain identifying information hidden, though it does not directly look at attributed motivations for that behavior (see Dwyer et al., 2017). It is based on Marx’s theoretical work (1999) that interrogates the concept of when anonymity is or is not appropriate, listing fifteen reasons for when anonymity is appropriate and ten when it is not. Marx stresses that ongoing research and analysis are needed to determine Internet policy with respect to issues of anonymity. Our current research seeks to address a piece of that ethical puzzle by understanding what individuals from the general public think about organizations as they conceal themselves and their members through technologies of concealment that offer affordances such as anonymity.

This model suggests that message receivers, including those in the general public, will make assumptions and judgments about anonymous others who attempt to conceal their identity. Those assessments matter because they can influence how one may respond to that concealment. We draw on that model in posing the research questions that follow.

Research Questions

Two of the assessments made about others’ concealment concern the appropriateness and effectiveness of such efforts (Scott, 2013a). Evaluations of this type are not uncommon. For example, there is a history of looking at media appropriateness in communication. In their study, Caldwell, Uang, and Taha (1995) found the perceived appropriateness of media was dependent on the fit between media characteristics and the situations for media use. In another related example, Scott and Rains’ (2005) measured the appropriateness of anonymous communication in organizations and found the three most appropriate uses all related to latent or upward dissent (i.e. complaints about management, complaints about co-workers, and whistle-blowing).

Perhaps the most extensive work examining appropriateness and effectiveness of communication comes from the scholarship on communication competence. Spitzberg and Cupach (1984) claim that communication competence should be measured in terms of its effectiveness in achieving specific goals and its appropriateness within a given society. Although competent communication generally requires both effectiveness and appropriateness, one’s efforts may fall short on either or both dimensions. Furthermore, these evaluations can usefully be made by message receivers or even third parties to such communication. Spitzberg (1983) has also described communication competence as contextual in nature, claiming that the context can help explain if communication is viewed as appropriate and/or effective (Spitzberg & Bruner, 1991). Cultural theorists (see Barker, 2002) would argue that appropriateness is situational, where individuals can define themselves based on situations they encounter. Therefore, finding or fixing appropriateness can be a challenge, because appropriateness is a very fluid construct.  Although we do not adopt this tradition in the work reported here, we do acknowledge that appropriateness is situational. We see specific organizations as providing the context in which specific evaluations of appropriateness and effectiveness of concealment efforts can be made by others.

Although this prior work is helpful for establishing the importance of looking at issues such as appropriateness and effectiveness, we still know relatively little about how organizational concealment efforts are viewed by others and how those assessments of appropriateness and effectiveness might relate. Past research shows that organizational reputation helps legitimize the organization for key stakeholders and the public. Much of organizational legitimacy depends upon this reputation and impressions that individuals have regarding the strategies used by organizations. This exploratory study is an initial effort to understand the perceptions of the individuals that make up the public towards organizations that tend to conceal themselves and their members for various reasons. Thus, it attempts to examine the impressions that individuals have about the appropriateness and effectiveness of concealment technologies used to conceal the organization instead of showcasing it. Thus, we ask the following research questions related to hiding the organization and/or its members:

RQ1a: How appropriate and/or effective are various organizations in their concealment efforts?

RQ1b: How is the general appropriateness of organizational concealment efforts related to the general effectiveness of concealment efforts for various organizations?

Beyond its general attention to receiver reactions to anonymity, we find other aspects of the Rains and Scott (2007) model informative. For example, the desire of people to identify those who are concealed is based on the assumption that receivers make different attributions about the motivations behind one’s desire to be anonymous. For instance, in the most fundamental sense, individuals want to identify these anonymous sources so that they can hold them accountable for their actions, determine credibility and, at times, even exact retributions. In Rains and Scott’s reasoning, if one’s anonymity is tied to such motivations, this may generate a greater inclination towards identifying the sender. Prior research has noted several motivations for anonymity (see Anonymous, 1998; Marx, 1999), where Scott and Rains (2005) found these seven major types of motivations: “avoiding personal retribution, discomfort with confrontation, communicating sensitive topics, protection of others, promoting honesty/openness, no need to identify, and recreational,” with retribution avoidance being the most common motive (p. 175). We have limited information about specific reactions to these motivations for concealing one’s identity, but believe that such attributed motives may also impact the perceived appropriateness and effectiveness of various motives for concealment. Thus, we ask the following questions, again in the context of hiding the organization and/or its members:

RQ2a: How appropriate are various motivations for concealment?

RQ2b: How is the appropriateness of various motivations for concealment related to the appropriateness/effectiveness of concealment efforts by various organizations?

