Amy O'Connor is an Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at North Dakotah State University. Her program of research examines how the corporate form shapes and is shaped by our understandings of social issues, work, and community. Michelle Shumate is an Assocaite Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is the director of Interorganizational Networks (ITO) research group at the University of Illinois and writes a useful blog, The Sector Blender, a blog about the growing relationships and blurring boundaries among nonprofit, for profit, and government sectors.
Running concurrent with scholarly research is the communicative practice of CSR. Through public communication, corporations “attempt to shape the grounds for discussing social and political issues of the day”, including the corporation’s responsibility to society. CSR has been described as a value-laden concept wherein “corporate social responsibility and value representation concerns are not about whether values, but whose and what values, are represented in business decisions” (Deetz, 2007, p. 269). (O'Connor and Shumate, supra, citing Cheney, G., & Christensen, L. T., "Organizational identity: Linkages between Internal and External Communication," in F. M. Jablin & L. L. Putnam (Eds.), The new handbook of organizational communication (pp. 231-269); Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001, at 233; and Deetz, S., "Corporate governance, corporate social responsibility, and communication, " in S. May, G. Cheney, & J. Roper (Eds.), The debate over corporate social responsibility (pp. 267-278); New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, at 269).
Institutional communication “serves to reproduce understanding and acceptance of the institution within society” (Lammers & Barbour, 2006, p. 364), thereby, creating institutional order (Phillips, Lawrence, & Hardy, 2004). Through communication, institutional order is made meaningful, a framework for internal and external behavior is provided, and the costs of nonconformity are understood. (Ibid., 532).
Research Question 1: How do corporations across economic industries collectively describe their CSR activities?
Research Question 2: How do corporations within the same economic industry describe their CSR activities?
Research Question 3: What are the similarities and differences in CSR communication across economic industries?(Ibid., 533-34).
Rather than a set of expectations placed on the corporations by society, the corporations in this study communicated CSR as being initiated by the corporation based on benevolence and paternalism. For example, corporations identified worker health and safety as being an ethical responsibility rather than a legal responsibility. This was surprising since worker health and safety is governed by federal and state regulation in the United States. Such a move suggests that corporations are recasting their legal responsibilities as discretionary to enhance public perception of CSR practices. (Ibid., 543).
The CSR rationale statements in this study limit the scope of CSR to people, places, and practices directly tied to corporate endeavors as opposed to society as a whole. As such, at the institutional level, CSR rationale statements suggest a more limited role for corporations than the business citizenship perspective. In the current research, more than half of the corporations suggest that their responsibility was limited to their local communities. In addition, employees were the most commonly mentioned beneficiaries of CSR activities. Corporations in this study offered general employee quality-of-life benefits as evidence of social responsibility. Some of the benefits were not regulated by law, such as child care programs (Citigroup), whereas others noted their compliance with federal laws as evidence of their social responsibilities (e g., Burlington’s safe working environment). CSR statements, therefore, suggest that the responsibilities of the corporation more closely resemble that of welfare capitalism. (O'Connor and Shumate, supra, at 544).
Welfare capitalism suggests that corporate responsibility extends to employ- ees and communities in which operations are located . . . . Corporate communication emphasizing welfare capitalism can be traced back to the 1920s. . . . [First,] although the Web sites may have replaced glossy corporate magazines of the 1920s, scholars should be cautious in interpreting CSR communication as equivalent to increased CSR expenditures or activities. . . . Second, scholars have suggested one of the reasons for the increased communication of welfare capitalism, especially concerning benefits to workers in the 1920s, was to undermine organized labor . . . Similarly, rationale statements suggesting employees as beneficiaries of CSR may have additional goals beyond fulfilling the ethical and discretionary responsibilities . . . of the corporation. Finally, adherence to the welfare capitalism view of CSR suggests that corporations have a responsibility only to communities that support their business operations. (O'Connor and Shumate, supra, 545).
Industries that were further up the value-chain and that relied on the exploitation of natural resources and/or had the potential to do significant community harm (e.g., chemical, mining and crude oil production, petroleum refining and utilities, gas and electric industries) focused more on environmental responsibility. notes that these industries are more likely to be targeted by activists, and such communication may be an effort to appease or redirect these activists. . . . . In contrast, industries that had more direct contact with customers (e.g., commercial banking, general merchandisers, hotels, casinos, and resorts, specialty retailers, and the telecommunication industries) were more likely to define CSR in terms of philanthropy and focus on education. (Ibid., 546).
We suggest that CSR communication spins a translucent web of community by invoking images of neighbors, employee volunteerism, and the ability of the corporation to enhance quality of life. CSR communication presents values we all seemingly agree with, including improving education, protecting the environment, safe workplaces, and volunteerism. On closer examination, however, the results of this study suggest CSR communication presents universal values that are accessible only to those people and places fortunate enough to have munificent corporations in their communities. (Ibid., 548).