University of California Berkeley Corporate Leadership Critique

Major Assignment Guidelines | SP22 OnlineWeekly Discussion Guidelines
Discussions are paired with written assignments and/or assigned readings. There are ten
opportunities for formal discussion throughout the semester. To quickly recap these are:
Discussion Board
Module. 1: Discuss which perspective and orientation you would adopt to develop a CSR
campaign and why?
Module 2: Describe the origins and purpose of benefit corporations and B Corps. How are they
different? What is the distinctive purpose of each and how do they each support a company’s
CSR agenda?
Module 3: Discuss the pros and cons, best practices, and tactics to integrate social media in
CSR campaign communications.
Module 4: Discuss factors and trends relevant to CSR coalition-building. Identify one coalition
with promise and explain what makes it particularly effective.
Module 5: Discuss stakeholder engagement generally and more specifically as it relates to your
project.
Module 6: Discuss three SDGs that interest you and describe the pros and cons of a
multinational firm adopting one of these goals.
Module 7: Discuss the challenges of CSR communication to inform and engage transnational
publics.
Module 8: Discuss the elements of a campaign and the relationship between goal(s) and
objectives. Share your observations of how these two elements affect messaging.
Module 9: Discuss: How CEO activism affects stakeholders. What are the opportunities and
risks?
Module 11: Discuss challenges and limitations in monitoring and evaluation and the connection
between strategies, tactics and evaluation.
Each discussion is worth 8 points, following this rubric:
• Initiates at least one discussion thread
• Posts a response in at least two other discussion threads
• Comments are constructive.
• Comments are substantive and introduce new information, data or perspectives.
1
Major Assignment Guidelines | SP 22 Online
Written Assignment: Critique of a CSR-Themed Social Media Campaign
Due
Tuesday of the week of assignment
Points
15
Length
Three pages (750 – 900 words)
Prompt and description of the assignment: For this assignment, you will critique a CSR campaign of your
choosing (excluding any covered in the weekly readings and lecture) that was launched and conducted
primarily through social media. You will research and select the social media campaign through on-line
research of CSRWire and related sources in the open and peer reviewed literature.
Rubric
Criteria
Fully Successful
(3 points)
Partially Successful
(2 points)
Needs Improvement
(1 point)
Reading and
research
The critique assesses
the CSR initiative in
terms of social media
techniques and best
practices
The critique assesses
the CSR initiative in
terms of the
corporation’s goals and
objectives
The critique merely
summarizes the CSR
initiative
Audience
Analysis
The critique includes
potential to engage
audience members and
stakeholders through
social media
The critique treats
audience members and
stakeholders as passive
receivers of information
The critique ignores the
audience and stakeholders
Insight
The critique explains
why the social media
succeeded for failed to
achieve the desired
impact or results,
including best practices
and fundamental
strengths, as well as
specific tactics
The critique renders
judgment on whether the
social media campaign
succeeded or failed
based on the specific
tactics employed
The critique merely describes
the campaign’s perceived
impact
Substance
The critique presents
defensible claims
based in CSR
principles
The critique
inadequately addresses
CSR principles
The critique addresses
external circumstances to the
exclusion of CSR principles
Good writing
The critique
demonstrates both
eloquence and
proficiency
The critique
demonstrates
proficiency in writing
The critique exhibits weak
composition and grammatical
and proof reading errors
2
Major Assignment Guidelines | SP 22 Online
Written Assignment: Critique of Corporate Leadership
Due
Tuesday of the week of assignment
Points
15
Length
Three pages (750 – 900 words)
For this assignment, you will critique a corporate leader’s advocacy and implementation of a CSR
initiative of your choosing. You will research and select a corporate CSR campaign to critique through online research of CSRWire and related sources in the open and peer reviewed literature.
Rubric
Criteria
Fully Successful
(3 points)
Partially Successful
(2 points)
Needs Improvement
1 point
Reading and
research
Assesses initiative in
terms of the leader’s
motivations and
external context
Assesses initiative in
terms of the leader’s
motivations
Merely summarizes the
initiative
Audience
Analysis
Includes audience or
stakeholder
expectations and
reaction
Includes audience or
stakeholder reaction
Ignores the audience
Insight
Explains why the
CEO’s advocacy
succeeded or failed to
make an impact
Makes a judgment on
whether the CSR
initiative succeeded or
failed
Merely describes public
reaction to the initiative
Substance
Makes a defensible
claim about principles
of corporate leadership
Inadequately addresses
principles of corporate
leadership
Ignores principles of
corporate leadership
Good writing
Demonstrates both
eloquence and
proficiency
Demonstrates
proficiency
Weak composition;
grammatical and proof
reading errors
3
Major Assignment Guidelines | SP 22 Online
Assignment: Communication Campaign Elements
Due: See Syllabus
Points: 5 points each
Communication Campaign Elements (Building Blocks)
Client Profile
Stakeholder map
Goal(s) and objectives
Message maps
Strategies and Tactics
Evaluation plan
4
Major Assignment Guidelines | SP 22 Online
Assignment
CSR Campaign Pitch
Due
Tuesday of the week of assignment
Points
15
Length
8 to 10 minutes
Prompt and description of the assignment: Using Voicethread, create a campaign pitch for the
CSR campaign that your business client will implement. Potential partners and stakeholders
whose support is necessary to the campaign’s success compose your audience for the campaign
pitch.
Rubric
Criteria
Intellectual
Property
Structure
Collaboration
and
Leveraging
Strategies
Fully successful
(3 points)
The CSR campaign is
well defined,
appropriately scoped,
contextualized, strong
on substance, and
within the
organization’s means
and mandate
The pitch incorporates
all elements of a CSR
campaign (stakeholder
analysis, goals and
objectives, messaging,
implementing strategies
and tactics, and M&E) in
a comprehensive and
coherent manner
Partially successful
(2 points)
The CSR campaign is
well defined and
appropriately
scoped, but lacks
data or other
supports
Needs Improvement
(1 point)
The CSR communication
campaign is ill defined
and scoped too broadly.
The plan is weak on
substance
The pitch
inadequately
addresses one or
more elements of a
CSR campaign, but
hangs together
Pitch over-emphasizes a
single element; elements
are disconnected
The pitch identifies
potential partners in
multiple sectors and
offers a value
proposition for their
participation in the
campaign
The pitch identifies
Pitch fails to identify
potential partners
prospective organizations
but lacks specificity
to join the campaign
on how and why they
would join the
campaign
5
Major Assignment Guidelines | SP 22 Online
Delivery
Presentation is visually
appealing, tightly
packed and well
rehearsed; the delivery
is motivating
Impact (a
holistic,
qualitative
assessment of
the pitch)
The pitch employs a
variety of persuasive
techniques and clinches
the argument
Visuals have limited
appeal; the narrator
uses voice well, but
occasionally stumbles
in delivery and
concentration
The pitch employs
persuasion but fails
to clinch the
argument
6
Visuals lack appeal; the
narration is monotone
and lacking in energy
The pitch presents is not
persuasive
Major Assignment Guidelines | SP 22 Online
Assignment
Peer review of a classmate’s CSR campaign pitch
Due
Tuesday of the week of assignment
Points
15
Each student will peer review two classmates’ campaign pitches, assigned by the instructor. A
peer review will be shared only between the peer reviewer and the student who made the
pitch, and the instructor. The instructor will initiate the peer reviews via email, and will ask the
peer reviewer to share his or her comment sheet in reply.