In addition to motivations, people’s general attitudes about related constructs may guide their judgments of appropriateness and effectiveness. For example, the concept of tolerance for anonymity discussed by Rains and Scott (2007) might also apply to a tolerance for concealment, where some users are simply more accepting than others when it comes to the use of concealment efforts. Two attitudes of particular relevance here are people’s general views of organizational openness and secrecy. Those who strongly believe an organization should be fully disclosive and transparent may find concealment efforts to be rather problematic. Conversely, individuals who strongly believe organizations have a right to hide themselves and maintain privacy may be more accepting of organizations that conceal. As a third relevant attitude, people’s concerns about online privacy may provide insight into their views of shadowy or illegal activity and threats online. Petronio (2002) suggests that managing the tension between concealing and revealing private information is very relevant to organizational settings. Concerns may make people reject online concealment efforts or may make them better appreciate the need for some concealment as a way to protect one’s privacy. Thus, we ask a final set of research questions exploring how those attitudes of openness, secrecy, and privacy relate to the other main variables of interest here:

RQ3a: How are attitudes about organizational openness and secrecy as well as online privacy related to appropriateness of various motivations for concealment?

RQ3b: How are attitudes about organizational openness and secrecy as well as online privacy related to the appropriateness/effectiveness of concealment efforts by various organizations?


An anonymous online questionnaire was used to gather the data related to these questions. Adult, non-student participants were recruited through students in two communication courses at a large public university in the northeastern United States. Students, in exchange for extra credit, identified potential respondents who were: over the age of 21, lived outside the state where the research was conducted, had online access, and were not full-time students. Students shared the hyperlink for the questionnaire with the respondents. The questionnaire could be completed any time during a two-week period in the spring of 2013. On a separate survey, the respondents were requested to provide their email address and the name of the student who recruited them for verification purposes.


Overall, approximately 490 students were provided with a link to the survey. Extra credit was received by recruiting a single respondent per student. 184 questionnaires were initially submitted. We removed any with substantial missing data, patterns of data that suggested a lack of reflection in responding, and any completed with IP addresses that could be linked to the university where the research was conducted. We contacted the respondents who had provided their email addresses for verification. Approximately one-third of respondents confirmed that they had participated in the study, one person denied it, and most others did not respond to our inquiries. We matched the IP addresses in the primary and verification surveys and were able to compare confirmed to unknown respondents on the main study variables. Although a few statistically significant differences were found between these groups, this seems reasonable given we were comparing concealed and unconcealed people on their views about concealment issues; thus, we retained these confirmed and unconfirmed responses for further analysis. All this resulted in 120 usable surveys with a functional response rate of 24.5%, which is acceptable in survey research (see Sivo, Saunders, Chang, & Jiang, 2006). Table 1 describes the participants demographically.

Table 1
Demographic Characteristics
Characteristic and Sample Size Category Percent
Internet use (n=119) Regularly throughout the day 68.1
  Several times per day 23.5
  Once per day   5.0
  Once per week   2.5
  Less than once per week     .8
Sex (n=120) Female 45.8
  Male 53.3
Age (n=118) Under 25 years 37.3
  25-34years 27.1
  35-44 years   6.8
  45-54 years 14.4
  55-64 years   9.3
  Age 65 or older   5.1
Education (n=119) Some high school 0
  High school graduate/equivalent)   5.9
  Some college 16.8
  College degree 50.4
  Some graduate school   3.4
  Graduate or professional degree 23.5
Ethnicity (n=117) African American   5.1
  Asian 37.6
  Hispanic   6.0
  White 41.9
  Other   3.4
  Mixed   6.0
Annual household income (n=113) Less than $25,000 12.4
  $25,000 to $49,999 18.6
  $50,000 to $74,999 24.8
  $75,000 to $99,999 18.6
  $100,000 to $149,999 13.3
  $150,000 or more 12.4


Hidden organizations. Based on prior research into hidden organizations (Scott, 2013a), 14 organizations representing a broad spectrum of positively- to negatively-valenced organizations were assessed in this research. They are: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), al-Qaeda, an online anonymous cancer support group, the activist group Anonymous, any men’s bathhouse, a sweatshop secretly manufacturing goods, Continuity Irish Republican Army (CIRA), Church of Scientology, Earth First!, Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Ku Klux Klan (KKK), Mafia, Skull and Bones, and U.S. Special Missions units (e.g. SEAL Team 6).

Appropriateness and effectiveness of organizations’ concealment efforts. In the current study, appropriateness was defined for respondents as “how acceptable a behavior is for meeting the expectations of a situation.” Effectiveness was defined for participants as “how well a behavior succeeds in meetings its goals.” When measuring both, we are tapping into the perceived appropriateness and effectiveness rather than some more objective or behavioral measure of what might be considered actual effectiveness/appropriateness. However, for ease of language, we do not place the word “perceived” in front of those terms in most of the paper. Participants evaluated the appropriateness of each of the 14 organizations’ efforts to conceal itself or its members on a single seven point Likert-type scale in which 1= very inappropriate and 7 = very appropriate. They also evaluated the effectiveness of each organization’s efforts to conceal itself or its members on a single seven point Likert-type scale in which 1= very ineffective and 7 = very effective. Furthermore, an “NA” option was provided to the participants, who were told “If you have no answer, put NA.” (Note that unfamiliarity with the organization was not specified as a reason for selecting the NA option.)  Although we did not include NA responses, a more detailed analysis of them revealed that the only instance where there were more than 20 NA responses (out of 120) were for five organizations evaluated on the effectiveness of their concealment efforts. Even here, the highest number of NA responses was 27 (for Earth First! and the CIRA). Thus, we think most respondents had enough familiarity to be able to make these assessments (though slightly fewer felt able to judge the effectiveness of their concealment efforts). Additionally another question about favorableness (see endnote 3) that provided a “don’t know” option for each organization, resulted in relatively few such responses.

