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The OCR Glossary

Action and Performance

Dean E. Mundy

The concepts of action and performance refer to the dual responsibility of individuals and firms alike to increase positive tangible, measurable works and demonstrate observable long-term responsible behavior, while simultaneously decreasing negative impacts and behaviors. Put another way, even if individuals or organizations succeed in achieving work objectives, they put themselves at risk if they simultaneously exhibit bad behaviors. In this sense, positive and negative behaviors exist on two continuums. Not only must individuals and organizations exhibit positive behaviors and pursue positive works, but they also must eliminate negative behaviors and actions. This entry discusses individual and organizational action and performance, reputation building through corporate social responsibility (CSR), variables affecting action and performance, and the role of public relations (PR) in organizations’ action and performance.

Individual Action and Performance

Those individuals who have achieved a high degree of early success in meeting their work objectives arguably are at higher risk of demonstrating negative behaviors that could derail future success. Success brings with it risks such as overconfidence, overreliance on assumed/presumed knowledge, overreliance on past approaches that might not be appropriate today, lack of willingness to engage alternate perspectives, and an unhealthy pursuit of increased success at all costs. Accordingly, individuals must pay attention to their behaviors and reduce or eliminate those behaviors that reinforce and/or convey false impressions of their responsibilities, value, and/or superiority. Such negative behaviors include not listening, not giving credit where credit is due, failing to give thanks where thanks is due, not accepting blame for one’s role in a negative outcome, or taking any kind of action for the sole purpose of securing an advantageous position over others. That said, while reducing these negative behaviors, individuals also must introduce positive behaviors. Although these are related, they are two separate mandates. Positive behaviors include thanking those who have helped one achieve success, apologizing when appropriate, focusing on workplace team goals over personal advantage, inviting multiple points of view into the decision-making process, and inviting feedback from all levels of colleagues.

Organizational Action and Performance

The same mandates hold true at the organizational level. Organizations that have achieved success might be at risk of losing touch with core internal and external stakeholders. Today’s successes often dictate increased demands tomorrow, which often can be unrealistic or pursued unethically. As with individual success, organizations too have the dual mandate of achieving positive actions and performance while reducing or eliminating negative behaviors and works. Ultimately, both aspects contribute to an organization’s reputation.

Action, Performance, and Reputation Building Through CSR

Many firms in the past two decades have initiated reputation-building programs focused on CSR, which might influence, but are distinct from, an organization’s business goals. CSR programs go beyond the legal mandates facing an organization and focus on organizations’ ethical responsibilities in the communities in which they live and serve. CSR efforts help position organizations as good citizens contributing a variety of resources to important causes. CSR acknowledges that while an organization might be achieving business objectives and adhering to legal mandates, its reputation will suffer if it simultaneously is perceived as not committed to the broader well-being of the community it serves. CSR initiatives can happen in two different ways. First, organizations may engage in philanthropy or volunteerism broadly for a variety of local events or causes. For example, employee service days or organization-wide fund-raising efforts can support designated nonprofit services and/or causes, such as Habitat for Humanity, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Red Cross, or local, community-specific organizations. Second, organizations might develop CSR efforts around a cause directly tied to their business mission and operational context. For example, for years the Coca-Cola Company has partnered with the World Wildlife Fund as a lead sponsor in helping save polar bears. While the goal certainly is to help save polar bears, it ties to the company’s long-time use of polar bear imagery in holiday marketing.

Moreover, as with individual responsibility, effective CSR requires organizations to increase their strengths and positive actions while reducing their weaknesses or negative impacts. There are limits to each. On the one hand, organizations must discern which CSR opportunities are appropriate and doable given their goals and available resources. Larger corporations, for example, are approached by dozens of organizations, representing a variety of causes, asking for resources and support. It is impossible in these cases to honor all requests. Organizations, therefore, must discern which causes are most important to certain communities and/or to an organization’s mission. Simultaneously, CSR requires organizations to reduce or eliminate practices or behaviors that could negatively affect the communities they serve. For example, all organizations have faced increasing public demand to reduce waste and pollution. In fact, given the growing focus on the environment, the area of sustainability and environmental responsibility is emerging as a separate field. Many major corporations now release sustainability reports, separate from CSR reports.