Rubric
Criteria
Fully successful
(3 points)
Partially successful
(2 points)
Needs Improvement
(1 point)
Comments are
substantive
Comments offer
unique and well
considered ideas to
strengthen the
campaign plan
Comments offer solid
ideas to strengthen
the campaign plan
Comments offer generic
advice or best practices
Comments are
attributable
Comments draw on
secondary sources
used during the
course
Comments draw on
best practices
documented in open
source literature
Comments are confined
to personal opinion
Comments are
specific
Comments are
directed toward a
specific element or
aspect of the pitch,
Suggestions are too
generalized or vague to
incorporate in final
campaign plan
Comments can
be implemented
in a timely and
efficient manner
Comments can be
reconciled in a
timely manner
without additional
research or effort
Suggestions apply to
the overall pitch
rather than targeting
a specific area or
element for
improvement
Comments can be
reconciled in a timely
manner, but will
require additional
research or effort
Comments are
provided in a
constructive
tone
Comments
recognize both
strengths and
weaknesses of the
pitch and guide
Comments focus on
weaknesses only, in
the spirit of
constructive criticism
Comments focus on
weaknesses and are
directive or unnecessarily
harsh in tone
7
Comments cannot be
addressed within the
peer’s deadline
Major Assignment Guidelines | SP 22 Online
revisions in a
constructive manner
8
Major Assignment Guidelines | SP 22 Online
Assignment
CSR Campaign Communications Plan
Due
Tuesday of the week of assignment
Points
30
Prompt and description of the assignment: Submit a communications plan that encompasses
what you have learned and practiced regarding CSR Campaign Communications during this
course, incorporating feedback from the instructor and peers.
Rubric
Criteria
Fully successful
3 points
Partially successful
2 points
Needs Improvement
1 point
Context
The plan demonstrates a
full understanding of the
client’s history and
operating context;
associated strengths,
weaknesses,
opportunities and
threats; and governance
frameworks
The plan fully addresses
the client’s current
operating context,
including strengths,
weaknesses,
opportunities and threats
The plan gives perfunctory
treatment to the client’s
operating context
Stakeholder
Analysis
The plan fully considers
and appropriately
segments stakeholders
based on interests,
needs, relationships and
social context
The plan considers and
segments stakeholders in
a manner sufficient to
target messages
The plan inadequately
identifies key stakeholders
Enterprise
goals
The plan demonstrates a
nuanced understanding
of the client’s mission,
vision and enterprise
goals
The plan discusses the
client’s mission and vision
and conveys the client’s
enterprise goals
The plan recites the
client’s mission and vision
statements
Partnering
and alliancebuilding
The plan identifies
potential partners in
multiple sectors and
offers a value
proposition for their
participation
The plan identifies one or
two potential partners
but lacks specificity on
how and why they would
join the campaign
The plan presumes the
client will execute all
elements of the campaign
9
Major Assignment Guidelines | SP 22 Online
Messaging
The messaging strategy
is complete, constructed
well and targeted
Individual messages are
well constructed but not
targeted
The messaging strategy is
incomplete and poorly
constructed
Strategy and
Tactics
The implementation
strategy/tactics are
tightly aligned with the
campaign’s goals and
objectives; achieves
broad and deep reach
with stakeholder
segments; and includes
both engagement and
information strategies.
The implementation
strategy/tactics employ a
variety of tools and
methods, and is generally
aligned with campaign
goals and objectives
The implementation plan
is poorly or underdeveloped
10
Major Assignment Guidelines | SP 22 Online
Campaign Plan
Criteria, cont.
Fully successful
3 points
Partially successful
2 points
Needs Improvement
1 point
Monitoring
and evaluation
The monitoring and
evaluation framework
is sound; metrics are
aligned with
communication
objectives
The monitoring and
evaluation framework
includes metrics, but is
focused on outputs of
implementing strategies
The plan presents a logic
frame for monitoring and
evaluation with no
discernable metrics
Evidence Base
Claims are fully
supported using a
variety of evidence
Claims are partially
supported; evidence is
sparse
Claims are presented as a
matter of opinion
Impact
The campaign is
The campaign integrates a The plan has limited
creative and
variety of techniques to
appeal
innovative; the plan
achieve quick wins
integrates a variety of
techniques to persuade
and motivate
stakeholders over the
life of the campaign
Overall Quality
The plan is well
organized, well
written, visually
appealing, and easy to
understand
The plan is well organized
and well written
11
The plan is poorly
organized and poorly
written
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
www.emeraldinsight.com/1356-3289.htm
CCIJ
23,4
Reviewing corporate social
responsibility communication:
a legitimacy perspective
492
Anne Ellerup Nielsen and Christa Thomsen
Department of Business and Social Sciences,
Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark
Received 4 April 2018
Revised 25 July 2018
Accepted 25 July 2018
Abstract
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to answer the call for CSR communication research to develop and
substantiate outcomes that may better explain CSR communication strategies and practices. The paper takes
the research a step further, exploring the role of legitimacy in CSR communication research.
Design/methodology/approach – A literature collection methodology, combined with directed content
analysis, was used to identify central themes in the literature.
Findings – The following categories of studies were identified: perception, impact and promotion studies;
image and reputation studies; performance studies; and conceptual/rhetorical studies. Addressed from a
legitimacy perspective, the study found that the most important types of legitimizing communicative
practices articulated in the four types of studies were related to: seeking knowledge about stakeholders
through perception, impact and promotion activities; monitoring and controlling the environment through
image and reputation activities; creating stakeholder value through collaboration and engagement; and
persuading and convincing stakeholders through rhetorics, CSR models and concepts. The study also found
that practices and activities related to perceiving stakeholders’ expectations, needs and requirements are
assumed to be most effective for corporations aiming at building or maintaining legitimacy.
Originality/value – The key contribution of the paper lies in exploring how corporate legitimacy is
anticipated and extrapolated in the CSR communication literature, including which pinpointed CSR
communication strategies and practices are assumed to be more effective than others in bridging
stakeholders’ perceptions of corporations’ social and environmental actions. Until date, no reviews exist of the
role of legitimacy in CSR communication research.
Keywords Legitimacy, Corporate social responsibility, Corporate communications, Content analysis
Paper type Literature review
Introduction
Many corporations are concerned with gaining legitimacy through integrating the
expectations of their stakeholders into the overall company strategy. For decades, for
example, the Danish pharmaceutical corporation Novo Nordisk has engaged systematically
with multiple stakeholders in order to address key areas of their business. The company
recognizes that “it is essential to establish a positive interaction not merely between
management and investors, but also in relation to other stakeholders” (Novo Nordisk, 2015).
Another example is Shell. Shell focuses, for example, “on the environmental and social
challenges that matter most to our key stakeholders. A thorough process was used to
identify the sustainability topics for our reporting based on information from internal and
external sources” (Shell, 2015).
The growing expectations of stakeholders are connected to the process of globalization.
In this context, social and environmental disasters due to a lack of corporate self-regulation
have challenged corporate legitimacy (Palazzo and Scherer, 2006; Scherer and Palazzo, 2007).
Corporate Communications: An
International Journal
Vol. 23 No. 4, 2018
pp. 492-511
Emerald Publishing Limited
1356-3289
DOI 10.1108/CCIJ-04-2018-0042
© Anne Ellerup Nielsen and Christa Thomsen. Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This article
is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce,
distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial & non-commercial
purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this
licence may be seen at http://creativecommons.org/licences/by/4.0/legalcode
As a result of this, stakeholders are increasingly requiring that corporations justify their social
and environmental actions. Corporate legitimacy has been defined as “a generalized perception
or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper, or appropriate within some
socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs, and definitions” (Suchman, 1995, p. 574).