Appropriateness of motivations for concealment. The appropriateness of motivations for hiding an organization or its members was addressed by a series of ten items, each depicting a motivation for concealment. The motives for concealment considered ranged from concerns for personal safety and/or being open/honest to concerns about embarrassment and/or avoiding responsibility. These motivations were primarily taken from findings of previous research (Marx, 1999; Scott & Rains, 2005), although others that were potentially relevant were added (see Table 3). A single measure of appropriateness was used for each motivation, with 1 = very inappropriate and 7 = very appropriate. The NA option was again provided to the participants.

Attitudes about openness, secrecy and privacy. A three-item scale created for this study was used to measure people’s attitudes towards organizational openness. This scale assessed general attitudes about how much organizations and their members should be open, disclose about themselves and their members, and be transparent. The scale was a seven point Likert-type, where 1 = strongly disagree and 7 = strongly agree. This organizational openness measure was reliable even with the small number of items (Cronbach’s alpha=.84).

Similarly, a three-item scale created for this study was used to measure people’s attitudes towards organizational secrecy. This scale measured attitudes about organizational rights to privacy, secrecy, and not disclosing about themselves or their members. The scale was a seven point Likert-type scale, where 1 = strongly disagree and 7 = strongly agree. This organizational secrecy measure was also reliable despite the limited number of items (Cronbach’s alpha=.79).

A scale of four items, adapted from Dinev and Hart’s (2004) highly reliable (Cronbach’s alpha=.90) five point Likert-type Internet privacy concerns scale, was used to measure people’s attitudes towards privacy online. This scale focused on concerns about misuse or abuse of information submitted on the Internet. The scale was expanded from five to seven points, where 1 = strong disagreement and 7 = strong agreement. This privacy concerns measure was highly reliable (Cronbach’s alpha=.92).


We first report efforts to reduce the data by combining measures conceptually and statistically where possible. Once that is done, we use that combined data as appropriate to answer research questions. We use probability values of p < .05 as a guide in noting statistical significance.

Appropriateness and Effectiveness of Organizational Concealment

The first set of research questions is about the general appropriateness and effectiveness of concealment efforts by various organizations and how they relate to one another.  To address these questions, the 14 organizations asked about were reduced to a smaller set of statistically and conceptually similar collectives. First, using the scale midpoint for the appropriateness and effectiveness of concealment efforts, we noted which organizations were high on both dimensions, low on both dimensions, and which were viewed as effective but inappropriate (see Table 2). We also ran principal component factor analyses with varimax and oblimin rotations for both the effectiveness and appropriateness scores (results available from the authors [1]). Those results clearly suggested several organizations that consistently factored together and had similar means patterns: U.S. Special Missions Units, AA, and an online anonymous cancer support group, which we label support organizations, all work to provide protection and support to those in need; and KKK, Skull and Bones, CIRA, any men’s bathhouse, Mafia, a sweatshop, and al-Qaeda, which we label problem organizations because respondents seem to see all of those as dangerous, violent, or promoting questionable behaviors.  Other items only somewhat factored together, but their pattern of means and conceptual similarity suggested a third organizational type: IRS and Earth First!, which we label ambiguous organizations (because respondents seemed somewhat uncertain about how to interpret these organizations that may not be hidden in typical ways). Finally, two organizations that grouped inconsistently across the appropriateness and effectiveness factor analyses were retained as individual items: Scientology and Anonymous. Table 2 lists the organizations in these five groupings.

Paired sample t-tests comparing the five organizational groups on the appropriateness of their concealment efforts reveal that support organizations score higher than all four of the other types. Conversely, problem organizations score lower than all four of the other types on the appropriateness of their concealment efforts. Additionally, ambiguous organizations outscore Scientology and Anonymous, which are not different from one another. As for comparisons between the five organizations on the effectiveness of their concealment efforts, support organizations still score higher than the four other types. Ambiguous organizations and Anonymous (which score similarly on effectiveness) both outscore problem organizations and Scientology (which also score similarly on effectiveness).

