Skip to content
The OCR Glossary

Corporate Social Responsibility,Communication of

Urša Golob

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) refers to the now widespread belief both in business and in social milieus about modern businesses having responsibilities that go beyond their duties to make profit and cater to the demands of the shareholders or the owners of the firm. Those responsibilities extend to society and the firm’s stakeholders, such as employees, customers, the local community, nongovernmental organizations, the media, and others. The idea of CSR is that no business can afford to work isolated from important issues in society or alienated from its stakeholders. The meaning of CSR is defined by stakeholders’ expectations about the “appropriate” behavior of businesses toward society and the natural environment. These expectations are socially constructed and are institutionalized through the stakeholder networks where businesses participate.

CSR can be viewed as a participative social process where communication has a central role. CSR communication thus reflects the ways in which firms engage in social processes at a communicative level. It concerns not only how firms communicate about CSR but also how the meanings of the messages are construed and shared among firms and stakeholders. According to some reputation scholars, CSR and CSR communication represent a starting point when managing risks related to reputation. CSR is one of the essential components of reputation capital building and can, if approached carefully and with regard for stakeholders’ concerns and expectations, serve as a safety net in times of crisis. This entry further discusses the importance of the communication view of CSR, focuses on the different roles communication plays with regard to CSR, and ends by explaining the relation between CSR and reputation.

The phenomenon of CSR communication is increasingly present in the business and management literature and is gaining attention in communication science as well. CSR communication as an emerging topic in management journals is mainly focused on issues such as disclosure, reporting, CSR communication strategies and tools, and reputation. Similar trends can be observed for CSR communication practice. Here, communication experts, who can be seen as a link between the firm and its stakeholders, often assume responsibility for CSR-related issues. Research has shown that the practice of communicating CSR has grown more visible. KPMG, which continuously monitors CSR reporting by the world’s biggest firms, has observed dramatic growth in the quantity of CSR reporting. In 2013, almost three quarters of the 4,100 firms surveyed communicated on CSR in their annual reports. Among the world’s 250 largest firms, this rate is even higher at 93%, indicating that CSR communication through annual reports has become a mainstream business practice worldwide.

The research area of CSR communication is fairly heterogeneous; scholars approach the phenomenon from different fields of study such as public relations, corporate communication, marketing communication, organizational communication, and even accounting. The latter mainly investigates CSR reporting and disclosure issues. These perspectives often have different understandings about what an organization is and thus influence how the communication role of CSR is perceived. Out of these differences, two main views on CSR communication are emerging: one that sees CSR communication in a functionalist, instrumental way and the other that is constitutive in its character. In short, the first approach is mainly concerned with how to communicate the CSR efforts of the firm and inform as well as influence the perceptions of stakeholders, while the second approach discusses how meanings of CSR are co-construed by the firm and its stakeholders.

Perspectives on Communication of CSR

When CSR was in its infancy, both in practice and as a field of study, most practitioners and scholars were mainly interested in how to convey messages about a firm’s CSR activities to stakeholders. From this perspective, CSR was seen as yet another set of practices or activities that a firm was engaging in and as such needed to be communicated to the various stakeholders in order to secure the reputation of the firm. Approaching CSR communication in this way, by looking at CSR as content or message and communication as transmission, denotes the functionalist perspective. Communicators are primarily interested in the means and ways of exerting influence on stakeholders’ perceptions about firms’ CSR. Or at best, they seek to achieve some sort of consent with stakeholders regarding CSR practices. Thus, a functionalist perspective anticipates that CSR communication is mechanistic in its character, while also stressing its psychological aspect. It is concerned with selecting and using promotional techniques that offer a perfect transaction of a CSR message from the firm to various stakeholders, as well as with the thoughts and impressions of the stakeholders on interpreting the message. Do stakeholders see the firm as more responsible once they have received the message? Is the perceived CSR-based brand identity equal to the identity the firm wants to project?

In terms of communication models, the functionalist view follows the classical linear approach to CSR communication, using either an information strategy, based on one-way communication, or a response strategy, where the communication is two-way. However, it is only seen as such in a limited sense, building on asymmetry rather than symmetry. According to the typology of CSR communication strategies introduced by Mette Morsing and Majken Schultz, the main communication task of the response strategy is to demonstrate to stakeholders how the firm integrates its CSR-related concerns. The information strategy uses typical one-way communication tools such as annual reports, special CSR reports, websites, brochures, press releases, advertisements, product labels, and other similar means to transmit favorable CSR decisions and actions and to enhance the CSR image and reputation.

A firm may also design special CSR initiatives such as cause-related marketing campaigns or any CSR projects that would fall in the communication domain. This way it uses CSR itself as a tool with the aim of communicating the desired CSR impression. The response strategy, however, may utilize other communication tools in addition to the ones mentioned. It may, for example, use corporate blogs or even social media, mainly to include feedback about what the stakeholders will accept and tolerate, but focusing on supporting and reinforcing its CSR actions and identity and not inviting them to collaborate in its CSR efforts. Many examples from the literature on CSR communication show us that a functionalist approach is mostly present in marketing- and public relations–oriented research, where successful CSR performance is measured against how well CSR issues, the firm’s motives, and stakeholder benefits are communicated and then perceived by stakeholders.