Thus, obtaining legitimacy by aligning corporate behavior with stakeholder expectations is
necessary to guarantee the corporation’s continued existence (Dawkins, 2004). This has created
an increased emphasis on effective stakeholder communication and issues that can be grouped
under the headline of CSR. CSR has been defined as “a practice which corporations undertake
to integrate social, environmental, ethical, human rights and consumer concerns into their
business operations and core strategy in close collaboration with their stakeholders” (European
Commission, 2011, p. 681). In line with this, CSR communication is defined in this study as a
communicative practice, which corporations undertake to integrate social, environmental,
ethical, human rights and consumer concerns into their business operations and core strategy
in close collaboration with their stakeholders. Judging by the number of case studies in
academic literature, at conferences, seminars, etc., there is an increasing interest in the
communicative practice of CSR. Yet, despite the recognition of the importance of legitimacy in
CSR communication, this topic has only recently been investigated (e.g. Du et al., 2010; Du and
Vieira, 2012; Golob et al., 2013; Ihlen et al., 2011; Morsing et al., 2008; Palazzo and Scherer, 2006;
Scherer and Palazzo, 2007, 2011; Schultz, Castelló and Morsing, 2013; Schultz, Morsing and
Castello, 2013). However, in most cases, the focus has been on isolated factors, e.g. message
content, communication approach, process and channel, that influence outcomes broadly
defined as reputation, legitimacy and effectiveness. It is not until recently that reviews of CSR
communication literature have emerged that address on a more general-level CSR
communication streams, themes, challenges and opportunities or outcomes (Crane and
Glozer, 2016; Elving et al., 2015; Nielsen and Thomsen, 2012).
Until date, no reviews exist of the role of legitimacy in CSR communication research,
which is the purpose of this paper. The question raised is:
RQ1. How can corporate social responsibility communication create legitimacy?
In order to answer this research question, the international research was reviewed, the
argument being that the way CSR scholars conceptualize CSR communication demonstrates
how CSR communication may lead to gaining and/or losing legitimacy. The key
contribution of the paper lies in exploring how corporate legitimacy is anticipated and
extrapolated in CSR communication literature, including which pinpointed CSR
communication strategies and practices are assumed to be more effective than others in
bridging stakeholders’ perceptions of corporations’ social and environmental actions and
the corporate CSR agenda.
Theoretical framework: CSR, corporate communication and legitimacy
CSR is increasingly seen as an integrated part of corporate communication (e.g. Cornelissen,
2011/2014; Pollach et al., 2012; Van Riel, 1995). The uniqueness of CSR communication research
can be highlighted by considering how it pursues the four prevailing justifications for CSR in
strategic management research: moral obligation, sustainability, license to operate and
reputation (Porter and Kramer, 2006, p. 81; see also Secchi, 2007; Wood, 2010). In a strict moral
perspective, CSR communication research needs to focus on communication initiatives
whereby corporations “achieve commercial success in ways that honor ethical values and
respect people, communities, and the natural environment” (Porter and Kramer, 2006, p. 81).
In a sustainability perspective, CSR communication research needs to focus on communication
initiatives supporting corporations in their efforts to meet “the needs of the present without
compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Porter and
Kramer, 2006, p. 81). The underlying assumption behind the notion of “license to operate” is
Corporate
social
responsibility
communication
493
CCIJ
23,4
494
that every company needs tacit or explicit permission (legitimacy) from governments,
communities and numerous other stakeholders to do business. Thus, CSR communication
research needs to focus on communication initiatives related to obtaining and maintaining this
permission. Finally, in a reputation perspective, CSR communication research needs to focus
on communication initiatives that will “improve a company’s image, strengthen its brand,
enliven morale, and even raise the value of its stock” (Porter and Kramer, 2006, p. 82).
Corporate legitimacy
Legitimacy is considered vital for the survival of organizations and a prerequisite for the
flow of resources and stakeholder support (Palazzo and Scherer, 2006, p. 71). Accordingly,
legitimacy is seen as “a process whereby organizations seek approval for their acts from
groups in society” (Kaplan and Ruland, 1991, p. 320). Following Suchman (1995),
legitimacy is a socially constructed concept based on how organizations’ actions are
perceived or assumed within a “socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs, and
definitions” (Suchman, 1995, p. 574). Suchman’s definition of legitimacy as pragmatic,
moral and cognitive is widely used as a point of reference for scholars dealing with
legitimacy and institutionalization processes. Pragmatic legitimacy is connected to
instrumental CSR and framed as the exchange between an organization and its
stakeholders according to self-interested benefits. Moral legitimacy is value based, and
approaches CSR through the context of ethics. It is based on judgments about whether the
organization’s activities result in societal benefits that adhere to the socially constructed
value system of the stakeholders. Finally, cognitive legitimacy is what organizations
may acquire by conforming to what is regarded as mainstream in business life and taken
for granted by the public (Palazzo and Scherer, 2006; Suchman, 1995). With the general
expansion of CSR, CSR legitimacy strategies and practices are increasingly routinized and
institutionalized, whereby the stage of cognitive legitimacy is gradually reached
(Suchman, 1995, p. 585). In recent years, however, moral legitimacy has achieved a
more intense position with the general move toward corporate self-regulation. As a result,
the pressure on global interaction and networking between political actors and corporate
leaders to discuss and deliberate CSR challenges, standards, goals and processes is
growing, setting higher expectations of corporate moral legitimacy act and
consequently on the role played by CSR communication (Palazzo and Scherer, 2006;
Castello and Lozano, 2011; Scherer and Palazzo, 2007, 2011; Seele and Lock, 2015; Wagner
and Seele, 2017).
Strategies aimed at gaining legitimacy are multiple. They may range from conforming to
demands, ideals or models to selecting markets, domains, labels or advertising to
persuading or institutionalizing. Strategies for maintaining or repairing legitimacy may
take a more protectionist, monitoring, denying, excusing or explaining shape across the
three basic types of legitimacy (Suchman, 1995, p. 600). Communication plays a crucial
role in the conceptualization and practice of these strategies in which both corporate
dissemination and deliberation serve the process of building corporate legitimacy.
The pursuit of legitimacy via CSR communication is primarily anchored in the
“self-promoter paradox” establishing a clash between corporate promises and public
expectations of whether these promises are lofty or actually met (Ashforth and
Gibbs, 1990, p. 186). Communication researchers have framed this paradox as “the CSR
Promotional Dilemma” (Coombs and Holladay, 2012). The dilemma is embedded in
much CSR communication and often takes the form of conscientious, codified strategy
practice. Navigating the balance between framing CSR activities as, on the one hand, an
ethical urge to do “good” and, on the other hand, a best practice of organizational
self-interest has thus proved to be a double-edged sword for many businesses (Carroll and
Shabana, 2010).
Communicatively, the paradox above has a considerable impact on the understanding of
CSR as a means to gain corporate legitimacy. On the one hand CSR communication is
addressed as a “documentation” discipline, on the other hand as a “rhetorical device.”