As for the relationship between effectiveness and appropriateness within each type of organization, we note both similarities and differences (see Table 2). Concealment efforts by support organizations are viewed as both highly effective and appropriate, and those scores are not statistically different from one another, t(111) = -.17, p = .87. Ambiguous organizations do have somewhat stronger scores for effectiveness as compared to appropriateness, t(107) = -2.30, p = .02. Effectiveness scores for problem organizations, t(111) = -6.81, p < .001, and Scientology, t(97) = -4.07, p < .001, are higher than their appropriateness scores, though still not above the scale midpoint. For Anonymous, effectiveness scores are significantly higher than appropriateness scores and are above the scale midpoint, t(94) = -4.29, p < .001.[2]

Table 2
Means and Standard Deviations for Concealment Appropriateness and Effectiveness for Various Organizations
Factors Means Std. Dev. Means Std. Dev.
Support Organizations 4.85 1.591 4.87 1.407
  Online anonymous cancer support group 4.44 2.037 4.65 1.658
  U.S. Special Missions Unit 5.42 1.955 5.29 1.852
  Alcoholics Anonymous 4.66 2.128 4.65 1.774
Ambiguous Organizations 4.09 1.806 4.45 1.370
  Internal Revenue Service 4.11 2.147 4.56 1.638
  Earth First! 3.99 1.850 4.29 1.426
Problem Organization 2.77 1.518 3.87 1.626
  Ku Klux Klan 2.14 1.909 3.70 2.001
  Skull and Bones 2.58 1.871 3.72 1.872
  Continuity Irish Republican Army 3.22 1.865 3.90 1.761
  Any men’s bathhouse 3.25 1.833 3.65 1.712
  Mafia 3.10 2.227 4.16 1.976
  A sweatshop secretly manufacturing goods 2.61 2.030 3.73 1.948
  al-Qaeda 2.46 2.033 3.85 2.050
Anonymous 3.51 2.108 4.42 2.008
Church of Scientology 3.12 1.754 3.99 1.640

Appropriateness of Motivations for Concealment

Our second set of research questions examines the appropriateness of various motivations for concealment and how those motivations relate to the appropriateness of various concealment efforts. Again, we began by attempting to reduce the number of general motivations statistically and conceptually. A principle components factor analysis with varimax rotation revealed a clear set of three factors explaining 34.7, 18.2, and 14.8 percent of the total variance each (contact authors for full factor analysis data). Table 3 provides descriptive statistics for the items grouped into the three motivation factors. Protection refers to the motivation to shield oneself from unwarranted retaliation or to protect oneself from direct confrontations about uncomfortable or sensitive topics. The prosocial motivation refers to promoting honesty and openness or situations where anonymity is for fun. Punishment avoidance refers to the motivation to avoid accountability, especially to legal or other authorities. Paired sample t-tests reveal the protection motivation is viewed as more appropriate than the prosocial, t(119) = 4.54, p < .001, or the punishment avoidance, t(119) = 8.46, p < .001, motivations. The prosocial motivation is also significantly more appropriate than the punishment avoidance motive, t(119) = 3.72, p < .001.
Table 3
Means and Standard Deviations for Appropriateness of Concealment Motivations
    N Mean Std. Dev.
Protection 120 5.00 1.181
  To avoid retribution/retaliation from others 120 5.01 1.526
  Because of the discomfort with direct confrontation 119 4.34 1.622
  To communicate about a sensitive topic 119 5.09 1.432
  To protect members and their identity 119 5.55 1.351
Prosocial 120 4.35 1.396
  To promote honesty/openness 118 5.05 1.763
  Because there is no need to be identified by others 115 4.18 1.730
  For purely recreational/fun purposes 118 3.87 1.842
Punishment Avoidance 120 3.69 1.590
  To avoid accountability for actions 120 3.12 2.067
  To protect the organization or members from legal or other authorities 120 3.78 2.022
  To avoid embarrassment 120 4.18 1.773
Valid N (listwise) 112    
Note. Individual items and factor mean ranged from 1= very inappropriate to 7= very appropriate

Correlations reveal several statistically significant relationships between the appropriateness of various motivations and the general appropriateness and effectiveness of concealment efforts by various organizations (see Table 4). The appropriateness of the protection motivation is generally correlated with the appropriateness and effectiveness scores for support organizations, problem organizations, and Anonymous, with those rs ranging from .18 to .33. The prosocial motivation is only correlated with the appropriateness of support organizations, r = .24. The punishment avoidance motivation is positively correlated with the appropriateness of concealment efforts for both problem organizations and Anonymous, with r ranging from .21 to .28. For ambiguous organizations and Scientology, there are no significant correlations involving any of the measures. To further understand these relationships, we regressed each of the organizational concealment appropriateness and effectiveness scores on the three motivations. Before reporting that, we turn to our third question, which includes other variables included in those regressions.

