Corporate social responsibility (CSR) presents communicators with a special challenge. CSR initiatives offer great opportunities to reposition a company and connect with stakeholders. But communicators have to be careful not to make CSR look like a marketing ploy.
This “promoter’s paradox” is a difficult balancing act. It probably explains why corporate communicators tend to take a subtle and implicit approach to promoting their firms’ good deeds, in the hopes of being more persuasive and inhibiting scepticism.
Do they really have to be so timid? Line Schmeltz (Aarhus School of Business and Social Sciences) decided to test CSR communication assumptions by studying the attitudes of “Generation Me,” young people aged 18 to 30, figuring this cohort represents the future of consumer attitudes. Schmeltz’s survey was based on 82 Danish students enrolled in higher education.
Generation Me is thought to be more narcissistic than earlier generations; those in this cohort have grown up steeped in a world of choice and possibilities, and spend much of their time connected to the internet, where transparency is taken for granted.
Not surprisingly, Schmeltz’s survey found that respondents favour companies that engage in CSR without thought of financial benefit. The surprise is that only 22.4 percent stated that they are (slightly) skeptical towards companies that engage in CSR merely for financial gain. This finding indicates that, “even though consumers think that the companies are engaging in CSR for self-centred reasons, the overall evaluation of such activities is positive,” Schmeltz writes in the journal Corporate Communications. “This . . . demonstrates that companies should not hesitate to communicate about CSR activities out of fear of being misunderstood, of being perceived to brag or maybe even being accused of greenwashing.”
The study offers CSR communicators additional insights.
- Consumers are interested in and expect more explicit CSR communication than currently assumed by corporations and academics alike.
- Companies should clearly and explicitly illustrate why particular CSR efforts are of importance to consumers. Consider that perceptions of CSR initiatives are not based on morality and society-centred values but more on personal and self-centred values.
- Respondents seem to favour CSR communication that uses facts rather than impressions. In the survey, 42 percent of respondents liked or really liked the vague statement, “We are constantly working actively on reducing our CO2 emissions.” Compare that 72.5 percent who liked or really liked the factual and more committing statement, “We have reduced our CO2 emissions by 15 percent – 10 years from now it will be reduced by 50 percent.”
The takeaway: “This paper provides empirical evidence that corporations communicating CSR should have a much more externally oriented and explicit approach focusing on competence and self-centred values instead of on morality and society-centred values,” Schmeltz writes. “This will allow them to create a healthy balance between what they can offer and what consumers demand.”
Line Schmeltz, “Consumer-oriented CSR communication: focusing on ability or morality?”; Corporate Communications (Vol. 17, No. 1, 2012, pp. 29-49)