While documenting via CSR communication responds to the growing demand for
transparency and accountability in corporations’ CSR activities, the negative understanding
of CSR as a rhetorical device refers to the condescension expressed toward CSR
communication by critical voices who view CSR as nothing but “window dressing,”
“green/blue/pink washing,” “a PR invention,” etc. (e.g. Frankental, 2001; Dubbink et al., 2008;
Amazeen, 2011). In the political sense of CSR as self-regulation, CSR communication is
framed as a deliberative rather than a rhetorical device based on how to give “credit to the
interests and arguments of a wide range of constituencies that are affected by the activities
of (multinational) corporations” (Scherer and Palazzo, 2011, p. 916). From a legitimacy
perspective, the tension between the embedded understandings and framings above
articulates how organizations seek approval for their acts in different ways from multiple
stakeholder groups, which will be demonstrated below.
With the above concepts and theories in mind, and in order to examine the potential for
CSR communication to create corporate legitimacy, it is argued that a range of determinants
of CSR communication anchored in the strategic positioning of the organization contribute
to position the company vis-à-vis its competitors in the marketplace. Furthermore, it is
assumed that the effect of the considered determinants on corporate legitimacy are
monitored by three moderators (Suchman, 1995): (1) conforming to stakeholder demands,
ideals or models; (2) selecting markets, domains, labels or advertising; and (3) persuading
(e.g. informing, explaining, monitoring, denying and excusing). In the analysis below, this
argument is substantiated.
Method
To gain a comprehensive view of how CSR communication is conceptualized in the
literature, a systematic review was conducted (Peloza and Shang, 2011). Systematic
reviews “summarize in an explicit way what is known and not known about a specific
practice-related question” (Briner et al., 2009, p. 19). Search words were selected within the
fields and disciplines considered particularly relevant in a CSR communication perspective:
marketing communication, public relations and stakeholder communication as a broader
category. These approaches basically reflect key targets of the communication: consumers
and customers (CSR marketing communication); publics (CSR public relations); and
stakeholders in general including employees and NGOs (CSR corporate communication).
A literature collection methodology, combined with directed content analysis (Hsieh and
Shannon, 2005), was used to identify central themes in the literature. The following selection
criteria were adopted:

Two-step search process: “CSR” combined with “communication”; “CSR
communication”; “CSR” combined with: “marketing communication,” “advertising,”
“management communication,”public relations,” “corporate communication,”
“organizational communication” and “dialogue”; and “CSR communication”
combined with “stakeholder” and “legitimacy.”

International peer-reviewed articles in academic journals (full text, references
available, English language and more than four pages).

Date of publication in the period 2000–2017.
The search was undertaken using the citation search facility of the ABI/INFORM, EBSCO’s
Business Source Complete, Communication and Mass Media Complete (CMMC) and JSTOR,
and through reference list searching. The databases selected cover social sciences, broadly
Corporate
social
responsibility
communication
495
CCIJ
23,4
496
defined, including communication, the Business Source Complete and the CMMC databases
being regarded as the dominant databases within business/economics and communication
research, respectively.
A total of 207 references were generated in the first broad search for “CSR” combined
with “communication,” whereas the search for “CSR communication” resulted in fewer
references, all of which also came up in the first broad search for “CSR” combined with
“communication.” Interestingly, 53 out of the 207 references were from 2014, 2015, 2016 and
2017, demonstrating that CSR communication is a growing field. Our narrow search for
“CSR” combined with “marketing communication,” “advertising,” “management
communication,” “public relations,” “corporate communication,” “organizational
communication” and “dialogue,” as well as “CSR communication” combined with
“stakeholder,” confirmed our first broad search, and only a few additional articles were
added to our list. There was extensive overlap between articles from the two databases
used, BSC and CMMC. However, a number of articles on CSR public relations and CSR
corporate communication were found in CMMC which had not come up in our BSC search,
and which were consequently added.
Out of the total number of references, 151 were selected for review with the help of
content analysis framed within CSR and corporate communication, the selection criteria
being: exclusion of references classified as proceedings, use of the word “CSR” in keywords,
title and abstract, and framing within CSR and communication.
Directed content analysis was used to interpret meaning from the content of our text data
(Hsieh and Shannon, 2005). Each of the selected 151 articles was analyzed for CSR
communication content based on the definition of CSR (communication) and occurrences
of key concepts and notions such as, e.g., “attitude,” “belief,” “perception,” “impact,”
“sense-making,” “promotion,” “message,” “skepticism,” etc., supporting particular
communicative perspectives and understandings of CSR communication.
Findings
In the following, the most important types of framings and themes registered for how
scholars anticipate CSR communication as a means to create, maintain and enhance
corporate legitimacy are presented.
Perception, impact and promotion studies
The first group of studies investigates how especially consumers evaluate specific CSR
efforts and how they affect their relationship with brands (perception) with regard to their
attitude toward or likeliness to purchase brands (impact). These studies thus first and
foremost buy into the idea of CSR as a promotional tool (promotion), reflecting a particular
urge to investigate consumers’ but also other stakeholders’ attitudes toward CSR
communication. Consumers’ reactions, in particular, to CSR initiatives in terms of
awareness, attitude, behavior and expectations, etc., have been subject to several studies
(e.g. Golob et al., 2008; Pérez and Rodríguez del Bosque, 2013; Pomering and Dolnicar, 2009;
Stanalan et al., 2011). Some studies focused on the relationship between consumer
perception of CSR communication and purchase intention (Dutta and Singh, 2013; Sora,
2011; Wang and Anderson, 2011) and others addressed issues such as the corporate
perception of stakeholder pressure (Vazquez-Brust et al., 2010) or financial analysts’
perception of CSR strategies (Fieseler, 2011).
In a similar vein, a group of studies addressed the impact of CSR communication on
brands/reputation/CSR perception. They may be categorized as effect and impact studies
providing insight into the extent to which CSR communication does, or is likely to, affect
brand equity, reputation and consumer skepticism (e.g. Becker-Olsen et al., 2011; Bilowol
and Doan, 2015; Elving, 2013; Jahdi and Acikdilli, 2009; Parquel et al., 2011).
Both perception and impact studies were particularly important in marketing-oriented
studies of CSR communication. A general characteristic of this research is its focus on the
development and use of methods and mechanisms that may explain and measure the effect
of corporations’ CSR initiatives and communication on stakeholders’ brand perception and
identification as well as brand reputation. One example is a study demonstrating that
consumer perception is enhanced when a brand is viewed as global (Becker-Olsen et al.,
2011). Another perception-related study demonstrates that the level of awareness of
businesses’ CSR operations among consumers in the banking sector is low and, accordingly,
that businesses should adopt more active communication strategies, target their CSR
messages more effectively and educate consumers to contextualize CSR communication in
order to gain benefits from their CSR initiatives (Pomering and Dolnicar, 2009). Other more
recent studies seem to replicate a similar format correlating consumers’ perception of CSR
activities in particular contexts and industries with, e.g. sponsor-sincerity (Scheinbaum
et al., 2017), or CSR pricing with perceived CSR sacrifice by consumers (Sungsook, 2015).
A study that stands out from this format adopted a more critical analytical approach to
examining and discussing the effect of CSR communication on consumers and vice versa,
arguing that a backlash against brands seems to be provoked by consumer criticism of CSR
marketing and unsolved problems in the supply chains of large corporations, e.g. working
conditions in sweatshops and downstream marketing (Smith et al., 2010). This type of study
pioneers a recent emergence of critical research that challenges the use of CSR as a
marketing and branding instrument without taking further notice of consumer activism,
stakeholder involvement and the global context in which companies operate. Overlooking
these elements is partly the result of the strong anchoring of instrumental CSR in the
classical marketing paradigm (see also Crane and Glozer, 2016).
