At-risk population is a term that is broadly used but has varied definitions. Fields that commonly use the term are public and environmental health; medical, risk, and emergency management; and civil rights and civil liberties. Although definitions of the term vary, a generally agreed-on definition considers at-risk populations to be populations whose members may have additional needs before, during, and after an incident or event of magnitude in functional areas, such as maintaining independence, communication, transportation, supervision, and medical care. Those members in need of additional response assistance may include but are not limited to people with disabilities, those who live in institutionalized settings, the elderly, children, people from diverse cultures, those who have limited language proficiency, or those who are transportation disadvantaged. This entry discusses how corporations’ interactions with at-risk populations can leave them vulnerable to threats to their corporate reputation and how corporations can protect against or minimize this risk.
Where the categories of at-risk populations and corporate reputation intersect is in the realm of corporate citizenship (as an enactment of an organization’s corporate social responsibility). Corporate citizenship does at least two things. First, it helps integrate companies into the social fabric of local communities by strengthening the social bonds between the company, its employees, and the local community. Second, corporate citizenship helps build reputational capital. By addressing the needs of at-risk populations that are within a corporation’s sphere of operations, managers can generate reputational gains that improve a company’s ability to attract resources, enhance its performance, and build competitive advantage. Additionally, corporate citizenship programs also lessen the risk of reputational losses that can result from alienating key stakeholders or their advocates. Failing to live up to community expectations of not harming or exploiting at-risk populations can have adverse effects for organizations’ reputations and could lead to them being deemed illegitimate.
Four factors contribute to organizations’ vulnerability to illegitimacy threats: (1) social distance, (2) unattractiveness, (3) deviance, and (4) uniqueness. Social distance refers to the difference between the beliefs of an organization and those of the local community. The (un)attractiveness construct describes the level at which an organization appeals to community residents both emotionally and economically. Deviance refers to organizational behaviors that are inconsistent with prevailing community expectations and norms. Last, new or unique companies often lack a rapport with community residents because they have no track record of dependable involvement with the community; thus, they tend to be poorly understood.
Socially distant, unattractive, or deviant organizations often find themselves victims of “not in my backyard” efforts, where communities mobilize and act because they perceive an organization is undermining the welfare of the community. Companies can reduce their vulnerability to illegitimacy claims and threats by reducing social distance and the perceived deviance of their values and activities from those of the local community. Corporate citizenship programs can help companies do so and thereby diminish community protests and thwart threats to the legitimacy of their operations. Some specific corporate citizen programs designed for at-risk populations could include providing economic assistance and donations to local organizations that address some of the needs of these populations; engaging in volunteerism, where key organizational members become active participants in the community (e.g., serving at food banks, participating in clothing drives, building homes for Habitat for Humanity); providing grants to local schools to ensure that quality education and training for local students are available; and investing in much-needed community infrastructure (e.g., roads, transportation system, water, and sewage) that could enhance both access and, in some cases, quality of life for members of these population. These are just a few of the ways by which a company can simultaneously address the needs of vulnerable populations while invoking support for its operations and building reputational capital.
Once reputational capital has been built, it can be leveraged for corporate benefit. Companies that actively participate in local communities benefit from community protection when threatened by oppositional stakeholder groups. For example, in the late 1990s, the Coca-Cola Company faced a racial discrimination lawsuit brought forth by a group of disgruntled employees. Although Coca-Cola ultimately settled the case in an agreement costing it more than $190 million, at the peak of the reputational crisis over the racial discrimination allegations, the company received widespread support from black community leaders. This is noteworthy because these black community leaders highlighted the fact that Coca-Cola had established a strong record of sustained corporate citizenship in the form of contributing to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) even though objectively one can see that giving money to fund HBCUs is a separate issue from, nor should it absolve a company of guilt for, having an organizational culture that marginalizes and discriminates against blacks. What this case shows is that corporate citizenship programs can generate favorable regard for a company and have the potential of providing broad protection to the organization’s corporate reputation. This protection spans beyond the scope of the organization’s community efforts (in this case, donations to HBCUs, i.e., to external stakeholders who are predominantly black) to provide protection against the negative impression left by allegations of racial discrimination against black employees or internal stakeholders who are predominantly black.
At-risk populations, by definition, are vulnerable populations. Corporations have vast resources and often have the means to address a portion of the issues pertinent to these vulnerable persons. As indicated here, the relationship among corporate citizenship activities, reputational risk, and the process through which companies build reputational capital and competitive advantage is not always easy to identify; however, it is one that should be given greater attention by corporate managers, especially given the fact that corporations can use corporate citizenship or the lack thereof to manage or mismanage reputational risk.
Fombrun, C. J., Gardberg, N. A., & Michael, L. B. (2000). Opportunity platforms and safety nets: Corporate citizenship and reputational risk. Business and Society Review, 105(1), 85–106.
Waymer, D. (2012). Crisis management and communication: Pre-crisis preparation that is sensitive to diverse populations. In B. Olaniran, D. Williams, & W. T. Coombs (Eds.), Pre-crisis management: Preparing for the inevitable (pp. 281–298). New York: Peter Lang.
Waymer, D., & VanSlette, S. (2013). Corporate reputation management and issues of diversity. In C. Carroll (Ed.), Handbook of communication and corporate reputation. (pp. 471–483). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.