Attitudes toward Openness, Secrecy, and Privacy

Our third set of research questions asked how attitudes about organizational openness and secrecy as well as online privacy relate to both appropriateness of various motivations for concealment and general appropriateness/effectiveness of concealment efforts by various organizations. Overall, organizational openness (mean = 4.57, SD = 1.36) and organizational secrecy (mean = 4.44, SD = 1.33) are similar and above the scale midpoint (but only moderately correlated, r = .38, and on independent factors). Respondents reported a fairly high concern about privacy online (mean = 5.40, SD = 1.34). As Table 4 reveals, there are several statistically significant correlations involving these attitudinal variables and motivation appropriateness. The more people believe organizations have a right to secrecy, the more appropriate all three motivation appropriateness measures are deemed. Interestingly, the more respondents feel organizations should always be open, the less appropriate they consider concealment efforts actually motivated by a desire to promote honesty/openness. The more people are concerned about their privacy online, the less appropriate they consider any concealment efforts motivated by a desire to avoid accountability and punishment.

Table 4
Correlations among Appropriateness of Motivations; Concealment Appropriateness and Effectiveness of Various Organizations; and Attitudes Toward Openness, Secrecy, and Privacy
      Attitudes   Motivations
  N   Openness Secrecy Privacy   Protection Prosocial Punishment

Support Organization

118   -.043 .122  .100   .179      .238**  -.151

Ambiguous Organization

118    .028 .036 -.065   .075   .117 .172

Problem Organization

118   -.195*  .220* -.027     .326**   .021   .214*

Anonymous Organization

106   -.104 .190 -.024     .253**  -.034     .277**

Scientology Organization

111   -.069 .137 -.051   .174   .157  .153



Support Organization

113    .089 .124  .162    .209*  -.040  -.054

Ambiguous Organization

109    .106 .105  .191*   .115   .088  .154

Problem Organization

113    .025   .194*    .256**    .229* -.134  -.023

Anonymous Organization

  98    .035 .137 . 157     .259** -.129  .061

Scientology Organization

101    .052 .059  .143   .131   .018  -.034




120   -.108  .198*  .169   1.000      .283**       .287**


120    -.227*  .189* -.108       .283** 1.000  .160

Punishment Avoidance

120   -.036   .179*   -.209*       .287**  .160 1.000

Note. * = significant at p < .05 level. ** = significant at p < .01 level.

Given these relationships, we wanted to see how these general attitudes about organizational openness and secrecy as well as online privacy might compare to the appropriateness of motivations for concealment when trying to predict the appropriateness and effectiveness of concealment efforts by various types of organizations. Thus, we performed a stepwise regression with each of the organizational concealment appropriateness and effectiveness scores as dependent variables. We initially entered the attitudes about openness, secrecy, and privacy into the regression, followed by the three motivation appropriateness items on a second step. In only one case were the general attitudes about openness, secrecy, and privacy predictive by themselves, as they significantly explained the effectiveness of concealment efforts by problem organizations, R2 Adjusted = .07, p = .015. Concern about online privacy was the only statistically significant individual predictor in that model, B = .258, p = .03 (see Table 6).

Table 5
Stepwise Regression of Motivations for Concealment Strategies and Attitudes (Openness, Secrecy, and Privacy) to Predict Concealment Appropriateness of Various Organizations
Variable Model1 Model2 Model1 Model2 Model1 Model2 Model1 Model2 Model1 Model2
Attitudes about Openness coeff -.026 .068 .095 .096 -.136 -.145 -.057 -.123 -.004 .011
se .121 .118 .137 .140 .112 .109 .164 .161 .142 .144
p .829 .566 .489 .492 .227 .188 .730 .445 .976 .937
Attitudes about Secrecy coeff .122 .125 .101 .027 .204 .144 .312 .215 .197 .126
se .124 .122 .141 .145 .114 .113 .171 .172 .143 .148
p .326 .308 .476 .853 .078 .203 .071 .215 .171 .395
Attitudes about Privacy coeff .109 .027 -.119 -.063 -.033 -.077 -.099 -.114 -.092 -.084
se .117 .120 .131 .139 .108 .111 .165 .170 .136 .145
p .353 .825 .364 .653 .760 .486 .548 .502 .497 .564
Prosocial Motivation coeff   .257   .126   -.156   -.255   .106
se   .109   .129   .100   .150   .136
p   .020   .329   .122   .091   .436
Protection Motivation coeff   .229   .020   .388   .414   .184
se   .135   .160   .125   .182   .166
p   .092   .901   .002   .025   .270
Avoidance Motivation coeff   -.252   .161   .105   .278   .088
se   .099   .117   .091   .136   .120
p   .012   .171   .253   .044   .463
N 118 118 118 118 118 118 106 106 111 111
F .870 2.87** .399 .828 2.597 3.92** 1.490 3.082** .857 1.124
Adjusted R2 -.003 .088 -.016 -.009 .039 .130 .014 .106 -.004 .007
Note. *= significant at p < .05 level. **= significant at p < .01 level.