This taps perfectly into a third group of studies considering the potential of promoting
and branding the corporation through CSR. These studies address how specific CSR
communication tactics and techniques can help to build brand citizenship and brand equity
(e.g. Banytė and Gadeikienė, 2008; Demetriou and Aristotelous, 2011; Maggio-Muller and
Evans, 2008). Very few of these seem to address CSR communication as a strategic issue, i.e.
setting out to establish a conceptual framework for how CSR can be integrated more
strategically into the marketing discipline (e.g. Maignan and Ferrell, 2004).
Perception, impact and promotion studies are primarily anchored in a classical
conceptualization of communication, in which instrumental measures such as
“documenting” in the form of “more information about CSR” and/or “rhetorical devices”
in the form of “alternative messaging and contents” are expected to result in changed
stakeholder perception of the corporate image and/or CSR stance of a company. None – or
very few – of the studies seem to challenge the classical behavioral pattern. Consequently,
CSR communication is mostly addressed as one-way communication, i.e. as an instrumental
add-on tool rather than two-way communication or invitation to community building,
networking and co-creating CSR with stakeholders (Nielsen and Thomsen, 2012, p. 60),
a conclusion also drawn by Crane and Glozer (2016, p. 24).
Image and reputation studies, a fourth important group of studies, articulated the role of
CSR communication as a means to enhance corporations’ image/reputation/relationship
management potential. These studies typically emerge from public relations and corporate
communication in which CSR communication is conceptualized to build, maintain and/or
restore a company’s image and reputation (Benn et al., 2010; Demetriou et al., 2010; György
and Oravecz, 2009; Kim and Park, 2011; Komodromos and Melanthiou, 2014; Middlemiss,
2003; Núñez Ladevéze et al., 2015; Steurer, 2010; Yong et al., 2012).
Not surprisingly, these studies were particularly dominating in public relations-oriented
studies. As argued by Clark, CSR and public relations have very similar objectives in that
they are both basically seeking to enhance the quality of the relationship of organizations
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with their key stakeholders (Clark, 2000, p. 376). CSR communication, therefore, overlaps
with public relations, i.e. in terms of playing a key role in addressing stakeholders, focusing
on communicative affordances, either externally, e.g. corporate mission slogans (Verboven,
2011), media coverage of CSR (Middlemiss, 2003), public policy operations (Steurer, 2010), or
internally, e.g. through employee commitment (György and Oravecz, 2009) organizational
leadership (Benn et al., 2010).
A fifth group of studies was approached from the similar yet opposite perspective of
anticipating conflicts/avoiding bad publicity through CSR communication. The scope of this
group of studies is to use CSR communication as a driver for creating trust and credibility
by preempting or anticipating negative perception and conflicts, hence accomplishing the
role of “issues management” (Cho and Kim, 2012; Hughes and Demetrious, 2006; Nwagbara
and Brown, 2014; Waller and Conaway, 2011). Accordingly, most of the studies came up in
searches with “public relations.” Specific CSR communication techniques and strategies are
thus typically suggested to avoid negative CSR perception (Waller and Conaway, 2011),
incongruence between perceived and desired image (Tata and Prasad, 2015), negative
legitimacy (Vanhamme and Grobben, 2009; Arvidsson, 2010), PR spin (Hughes and
Demetrious, 2006) or as a general buffer for negative issues (Cho and Kim, 2012).
These findings allowed us to conclude so far that major issues addressed in the image
and reputation studies above focus on how to protect a company’s corporate image,
reputation and legitimacy against negative publicity and activism (see e.g. Lawton et al.,
2013). With the rise of social media as the paramount channel for engaging consumers,
partners, journalists, NGOs, etc., in CSR processes, the pressure on organizations to
disclose their CSR performances is stronger than ever. As a consequence, they are also more
fragile and exposed to public criticism and attack (Coombs and Holladay, 2012).
The protective role that public relations (and issues management in particular) traditionally
assume through scanning and monitoring the corporate environment of organizations thus
seems to call for a reactivation with the growing pressure on corporations to gain corporate
legitimacy from stakeholders through their CSR efforts and communication hereof.
Performance studies
A sixth group of studies was framed from the perspective of how companies do or can
capitalize on CSR communication. They first and foremost appeared in corporate
communication-oriented studies demonstrating that the use of particular strategic or tactical
CSR operations has led or may lead to better CSR outcomes for the corporation and/or its
stakeholders. CSR outcomes imply assets such as corporate reputation (Ferns et al., 2008;
Ingenhoff and Koelling, 2012; Morsing et al., 2008), corporate identity and identification
(Bravo et al., 2012; Chong, 2009; Morsing, 2006), competitive advantage (Vilanova et al.,
2009), higher credibility (Gruber et al., 2017), stakeholder benefits (Bhattacharya et al., 2009;
Du et al., 2010) and corporate legitimacy (Du and Vieira, 2012).
A large group of these performance studies pitched into how to implement or promote
stakeholder dialogue as a means of establishing stakeholder relationships in CSR processes
of engagement, collaboration and participation. Stakeholder dialogue is typically introduced
as a necessity for creating a foundation for public policy (Hristache et al., 2013), being
successful in large-scale CSR (Konrad et al., 2008), CSR decision making and change (Muijen,
2004; O’Riordan and Fairbrass, 2008; Uysal, 2014), organizational learning (Burchell and
Cook, 2008; Golob et al., 2014), translating CSR into practice (Pedersen, 2006), managing
relationships with NGOs (Burchell and Cook, 2006; Valor and Merino de Diego, 2009) and for
social reporting ( Jackson and Bundgard, 2002; Reynolds and Yuthas, 2008). A related group
of studies focused on the perspective of stakeholder dialogue, addressed from a social media
perspective, and their ability to advance and nurture stakeholder engagement, participation
and empowerment (Fieseler et al., 2010; Fieseler and Fleck, 2013; Golob and Podnar, 2014;
Illia et al., 2017; Nwagbara, 2013; Nwagbara and Reid, 2013), e.g. between employers and
employees (Cortini, 2009; Stohl et al., 2017).
The performance-oriented studies above primarily concentrate on the alignment of
CSR communication to legitimacy variables such as reputation building, credibility, a
competitive advantage, long lasting stakeholder relationships, employee and other
stakeholder engagements, etc. (see, e.g., reviews by Chun, 2005; Heras-Saizarbitoria and
Boiral, 2013; Miller et al., 2014). This research thus provides insight into important general
corporate communication legitimacy drivers such as the importance of having a
“CSR history,” the need to involve stakeholders, the importance of championship by senior
management and of implementing credible CSR programs and communication platforms
to document CSR activities (such as e.g. CSR reporting and auditing). In general, the
importance of stakeholder dialogue is stressed. The fact that a company’s consciousness
of communication strategies and communicative purpose, ability, willingness and
interests may affect the legitimacy attributed by stakeholders to CSR initiatives. In this
connection, Andriof and Waddock (2002) argued that managers play an important role in
the relationships that companies have with internal and external stakeholders (p. 19).