That said, the reduction of negative social behaviors also has limits in many cases. For example, power companies have a responsibility to maintain safe power lines, which often requires trimming or removing precarious branches or trees that could impede power and bring down electrical service for an entire community. There is a limit, therefore, to how much these companies can concede when faced with preservation groups who might insist that the companies leave a neighborhood of historic trees untouched, even if the trees pose an imminent risk. Again, as in the case of the individual, CSR’s dual mandates to increase positive actions and decrease negative ones are related but distinct. A major gas company might contribute millions of dollars to environmental groups, but those actions could be negated if it also does not simultaneously attempt to decrease potentially harmful drilling practices.

Variables Affecting Action and Performance

Three variables affect an organization’s action and performance: (1) the relationships between CSR and corporate financial performance (CFP), (2) the level of media exposure, and (3) stakeholder relationships. First, the result of effective CSR is ethical corporate social performance (CSP), and there has been debate regarding the connections between CSP and CFP. Accordingly, when organizations focus on increasing strengths and decreasing weaknesses, they must address the possible links between the two. While various arguments can be made, multiple variables do contribute to CSP, CFP, and the relationships therein; an organization’s financial status and social status do influence each other, though different contexts affect how this happens. For example, more successful organizations have more resources to engage in CSR initiatives. Conversely, many consumers are more willing to support an organization and buy its products because of its CSP, which contributes to that organization’s CFP. Similarly, organizations that are perceived as committed to or invested in their communities have a better chance of survival during times of crisis or downturn. The public is willing to support those corporations that have supported it historically.

Another key variable is media exposure. Organizations with more media exposure are under greater scrutiny and therefore can be at risk from public action against them in times of anticipated, perceived, or known wrongdoing. Those organizations with the most media attention can become symbols (and therefore targets) for groups trying to gain attention for a social issue. Thus, the larger and/or more notable the firms, the more incentive exists to invest in ways to build public support—such as via CSR initiatives—in order to demonstrate that they are, in fact, good citizens. For example, many humanitarian and environmental groups use the Olympic Games as a platform to take corporations to task regarding practices and policies. Corporations increasingly are called on to withdraw their sponsorship and boycott the games because of the political context in the host cities, such as Beijing, China (human rights), Sochi, Russia (hate crimes against sexual minorities), and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (poverty and the environment). If a boycott or sponsorship removal or reduction is not possible, however, corporations must determine alternate actions to address the issue, maintain reputation, and enhance CSP.

Accordingly, different stakeholders wield varying levels of influence over corporations. Some research has shown that in many cases, the level of influence is tied to the resources available to stakeholder groups, the level at which they operate (local, state, national), their homogeneity versus heterogeneity, and the varying degrees to which stakeholders are dependent on the organization in question. The media perhaps are the most influential in terms of forcing action, and those external stakeholder groups who can effectively convey their calls to action via the media are able to influence the action and performance of corporations. It is imperative, therefore, for organizations to understand not only which stakeholders they see as more or less influential but also how various stakeholders perceive the organization. If those internal versus external perspectives are not in line, organizations risk pursuing actions that do not meet public expectations and result in poor CSP.

The Role of PR

Because of its focus on ethically establishing an organization’s reputation over the long term—by establishing substantive, quality connections with the organization’s stakeholders—PR has a central role in helping manage the actions and performance of an organization. Moreover, effective PR requires a strategic focus on constant, consistent messaging and actions and deeds that reinforce organizational legitimacy. Certainly, PR’s leadership in CSR reflects this mandate. Beyond the CSR context, however, PR programs have a broader responsibility to holistically integrate a focus on the actions that ethically contribute to organizational success, quality organization-public relationships, and the corresponding quality corporate reputation.