Table 6
Stepwise Regression of Motivations for Concealment Strategies and Attitudes (Openness, Secrecy, and Privacy) to Predict Concealment Effectiveness of Various Organizations
Variable Model1 Model2 Model1 Model2 Model1 Model2 Model1 Model2 Model1 Model2
Attitudes about Openness coeff .153 .180 .135 .125 .068 .086 .102 .081 .069 .096
se .113 .115 .112 .112 .127 .126 .174 .176 .141 .147
p .181 .121 .230 .268 .597 .495 .560 .648 .625 .515
Attitudes about Secrecy coeff .188 .193 .151 .091 .228 .255 .226 .219 .090 .088
se .118 .120 .116 .119 .133 .134 .174 .174 .147 .154
p .113 .109 .198 .448 .089 .060 .197 .212 .543 .568
Attitudes about Privacy coeff .112 .035 .140 .199 .258 .143 .180 .049 .147 .104
se .104 .109 .103 .110 .119 .125 .159 .165 .129 .141
p .286 .750 .178 .075 .033 .258 .260 .767 .258 .460
Prosocial Motivation coeff   -.068   .096   -.263   -.354   .014
se   .105   .103   .117   .161   .137
p   .521   .354   .027   .03   .918
Protection Motivation coeff   .299   -.006   .386   .568   .179
se   .124   .129   .146   .200   .165
p   .017   .962   .009   .005   .280
Avoidance Motivation coeff   -.116   .143   -.067   -.015   -.068
se   .089   .088   .101   .134   .112
p   .194   .108   .509   .911   .546
N 113 113 109 109 113 113 98 98 101 101
F 1.992 2.071 2.059 1.760 3.634* 3.465** 1.372 2.473* .815 .649
Adjusted R2 .026 .054 .029 .041 .07 .117 .011 .083 -.006 -.022
Note. *= significant at p < .05 level. **= significant at p < .01 level.

For several outcomes, the addition of the three motivation appropriateness scores resulted in a significant regression model (see Tables 5 and 6). For appropriateness of support organizations, R2 Adjusted = .088, p = .004, prosocial (B = .257, p = .02) and punishment avoidance (B = -.252, p = .012) motivations are significant individual predictors. For appropriateness of problem organizations, R2 Adjusted = .13, p = .003, protection motivation (B = .388, p = .002) is the only statistically significant individual predictor. For appropriateness of Anonymous, R2 Adjusted = .106, p = .005, protection (B = .414, p = .025) and punishment avoidance (B = .278, p = .044) motivations are both significant individual predictors. For the effectiveness of problem organizations, R2 Adjusted = .117, p = .03, prosocial. (B = -.263, p = .027) and protection (B= .386, p = .009) motivations are both significant individual predictors. Finally, for the effectiveness of Anonymous, R2 Adjusted = .083, p = .019, prosocial. (B = -.354, p = .03) and protection (B = .568, p = .005) motivations are both significant individual predictors.


Key Conclusions

The results point to several key conclusions about hidden organizations and their concealment efforts. We first talk about hidden organizations and differences between them. Second, we turn to important findings related to the appropriateness of motivations for hiding.

Hidden organizations and concealment appropriateness/effectiveness. Our results suggest hidden organizations come in several types—and some are rather difficult to classify at all based on the perceptions of outsiders. We find the concealment efforts of some to be judged appropriate, others to be clearly inappropriate, and still yet others to be somewhere in between. Even though assessments of concealment effectiveness vary somewhat less, there is still variation in organizations along this dimension. Beyond the problem organizations (where concealment is very inappropriate and effectiveness is moderate) and supportive organizations (where concealment effectiveness and appropriateness are both relatively strong) are several others that are unclear or seem entirely unique in terms of their concealment appropriateness and effectiveness. Perhaps some of these organizations (e.g., Earth First!) are somewhat unknown and are rated near the scale midpoints as a result. Other organizations (e.g., Anonymous) may evoke a wider range of reactions. At any rate, these assessments represent a different set of classifications than other work on hidden organizations provides (see Scott, 2013a).

Related to that classification, one combination of effectiveness and appropriateness scores we do not find are those organizations whose concealment efforts are viewed as appropriate but ineffective. Such organizations may be rare because they might need to be hidden quite legitimately, but by failing to adequately do so they may encounter problems that threaten the livelihood of the collective and its members. In general, concealment by most organizations we examined was far more effective than appropriate. Even the problem organizations and Scientology, whose effectiveness scores were still somewhat low, scored significantly higher on concealment effectiveness as compared to concealment appropriateness. These organizations may represent some of the most threatening ones because they are reasonably good at concealing themselves even though society may not view such hiding as appropriate.