In order to gain legitimacy, managers must embody CSR values and promote and support
them through their own behavior and attitude. Consequently, leadership is required at
more than one level in an organization, which suggests not only top executives but
also middle managers and others must fully endorse the CSR values of the organization as
a prerequisite for achieving and maintaining legitimacy (see also Du et al., 2013;
Nielsen and Thomsen, 2009).
CSR communication conceptual and rhetorical studies
A final group of studies was framed within more conceptual and rhetorical issues such as
understanding CSR models and concepts (Podnar, 2008; Fassin and Van Rossem, 2009; Schultz,
Castelló and Morsing, 2013; Schultz, Morsing and Castello, 2013) or particular tactics, linguistic,
textual or media and discourse framings of CSR. Their focus seems to be more on
communication as a generic concept and its impact on communicating about CSR. Particular
focus is on contexts, e.g. the marketplace, emergent economy countries, etc. (Bendell, 2010;
Dobers and Delyse, 2010; Garre-Rubio et al., 2012; Lielgaidina et al., 2012; Rajandran and Taib,
2014; Roostalu and Kooskora 2010; Ziek, 2009) or on discussing their particularities,
e.g. dialogism and power relations (Brennan et al., 2013) especially media, e.g. releases (Reinig
and Tilt, 2009), newsletters (Walker et al., 2010) or their successfulness in terms of readability
(Abu Bakar and Ameer, 2011). See also Skard and Thorbjørnsen (2014) regarding the source
effect of CSR communication on brand reputation and Fraustino and Connolly-Ahern (2015)
regarding message strategies in corporate online network communication.
Summing-up, our analysis shows that communicative practices anticipated by scholars
for how CSR communication creates, maintains and enhances corporate legitimacy are
based on multiple drivers – from perception over image and reputation to performance.
However, they all share the focus on stakeholders and CSR activities, effects and outcomes
aimed at obtaining their approval.
In the section below, a closer look is taken at how the anticipated and extrapolated
legitimacy framings are distributed with regard to established strategies of legitimation.
Legitimacy forms and strategies in the CSR communication literature
The literature reviewed above centers around the role of CSR communication as a process
whereby organizations seek approval for their acts from multiple stakeholder groups. From
a legitimacy perspective, the pinpointed groups of studies constitute different instances in
which CSR communication actions and strategies are expected to generate much/little
corporate legitimacy by CSR scholars.
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The perception, impact and promotion perspective of our findings is based on the
assumption that corporate legitimacy is achieved through promoting and conforming to
stakeholders’ demands, requiring that businesses have detailed knowledge of these
demands. Two legitimation strategies seem to be in play from this perspective. Pragmatic
legitimacy is anticipated in the embedded eagerness to measure and optimize CSR strategies
in alignment with selected stakeholders’ interests and expectations, whereas cognitive
legitimacy is anchored in the impetus to conform to perception models and methods
belonging to classical instrumental conceptualizations of communication.
From an image and reputation perspective, corporate legitimacy is mainly linked to the
extent to which companies are able to build and maintain relationships with stakeholders.
More specifically, it is assumed that scanning and monitoring the environment, i.e.
scrutinizing and keeping track of public reactions toward companies’ and competitors’ CSR
practices, is a first prerequisite for achieving corporate legitimacy. This perspective on
CSR communication preempts pragmatic legitimacy. With companies’ strong interest in
monitoring, controlling and managing issues, this perspective on CSR communication is
first and foremost a pragmatic legitimacy concern. The impetus of exercising corporate
control over CSR communication processes and outcomes is suggested as a way for
companies to critically assess their own and their competitors’ CSR performances, as well as
to anticipate and handle potential dilemmas and conflicts emerging in their environment.
From a performance perspective, corporate legitimacy is expected to occur as a result of
a company’s ability to establish and maintain good relations with stakeholders through
various stakeholder engagement practices. Engagement, participation, collaboration and
empowerment are thus framed as drivers of legitimacy. Primary legitimation strategies
from this perspective may be characterized as pragmatic and moral. Appealing to
stakeholder engagement and involvement is instrumental for gaining social capital, and it
also paves the way for collaborating and networking with stakeholders on collective ideals,
values and agendas. In other words, the behavior, attitude and communicative role of
managers, employees and non-corporate members are framed as crucial for gaining
corporate legitimacy. Following this rationale, inviting employees and other stakeholders to
interact and enter into dialogue about CSR agendas, initiatives, policies and programs is a
means of opening for two-way communication. This two-way communication enjoys higher
credibility and is considered to be more stimulating for stakeholder engagement than
one-way communication. Accordingly, and not surprisingly, the interest in social media,
with its interactive and co-creative character is suggested and anticipated as an appropriate
persuasion strategy.
A conceptual and rhetorical perspective on corporate legitimacy is articulated through
the use of appropriate discourses and narratives. As these are of a more general concern,
this perspective is not restricted to a particular legitimation strategy. Not only is the use of
precise CSR concepts and definitions key to reaching mutual understanding about CSR
activities, programs and policies among stakeholders, but authenticity in messaging and
stakeholder interactions concerning CSR efforts, promises and developments are also
crucial for gaining and maintaining legitimacy, i.e. creating and disclosing an authentic
organizational self by giving voice to employees and other stakeholders in strategy making
processes through active participation (Liedtka, 2008; McShane and Cunningham, 2012).
Following this argument, the crafting of messages, choosing the right media, channel
and tone of voice, using valid arguments and contracting engagements in concordance
with selected stakeholder target groups and communicative purposes are also
important determinants for how much, or how little, legitimacy companies achieve with
their CSR communication.
On the surface it appears that instances of anticipation of legitimacy through the above
communication practices reflect a strong – or even dominating – emphasis on pragmatic
legitimacy, while elements of cognitive and moral legitimacy are limited. Pragmatic
legitimacy lies, first and foremost, in the outcome-oriented, company-centric approach to
using CSR communication for gaining, restoring or repairing legitimacy, while moral
legitimacy is more aimed at achieving legitimacy as a result of ethical concern and reflection
about the societal impact of CSR, hence the growing research interest in collaborative CSR
and the role of CSR as deliberation and argumentation (Scherer and Palazzo, 2011).
Cognitive legitimacy is anticipated as a result of institutionalized practices regarding CSR
standards, norms and beliefs.
Based on the above, the analytical framework is presented highlighting major CSR
communication practices and means that are assumed to generate or enhance corporate
legitimacy (Figure 1).
Three legitimation moderators (1), (2) and (3) translate into different CSR communication
practices and strategies. Legitimation is, for example, gained by measuring and optimizing
CSR communication strategies in alignment with expectations (legitimation moderator 1).
Legitimation is also gained by adopting and selecting specific agendas, methods and
strategies (legitimation moderator 2). Finally, legitimation is gained by building and
maintaining relationships (legitimation moderator 3). The different practices and strategies
relate to either pragmatic, moral or cognitive legitimacy.
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Discussion and conclusion
Below our findings are discussed in terms of main findings, limitations and implications.
Main findings
Arguing that the way scholars conceptualize CSR communication affects their thinking on
whether CSR communication may lead to gaining and/or losing legitimacy, this study
examined how corporate legitimacy is anticipated and extrapolated in CSR communication
literature. The study highlighted which CSR communication practices are assumed to be
most effective when bridging stakeholders’ perceptions of corporations’ social and
environmental actions and the corporate CSR agenda.