PR Actions Based on Proactive Strategies

To that end, research has shown that PR generally can leverage two types of actions: (1) actions that involve proactive strategies and (2) actions that involve reactive strategies. First, proactive strategies involve actions initiated by the organization itself and those that result from the organization’s formal communication planning. The goal of these actions is to ethically, strategically connect an organization with key publics, whether the goal is to communicate organizational initiatives, convey broad commitment to a community, or take the lead on a specific issue that could affect the community. Using Ron Smith’s guidelines, these proactive strategies comprise several types of actions: organizational performance, audience participation, special events, alliances, sponsorships, and activism.

Organizations primarily must focus on performance, ensuring that they are operating effectively and efficiently while responding to public needs and expectations. PR efforts will fall flat if an organization is not in touch with stakeholder demands. This process starts with the most important stakeholder group: employees. It is crucial for employees to support, and advocate for, an organization’s actions and initiatives. Without internal support, the PR function will be unable to effectively convey the quality or value of a product or service to external groups. For example, some corporations give employees free samples of new products. Doing so builds morale while also building a stable of product advocates who can speak directly about the product to external groups. This helps build organizational confidence, as well as a critical mass of support for PR efforts.

Quality organizational performance, however, cannot exist without public participation. Accordingly, one of the most important, proactive actions an organization can take is to make the public part of the communication process. In this sense, an organization is not simply speaking to or at the public. Rather, the organization is actively positioning a product or service based on what is important to the public, not the organization. Audience participation, therefore, also highlights the public’s voice, rather than the organization’s voice. For example, hearing the experience of consumers directly from the consumers themselves is the most effective way to convey the quality of an organization’s products or services. Finally, perhaps the most important role of the public is providing feedback to an organization. Inviting the public to comment on products and services shows that an organization is listening and responsive, and it helps reassure organizations that their actions are indeed in line with public expectations and needs.

Additional proactive strategies focus on actions that create more substantive, long-term connections with external stakeholders. For example, organizations can hold special community events that provide a forum for public engagement, collaboration, and community building. As with effective organizational performance, however, these events must focus on public interest rather than serving as a forum to simply promote an organization’s goods or services. Similarly, organizations can choose to sponsor certain events, services, or causes that are important to a local community. Again, these proactive strategies enhance social performance by demonstrating that an organization is in tune with the communities it serves.

Another proactive way for organizations to demonstrate support for community concerns is to form alliances with like-minded organizations. As an alliance, organizations have a louder, more legitimate voice, with more resources to respond to community concerns and needs. Organizations must be vigilant, however, regarding their formal alliances and sponsorships, and the PR function must manage those relationships. Often when an organization is discovered to be participating in unethical behavior, all partner or ally organizations are at risk of being associated and implicated. Therefore, both forming and breaking alliances must be strategic actions.

Finally, some organizations proactively become activists—taking a lead role in creating action around a certain issue, with the hope of creating substantive social change. For example, many corporations have enhanced their reputation over the past decade by becoming leading voices for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) rights. Companies have donated substantial resources to specific campaigns and have threatened to move their business out of locations that actively discriminate against the LGBTQ community. Accordingly, beyond the LGBTQ example, organizations have increasingly focused on advocating for diversity and inclusion initiatives broadly. Today’s social performance often depends in part on an organization’s response to, and leadership of, social issues that are important to the communities it serves.

PR Actions Based on Reactive Strategies

Effective action and performance, however, has two mandates: to form (1) organization-driven, proactive strategies as well as (2) externally responsive, reactive strategies. Reactive strategies focus on some kind of external impetus that requires a response from an organization. Most often, these reactive strategies are used to respond to a negative (or potentially negative) situation. While proactive strategies typically result from ongoing PR planning, reactive strategies require effective environmental scanning, to ensure the organization has a clear understanding of its operational environment, including potential reputational threats.

Again, Smith provides fundamental guidance regarding the seven core response strategies typically used: preemptive, offensive, defensive, diversionary, vocal, rectifying, and inaction. First, when possible, organizations may choose to preempt possible statements that they can reasonably anticipate. This strategy is concerned with getting one’s own perspective and story out in the public domain before the external party is able to do so. Consequently, a preemptive response helps organizations take control of the story and set the stage for public discourse. An example is when opinion leaders, such as celebrities or politicians, have engaged in wrongdoing and use their platform to preempt media reports of their behavior.