Motivations for concealment. This study finds three distinct underlying motivations attributed to organizational concealment efforts. Although it is notable that concealment for protection is more appropriate than concealment for more general prosocial purposes, which is in turn more appropriate than hiding one’s identity to avoid punishment, it is the relationships between motivation assessments and the other measures in this study that are most relevant here. With regard to the findings for appropriateness of various motivations overall, four overarching conclusions can be drawn. First, attitudes about organizational openness, secrecy, and online privacy are related to motivation appropriateness. Second, attitudes about organizational openness, secrecy, and online privacy are clearly not as predictive as motivation appropriateness for understanding the effectiveness and appropriateness of organizational concealment efforts. Third, different motives matter for different types of organizations. Finally, motives differ somewhat in their ability to predict appropriateness versus effectiveness of organizational concealment efforts. We explore each of these findings here.

It is not surprising that the more people feel organizations have a need for secrecy the more appropriate they find any motivation for concealment; essentially, being able to hide for any reason is seen as acceptable. We also think it makes sense that people with strong concerns about their online privacy would find concealment to avoid accountability and punishment to be very inappropriate—as they do not want hidden organizations to be able to steal private information and then be able to get away with such actions. By far the most interesting finding regarding the attitudes we examined is that the more respondents feel organizations should always be open, the less appropriate they consider concealment efforts actually motivated by a desire to promote honesty/openness (prosocial motivation). Potentially, people who strongly feel organizations should be open may not find any motivation for concealment to be acceptable. Moreover, hiding in the name of openness may seem especially counter to their views and potentially even deceptive. So, for example, though an organization may state that it uses concealment tools to facilitate open and honest communication, respondents may believe that the organization has more deceptive motives. Further, people who strongly value organizational openness may find too much dissonance in the idea that organizations would conceal themselves to facilitate more open communication.

Despite these findings, attitudes are clearly less predictive than motivations for understanding the appropriateness and effectiveness of concealment efforts. Rarely were attitudes predictive when considered alone; furthermore, when both attitudes and motivations were examined together, none of the three attitudes were significant predictors for any of the ten organizational concealment appropriateness/effectiveness measures. We suspect that people’s general attitudes about issues such as openness, secrecy, and online privacy are simply too far removed from evaluations of specific organizations and the appropriateness and effectiveness of their concealment efforts. A more fruitful path for understanding concealment is to examine attributed motives for that behavior. In general, the findings suggest that the more an individual feels it is appropriate to use concealment for protection purposes, the more appropriate and effective they find concealment efforts by a range of organizations. But looking more closely at the results, we contend that different motives matter for different types of organizations and that motives differ somewhat in their ability to predict appropriateness versus effectiveness of organizational concealment efforts.

To illustrate the suggested pattern, we note that for support organizations, a range of motives are predictive for the appropriateness and effectiveness of their concealment efforts. People view organizations like AA as appropriate in concealing members so they might communicate more freely. A military special missions unit is seen as effective in concealing its covert operations by those who view protection from retaliation as an appropriate motive for concealment. A support organization’s concealment appropriateness is also related to a belief that hiding to avoid punishment is inappropriate. However, a rather different pattern emerges for problem organizations and Anonymous, where the protection motivation is clearly the strongest predictor. Problem organizations such as al-Qaeda and the Mafia, along with Anonymous, are motivated to protect their members because those persons may be involved in questionable activities. Thus, the more someone sees the protection motive as appropriate, the more likely they are to also see problem organizations and Anonymous as generally appropriate and effective in their concealment efforts. Put another way, the less someone sees protection as an acceptable motive, the less likely they are to find problem organizations and Anonymous to be appropriate or effective in their concealment efforts. Somewhat surprisingly, other attributed motives emerged as less relevant here, even though one might assume these organizations would be heavily concerned about avoiding punishment. For ambiguous organizations (IRS and Earth First!) and the Church of Scientology, motives are not predictive of their concealment efforts at all. Organizations like these may be understood by the public in various ways, and perhaps not understood well at all, which leads to assessments of their concealment appropriateness and effectiveness that are ultimately unrelated to more general views about motivations for concealment.

Finally, we observed some differences in which motives predict appropriateness versus effectiveness of organizational concealment efforts. For example, the appropriateness of the prosocial motivation negatively predicts the concealment effectiveness of both problem organizations and Anonymous (but does not negatively predict any concealment appropriateness scores). People who do not view concealment motivated by a desire for open/honest communication to be appropriate may see certain organizations as effective at concealment because they do not see those organizations as ever using such motives; but assessments of the appropriateness of organizational concealment efforts would be less related to what may generally be seen as an acceptable motivation. The appropriateness of the punishment avoidance motivation is only predictive of concealment appropriateness (and never concealment effectiveness). Because punishment avoidance is perhaps the most troubling of the motives we examined, it has clear influences on concealment appropriateness; but even low assessments of the appropriateness of that motivation might not have any influence on the perceived effectiveness of organizational concealment efforts.