Legitimation moderator 1:
Conforming to stakeholder demands, ideals or
models through CSR communication
Legitimation moderator 2:
Adopting, selecting and redefining CSR
communication practices and strategies
CSR communication practices and strategies
Measure and optimize CSR communication
strategies in alignment with expectations
Provide insights into stakeholders’ perceptions
Adopt and redefine CSR agendas/agendasetting, methods and strategies
Corporate legitimacy
Conform to perceptions, frameworks, models
and methods
Select media, channels and rhetorical
Strategies
Collaborate about and deliberate common
agendas, frameworks and ideals
Build and maintain relationships
Engage, participate and empower
Scan, monitor and scrutinize public reactions
Manage public issues and reactions, issues
management
Pragmatic legitimacy
Moral legitimacy
Cognitive legitimacy
Legitimation moderator 3:
Persuading and attracting stakeholders through
impressing, denying and excusing CSR strategies and practices
Figure 1.
Analytical framework:
gaining legitimacy
through CSR
communication
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To gain a comprehensive view of CSR communication literature, a systematic review was
conducted resulting in the following categories of studies: perception, impact and promotion
studies; image and reputation studies; performance studies; and conceptual/rhetorical
studies. Addressed from a legitimacy perspective, it was found that the most important
types of legitimizing communicative practices articulated in the four types of studies were
related to:
502
(1) seeking knowledge about stakeholders through perception, impact and
promotion activities;
(2) monitoring and controlling the environment through image and reputation activities;
(3) creating stakeholder value, collaboration and engagement; and
(4) persuading stakeholders through rhetorics, organizational authenticity, concepts
and CSR models.
It was also found that practices and activities related to perceiving stakeholders’
expectations, needs and requirements are assumed to be most appropriate for corporations
aiming at building or maintaining legitimacy.
Our findings confirmed previous research articulating legitimacy as “a process
whereby organizations seek approval for their acts from groups in society” (Kaplan and
Ruland, 1991, p. 320). They add to the literature by identifying communicative practices
and activities which are more effective than others in bridging stakeholders’ perceptions
of corporations’ social and environmental actions (e.g. Du et al., 2010; Du and Vieira, 2012;
Elving et al., 2015; Golob et al., 2013; Ihlen et al., 2011). Overall, it was found that corporate
legitimacy seems to be more easily acquired when employees and other stakeholders
are co-creators or endorsers of CSR communication than if it originates from corporate
management alone (Morsing et al., 2008). In other words, two-way CSR communication
with employees may affect a company’s legitimacy positively, while one-way
communication alone may challenge legitimacy. In a similar vein, it was found that
CSR messages and communication strategies may influence corporations’ acquisition of
corporate legitimacy. Unless one-way CSR communication introduces and explains issues
that are well supported and justified by factual information and organizational
authenticity, there is a potential risk of misinterpretation by critical stakeholders who may
decode CSR messages as “green,” “blue” or “pink washing,” rather than as expressions of
substantiated, well-intentioned CSR acts.
Not surprisingly, it was also found that CSR communication is instrumentally rather
than ethically, driven – in that the most prominent role attributed by scholars to CSR
communication is its assumed capacity to increase businesses’ market opportunities. Only
in a very few and recent studies, such as, e.g., those addressing the expanding political role
of CSR, CSR communication is framed as a platform for establishing collaborative
deliberative networks and mutual understanding with stakeholders. This articulation of
CSR communication is not entirely unexpected. It can be traced back to discourses and
agendas initiated a decade ago by national governments and the international society, in
which CSR is advanced as a win-win strategy that enables alignment of corporate and
societal outcomes (Porter and Kramer, 2006; Prahalad and Hart, 2002). Following these
agendas, scholars within strategic CSR management go as far as to suggest that CSR is a
means of transforming social challenges into business opportunities by establishing
processes of creating shared value (Porter and Kramer, 2011). Other more critical scholars
contend that it is an illusion to assume that social and economic outcomes and benefits can
go hand in hand, arguing that there is no evidence that CSR actually makes businesses
more profitable (Crane et al., 2014; Fleming and Jones, 2013). This CSR dilemma is
transposed into CSR communication research, explaining why most CSR communication
literature is primarily based on traditional one-way transmission rather than a two-way
dialogical perspective.
Importantly, it was found that the pursuit of pragmatic legitimacy seems to predominate
in CSR communication. Originating in an instrumental management approach, the concern
for gaining, restoring or repairing pragmatic legitimacy through CSR communication is part
of our observations above. Addressing CSR instrumentally, i.e. as a business case, is first
and foremost outcome driven. Whether the outcome achieved is addressed as increased
profits or legitimacy does not change the strategic intent of the legitimacy act. Pragmatic
legitimacy is regarded as a prerequisite for corporate self-benefit and, thus, profit
maximization. The crucial point is the conscious intentionality driving the act of seeking
pragmatic legitimacy vs the unconscious intentionality embedded in cognitive legitimacy, or
the pure and simple lack of corporate intentionality embedded in moral legitimacy driven by
more ethical management or political and collaborative approaches to CSR (Garriga and
Melé, 2004; Palazzo and Scherer, 2006; Scherer and Palazzo, 2007, 2011; Suchman, 1995).
Communicatively, the dilemma outlined above is reflected in expectations of and pressure
on corporations not only to launch concrete CSR initiatives, but also to communicate openly
about these initiatives to and with their stakeholders. Hence, as demonstrated in our review,
corporations are expected to submit information via corporate websites, CSR reports and
codes of conduct, and to carefully pay attention to stakeholders’ voices, perceptions, beliefs
and attitudes regarding their CSR performances. However, as pointed out in our findings, a
backlash occurs as a result of “the self-promoter paradox” embedded in CSR communication,
when businesses try to hide their self-interested motivations behind an alleged ethical urge to
“do good.” A backlash may also occur when businesses fail to balance their words with their
actions, disclosing signs of inauthenticity or evoking skepticism and cynicism leading to
accusations of hypocrisy and window dressing from critical stakeholders (Christensen et al.,
2013; Wagner et al., 2009). The pressure on legitimacy thus speaks for itself. However, under
these circumstances the acts of gaining legitimacy are often transferred into acts of restoring
or repairing legitimacy as a means for corporations to keep their “license to operate.” CSR
communication, then, tends to become an issue of risk management. Looking at this risk
management scenario as a communication framework allows us to gain deeper insights into
the dilemma from a legitimacy perspective. The result of the backlash in CSR communication
is that its contribution to corporate legitimacy is challenged. Only in situations in which
promotion and morality can be sufficiently aligned – e.g. when a corporation has a strong
historical record of CSR, thanks to several years of CSR practices, and/or adopts a strategy of
communication in which dialogue, interaction and collaboration overrule exaggerated
promotion and lofty promises – does CSR communication have the potential to enhance
corporate legitimacy, whereby CSR communication can turn into an issue of collaborative
stakeholder management.
Limitations
As usual, this investigation may have a number of potential shortcomings restricting
its validity.
First, our review of CSR communication is based on a sample of research articles
published over the past 15 years, which is a limited period of time; i.e. it does not take into
account CSR communication research published prior to 2000. Second, our adoption of a
narrow set of keywords for our search, focusing on CSR communication, excluded
publications that are more marginal in terms of dealing with communication problems
and issues of CSR. Third, the fact that our sample is extracted from selected databases
(ABI/INFORM, EBSCO’s Business Source Complete, CMMC and JSTOR) means that it
does not necessarily represent the totality of potential outlets and books that publish
research within the field of CSR communication.