When an organization is unable to effectively preempt situations, it is required to form a response to negative statements from external parties. In these cases, there are several types of response strategies that are more controversial. Some organizations, for example, go on the offensive, engaging in a power play to discredit external sources by attacking or embarrassing them. Other organizations might become defensive, trying to claim lack of knowledge or to express a justified rationale or excuse for their behavior. Finally, some organizations attempt to divert attention around the specific issue at hand, using strategies such as reframing the issue, distancing themselves from the issue, or downplaying it.

Less controversial strategies involve responding to the situation directly, taking responsibility, and leading the way forward. These strategies include vocal commiseration, where organizations express concern, regret, or sorrow for the situation. Additional strategies go one step further by trying to remedy the situation. Organizations may choose to launch an investigation, change internal processes entirely to ensure safer or better products or services, provide compensation to anyone negatively affected, or completely alter business operations because of the issue.

Finally, there is consistent discussion regarding the risks and benefits of an organization’s strategic inaction—when an organization’s response strategy is to remain silent. Organizations may choose to remain silent for different reasons, the worst of which is being caught off guard and not having a response strategy in place. Typically, however, organizations should only remain silent when they are forming an ethical response and know that they have a degree of support among their publics. It is more effective to engage in strategic inaction when an organization (or individual) is considered trustworthy and a valued part of the community. Remaining silent is more risky for those organizations (or individuals) that lack such public support.

There are two factors, however, that organizations must address when considering strategic inaction. First, the public will only wait only so long for a verbal response. It is important for organizations, therefore, to have a confined timeline when developing a response strategy. Second, it is important to distinguish between remaining silent and responding with “No comment.” Responding “No comment” is a specific type of verbal response typically associated with some degree of guilt, lack of knowledge regarding the issue, a fundamental lack of ability to respond, or lack of knowledge regarding how to do so. When choosing strategic inaction, organizations might decide to instead provide the timeline that will guide their response strategy.


Effective action and performance require two sets of mandates that operate on two distinct continuums. Individuals and organizations alike must focus on positive actions and constructive behavior while simultaneously reducing or eliminating actions or behaviors that have negative impacts. Successful individuals must focus on positive, supportive, team-focused behaviors. Workplace success can be risky because of false impressions of ability, expectations, or responsibility. Individuals, therefore, must be careful to manage potentially negative behaviors that could limit future success. For organizations, PR provides the core support function in this regard, helping guide social responsibility initiatives that contribute to positive corporate social performance while planning proactive and reactive communication strategies that manage corporate reputation. Accordingly, PR is charged with identifying opportunities to limit organizational behaviors that could detract from an organization’s reputation. Each organization—each industry—operates within specific contexts that play a part in the organization’s action and performance. Regardless, all organizations must be invested in and committed to the communities they serve over the long term. Perceptions regarding an organization’s actions and performance are dictated largely by the public’s perceptions of the organization’s contributions to society broadly.

Goldsmith, M., Reiter, M., Bunn, C., & Clester, S. (2011). What got you here won’t get you there (1st ed.). Mundelein, IL: Writers of the Round Table Press/Round Table Comics.

Kassinis, G., & Vafeas, N. (2006). Stakeholder pressures and environmental performance. Academy of Management Journal, 49(1), 145–159.

Orlitzky, M., Schmidt, F., & Rynes, S. (2003). Corporate social and financial performance: A meta-analysis. Organization Studies, 24(3), 403–441.

Smith, R. S. (2013). Formulating action and response strategies. Strategic planning for public relations (pp. 113–165). New York: Routledge.

Zyglidopoulos, S., Georgiadis, A., Carroll, C., & Siegel, D. (2012). Does media attention drive corporate social responsibility? Journal of Business Research, 65(11), 1622–1627.

See Also

Accountability; Corporate Advocacy; Corporate Apologies; Corporate Communication; Corporate Social Performance; Corporate Social Responsibility; Crisis; Media Relations

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