The findings presented and conclusions drawn suggest several scholarly implications of this research. First, the research generally confirms earlier models (Scott, 2013a) about the hidden nature of at least the 14 organizations assessed here (most of which are relatively effective in their concealment efforts). However, whereas the previous model classified organizations based on their own strategic efforts to conceal/reveal the identity of the organization and/or its members to various audiences (i.e., a sender perspective), the current research looked at assessments of these hidden organizations by outsiders (i.e., more of a receiver view). This resulted in a different set of groupings that may also be meaningful when it comes to assessing the appropriateness, effectiveness, and general reputation of these collectives.

We also see this work as informing existing scholarship on image management and reputation. As suggested by Allen and Caillouet (1994), research on organizational impression management needs to focus on communicative strategies. We have added to that literature by exploring how strategies of concealment used by organizations are viewed by a more general audience. Additionally, hidden organizations have reputations in the sense that most outsiders have impressions of these organizations, which is consistent with other work arguing that reputation and related issues are relevant for more hidden and/or illegal organizations (see Elsbach & Sutton, 1992; Scott, 2013b). These reputations seem to vary both in terms of how positively or negatively the organization is viewed[3] and how consistent such views are across evaluators. Clearly not all hidden organizations have bad reputations—indeed the support organizations are evaluated quite positively overall. However, some organizations (what we generally label problem organizations) do have damaged reputations and others have an ambiguous reputation likely based on the organization’s hidden nature and unclear activities. Reputational research should pay attention to more hidden organizations that have somewhat unique challenges in managing their identity in ways that lead to certain assessments by others.

Additionally, we see this research as contributing to an understanding of organizational communication competence. Jablin and Sias (2001) note that competence can be assessed on multiple levels, including the individual and organizational. Typically, communication competence might be assessed on the appropriateness and effectiveness of an organization’s or an organizational member’s spoken and written communication. We would suggest that work on hidden organizations and concealing forms of communication also demand that we be able to evaluate the appropriateness and effectiveness of silence and a range of concealment strategies that serve to hide the collective and/or its members.

Finally, we see this work as extending research about anonymity in a couple of important ways. Our findings support the relevance of public assessments and of motivations for concealment, which we think affirms Rains and Scott’s (2007) receiver model of anonymity and other research suggesting motivations for anonymity matter (Scott & Rains, 2005). This work also adds to the small but growing scholarship on anonymity in organizational contexts. It suggests that concealment is essentially a means of achieving some degree of anonymity.

In terms of practical implications, it is important for organizations to understand that underlying motivations are a more predictive measure than attitudes for judging appropriateness and effectiveness of organizational concealment efforts. If an organization can frame its concealment efforts through the use of more acceptable motives, its perceived concealment effectiveness and appropriateness may also increase. For example, problem organizations could—for better or worse—increase the perceived effectiveness of their concealment efforts by projecting an image of protection rather than punishment avoidance when it comes to their reason for hiding. Making that rationale clear to stakeholders can affect the organization’s reputation (Scott, 2013b). As another practical implication, citizens and policy makers should recognize that not all hidden organizations are problematic. They vary—in part based on the motivations we may ascribe to them for their concealment.

Future Directions

Several limitations of this exploratory research should be addressed in future scholarship. For example, even though participants in this study comprise a fairly diverse set of individuals, this was not a random, national/global sample and therefore the study’s generalizability is limited. Also, we relied on a questionnaire focused on public assessments of the appropriateness and effectiveness of concealment efforts--rather than asking organizations and their members more directly about their concealment or interviewing people to better understand why some of the observed relationships might have emerged. Connected to this, we are limited with this data to relating perceptions to other perceptions. Additionally, even though respondents clearly were able to make assessments about these organizations in most instances, a more direct measure of exactly how knowledgeable they were about each organization may have been useful.

To address some of these concerns, future research should incorporate additional methods that produce other forms of data. For example, more qualitative research may help us to better understand some results that seem more counter-intuitive by allowing researchers to explore those findings in more detail. As another possibility, experimental studies could allow for the manipulation of motivations to assess their influence on levels of concealment appropriateness and effectiveness. Research might also be focused on understanding how one’s profession or occupation can define their understanding of appropriateness and effectiveness of concealment technologies.

Despite the attention we continue to give to more visible organizations, we live in an era where a variety of hidden organizations can be found in the organizational landscape. Given the importance of those collectives, it is vital that we better understand the nature of organizational concealment efforts. We believe evaluating how people assess the appropriateness and effectiveness of organizational concealment efforts and the motivations for concealment represents a useful starting point for pulling back the curtain a bit on these organizations in hiding.


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[1] Correspondence to: Surabhi Sahay. School of Communication & Information, Rutgers University, 4 Huntington Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901, USA. E-mail:

[2] It is possible that the use of several paired t-tests create some Type 1 error here, but p values are generally so small that corrective efforts to reduce the significance level would not have substantively changed the results.

[3] We also measured favorableness scores for these hidden organizations, which correlated strongly with the appropriateness of their concealment efforts. As a result, we did not report those findings or have a need to control for that in this research.

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