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Implications for future research
CSR communication is an emerging field that helps to expand our understanding of how
CSR is addressed communicatively by both strategic management and communication
scholars and practitioners. As shown in our review, the communication vantage point is
addressed as a narrow discipline, conceptualizing CSR communication as a set of isolated
operations and practices that may increase businesses’ market positions and the attitudes
and beliefs of their stakeholders through CSR corporate messaging, channels and media
monitored by managers. However, communication is also approached as a broad strategic
discipline embracing CSR communication as a field of organizing, understanding, making
sense of and collaborating about CSR. The broad approach to CSR communication is slowly
emerging in step with new political global agendas followed by a holistic, critical and more
societal trend that has appeared through the bridging of corporate and organizational
communication (Christensen and Cornelissen, 2011), and through an increasing reluctance to
see new capitalism as a possible framework for future growth and for businesses in society
(Fleming and Jones, 2013).
On the basis of this, we believe that studies within the following three areas or topics
could take CSR communication research a step forward: studies that link CSR
communication to a broader and more holistic concept of corporate communication and
related fields (i.e. stakeholder interaction, corporate branding, public relations, etc.);
empirical studies that provide more in-depth insights into the stakeholder benefits and
legitimacy of CSR communication; and studies of message and media factors, e.g. the
characteristics and appropriateness of channels and media for CSR messages/interaction
and the appropriateness of rhetorical elements. Moreover, we believe that linking
company-specific studies to the above three focus areas could increase our understanding of
CSR communication as an international and intercultural issue.
From a practical perspective, our findings indicate that organizations could benefit from
developing their CSR communication strategies and practices in collaboration with local and
global actors and stakeholders if their aim is to increase their legitimacy. It might, for
example, be a good decision for organizations which are primarily one-way oriented – be it
in traditional or social media communication – to rethink their CSR communication
strategies aligning them to more collaborative forms and co-creative processes with their
stakeholders. In the same way, our study seems to indicate that creating stakeholder value
and engagement requires a dialogical approach.
Finally, organizations could increase their opportunities to achieve corporate legitimacy
by bonding in corporate activist processes to cope with global CSR issues and participate
more proactively in joint CSR projects and solutions with the aim of enhancing the role of
business in society.
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Corresponding author
Christa Thomsen can be contacted at: ct@mgmt.au.dk
For instructions on how to order reprints of this article, please visit our website:
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Corporate
social
responsibility
communication
511
Nuria Villagra
nuriavillagra@ccinf.ucm.es
Associate Professor.
Department of Audiovisual
Communication and
Advertising. School of
Communication. Complutense
University of Madrid. Spain.
Miguel A. M. Cárdaba
mmartincar@villanueva.edu
Associate Professor. Area of
Communication. Villanueva
University Center. Complutense
University of Madrid. Spain.
José A. Ruiz San Román
jars@ucm.es
Associate Professor.
Department of Sociology VI.
School of Communication.
Complutense University of
Madrid. Spain.
Submitted
October 13, 2015
Approved
December 21, 2015
© 2016
Communication & Society
ISSN 0214-0039
E ISSN 2386-7876
doi: 10.15581/003.29.2.133-146
www.communication-society.com
2016 – Vol. 29(2),
pp. 133-146
How to cite this article:
Villagra, N., Cárdaba, M.A.M. & Ruiz
San Román, J.A. (2016).
Communicating Corporate Social
Responsibility: re-assessment of
classical theories about fit
between CSR actions and
corporate activities. Communication
& Society 29(2), 133-146.
Communicating Corporate Social
Responsibility: re-assessment of
classical theories about fit between
CSR actions and corporate activities
Abstract
The literature on effective communication of Corporate Social
Responsibility (CSR) paints a complex and occasionally
contradictory picture of the role of alignment between
corporate activities and CSR actions, classically termed
“corporate fit”. Some authors highlight the importance of such
alignment for effective communication of CSR, whereas other
authors suggest that such fit can engender skepticism and
public behaviors that harm the company. In addition, more
recent work suggests the importance of “personal fit”, which
refers to alignment between CSR actions and what receivers of
the CSR communication consider to be personally relevant. In
order to clarify this complex picture, we randomly assigned 86
young people to three groups: one was exposed to CSR
communication showing corporate fit, another to CSR
communication showing personal fit, and the third to control
(non-CSR) communication. In contrast to what the literature
might predict, we found that the CSR message with corporate fit
was as persuasive as the control message for convincing
subjects to rate the company as sincere and honest and to be
willing to sign a declaration in favor of the company. The
message with personal fit led to higher ratings of sincerity and
honesty, as well as greater willingness to sign the declaration.
These results suggest the need to re-assess the role of classical
corporate fit in the communication of CSR actions, and they
raise the possibility that other types of fit exist and may even be
stronger determinants of the effectiveness of CSR
communication.
Keywords
Corporate social responsibility, corporate communication, fit,
personal fit communication effectiveness, persuasion
1. Introduction
The importance of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and its
influence on positive public perceptions of an organization
(Zyglidopoulos, 2002) have transformed corporate management in
133
ISSN 2386-7876 – © 2016 Communication & Society, 29(2), 133-146
Villagra, N., Cárdaba M.A.M. & Ruiz San Román, J.A.
Communicating Corporate Social Responsibility: re-assessment of classical theories
about fit between CSR actions and corporate activities
recent decades (Carroll & Shabana, 2010; Kotler & Lee, 2008). Companies now include in
their communications information related to ethical values and responsible behavior, in the
hope of improving brand reputation and public recognition. On the other hand, as several
researchers point out (e.g., Elving, Golob, Podnar, Ellerup-Nielsen & Thomson, 2015; Jahdi
&Acikdilli, 2009; Morsing, Schultz & Nielsen, 2008; Seele & Lock, 2015), communicating CSR
actions does not always translate into positive public perception but can occasionally
engender rejection or skepticism. This highlights the need to analyze and understand what
and how CSR actions should be communicated in order to promote corporate image.
The present experimental study analyzed the role of so-called “fit” in influencing the
effectiveness of communicating CSR actions. It examined whether the coherence or
alignment between corporate activities and publicly communicated CSR actions, known as
“corporate fit”, is a key determinant of the effectiveness of CSR communication. The bulk of
the relevant literature indicates that greater corporate fit leads to more effective CSR
communication (Du, Bhattacharya & Sen, 2010; Elving, 2010, 2013; Nan & Heo, 2007). For
example, it would be more effective for an oil company to publicize its research and
development into non-contaminating gasolines, which aligns well with the company’s
normal activities, than to publicize its efforts to promote and develop primary schooling,
which is unrelated to the company’s normal activities.
Optimizing the effectiveness of CSR communication does not always mean optimizing
corporate fit, however. Studies suggest that corporate fit can increase public skepticism and
thereby reduce the effectiveness of the communication (Forehand & Grier, 2003; Yoon,
Gürhan-Canli & Schwarz, 2006). In addition, more recent work has suggested the
importance of “personal fit” (Schmeltz, 2012), referring to alignment between CSR actions
and what receivers of the CSR communication consider to be personally relevant.
The present study, then, examines whether corporate and/or personal fit influences the
effectiveness of CSR communication. This is, to our knowledge, the first study to directly
compare these types of fit. Our independent variable was whether individuals received CSR
messages in a context of corporate fit, personal fit or control conditions. We analyzed the
effect of type of fit on two dependent variables: perceived sincerity of a company’s CSR
communication and intent to sign a declaration favorable to the company.
2. CSR communication a…

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