One things clients experiencing negative media attention often ask us is, what kind of CSR should we be doing to mitigate this bad publicity? Before answering that question, it is worthwhile to explore whether or not CSR actually does help limit public blowback.
Corporate social responsibility, also known as CSR, while difficult to define, can be described as a form of private business self-regulation that allows a company to take responsibility for the social and/or environmental impacts of its business. This often takes the form of corporate pledges (such as a carbon footprint pledge) or philanthropy. Some high-profile examples of CSR include BP’s commitment to the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon spill and Budweiser’s canned water campaign to support hurricane relief. Sometimes CSR is employed as a direct response to a crisis of the company’s own making (BP) and sometimes CSR is employed as a general charitable strategy likely to boost public sentiment about the company (Budweiser).
But the question remains, does it work?
In an ideal world, companies would engage in CSR activities whether or not they “worked” to get a company out of some bad publicity. However, company executives have to justify spending corporate dollars on CSR activities to investors and board members, and being a buffer against public blowback can provide that justification. So whether CSR activities “work” is not a cynical question for companies to ask and is indeed an important one.
Angie Chung, an Assistant Professor of Public Relations at Auburn University’s School of Communication and Journalism, published a study on CSR activities last year that examined this very issue. The study looked at consumer skepticism toward a company’s apology statement and general attitude about the company itself and then compared the results of companies that included a message about its CSR in its apology statement and companies that did not. The study found that the answer is not as simple as “yes or no.”
The study found that when there was a clear and sensible association between the company’s mission and the CSR activity (i.e., Warby Parker donating eyeglasses to people in need around the world), the consumers had less skepticism towards the apology statement and a more positive attitude about the company when compared to non-CSR messaging.
However, the study also found that when there was not a clear and sensible association between the company’s mission and the CSR activity, there was more consumer skepticism towards the apology statement and a less positive general attitude about the company when compared to non-CSR messaging. Likely the consumers saw the CSR activity to be a shallow and disingenuous attempt by the company to shield itself from negative publicity.
What companies can take away from this study is that genuine and earnest CSR can and should be touted when a company runs into trouble. However, those same companies should be wary of publicizing their CSR just to get out of a jam. Consumers are smart enough to see that kind of CSR for what it is, and it may end up causing more damage than saying nothing about CSR at all.