Co-Constructing the Meanings of CSR

A functionalist approach to CSR communication has been increasingly criticized for being too one-sided and focused on the firm’s interests, for neglecting dialogue with stakeholders, and for provoking skepticism among stakeholders with regard to CSR practices. The use of tools such as advertising for communicating CSR has also been criticized, for instance, by invoking the concept of “greenwashing,” which denotes communication activities where firms falsely boost their eco-credentials through exaggerated claims.

The emerging alternative to the functionalist approach is a constructionist or constitutive understanding of CSR communication. Representatives of the constructivist approach emphasize the importance of interaction between the firm and its stakeholders with the aim of negotiating and co-constructing CSR efforts. The inclusion of stakeholders should be based on the interdependence between stakeholders’ expectations on one side and the characteristics of the firm on the other. CSR communication is thus a framework for how to address the processes of CSR from both an intra-organizational and an interorganizational perspective and is, from these perspectives, most often researched by scholars coming from the organizational communication field of study.

How a firm communicates CSR has to do not only with sensemaking, or how stakeholders attribute meaning to the firm’s actions, but also with sensegiving, or how managers influence this process by providing information in an iterative, progressive communication process. A constitutive approach to CSR communication is best explained by the social constructionist viewpoint on communication, which says that meanings, truths, and ideas are constructed through the ongoing social process of communication. This denotes the involvement or interacting CSR communication strategy embracing a dialogic or two-way notion of communication. In contrast to the one-way communication tools used when communicating CSR in an instrumental way, involvement strategy requires communication tools with dialogical functions to facilitate two-way communication. To develop increased interaction between the firm and stakeholders, social media such as weblogs, Twitter, or wikis may be appropriate. In addition, to connect with important stakeholders and explore their concerns and expectations, a firm can engage them in multistakeholder dialogues, stakeholder meetings, roundtables, and other ways of dynamic, interactive communication.

CSR Communication and Reputation

While a constitutive approach is much closer to what one could call a CSR communication ideal, empirical investigations from the literature and observations of the current activities in practice suggest that the majority of firms are hesitant to engage in dialogic communication processes. They mostly lean on the functionalist approach by employing information strategies, often remaining at the level of biased and self-laudatory messages, and are reluctant to let the power out of their hands. That is, a two-way or dialogic communication also means that a lot of the communication becomes uncontrollable or beyond managerial control.

It has to be emphasized, however, that in practice both approaches to communication are not necessarily mutually exclusive. A firm may supplement its functionalist approach to CSR communication by including involvement strategy as well. This addition may in fact be beneficial to the one-way communication a firm is using to convey the messages about its CSR activities (sensegiving). By identifying and including stakeholders’ expectations and concerns, CSR messages can become more balanced, avoiding what Blake Ashforth and Barrie Gibbs called the “self-promoter’s paradox”—a firm trying to communicate overly positive CSR claims. One way to achieve balance is to include stakeholders in the co-creation of CSR communication, where they can act as the external endorsers of the messages and thus become coresponsible for the content and the framing of the messages.

Most of the literature suggests that firms utilize CSR communication to minimize risks to reputation. Building on the notion of the self-promoter’s paradox, CSR communication that is overly positive and too conspicuous can reinforce stakeholders’ skepticism. CSR communication is then perceived as a “cover-up,” which either leads to losing the potential to preserve and build reputation or may even damage it. CSR communication without involving stakeholders can be a double-edged sword when it comes to reputation. Therefore, acknowledging the “social” dimension of reputation as reflected in CSR practices, the key aspects of CSR communication are stakeholder involvement and recognizing perceptions of how well a firm’s CSR efforts meet stakeholders’ expectations. To conclude, CSR and CSR communication are inseparable dimensions of reputation and can influence the overall reputation of a firm. Including CSR-related issues and the practice of CSR communication in the processes of reputation management remains, however, dependent on stakeholder cooperation and inclusion and is no easy task.

Garriga, E., & Melé, D. (2004). Corporate social responsibility theories: Mapping the territory. Journal of Business Ethics, 53, 51–71.

Golob, U., Podnar, K., Elving, W. J., Nielsen, A. E., Thomsen, C., & Schultz, F. (2013). CSR communication: Quo vadis? Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 18, 176–192.

Ihlen, Ø., Bartlett, J., & May, S. (Eds.). (2011). The handbook of communication and corporate social responsibility. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

Morsing, M., & Schultz, M. (2006). Corporate social responsibility communication: Stakeholder information, response and involvement strategies. Business Ethics: A European Review, 15, 323–338.

Schoeneborn, D., & Trittin, H. (2013). Transcending transmission: Towards a constitutive perspective on CSR communication. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 18, 193–211.

Seele, P., & Lock, I. (2014). Instrumental and/or deliberative? A typology of CSR communication tools. Journal of Business Ethics, 131(2), 401–414.

See Also

Accountability; Cause-Related Marketing; Corporate Social Irresponsibility; Corporate Social Responsibility; Corporate Social Responsibility, Company-Sponsored Events; Disclosure; Ethics of Reputation Management; Legitimacy; Management, Corporate Reputation; Meaning; Organizational Integrity; Organizational Trust; Organization-Public Relationships; Public Relations; Reputation Risk; Stakeholders; Transparency

See Also

Please select listing to show.