Corporate social responsibility research: Joon Soo Lim

October 9, 2017
A photo of Joon Soo Lim

Joon Soo Lim is an assistant professor in the public relations department, and also teaches in the public diplomacy department.

What was the focus of the project?

The focus of this project was to examine the impact of engagement strategy of corporate social responsibility (CSR) communication—which incorporates the employees and diverse publics in the process of planning of CSR initiative and communication—on achieving organizational goals.

This work was supported by a Page Legacy Scholar Grant from the Arthur W. Page Center at the Penn State College of Communications under Page Legacy Scholar Grant. Part of this research has been published in Public Relations Review. In the published study, Dr. Cary Greenwood, APR, and I asked corporate communication and CSR/sustainability managers from major U.S. companies how they viewed their company’s CSR initiatives and what, if any, action items were effective in getting vital buy-in from stakeholders.

What questions did your project seek to address? What were the research questions, hypotheses, etc.?

The study aimed to examine how different communication strategies of CSR communication have affected large US companies’ business, community and employee relations. The survey items were initially developed based on the extant literature in CSR and were refined through a pilot study.

The research questions were:

  • Do the big US firms perform CSR practices that can be identified as an engagement strategy distinct from a responsiveness strategy?
  • What kinds of goals do the large U.S. firms aim to achieve through their CSR program?
  • What kinds of goals do the large U.S. firms aim to achieve through their CSR program?
  • How are the different CSR communication strategies related to organizations’ self-assessed CSR-related goal achievement, when controlling for annual revenues and organizational size, as well as communication channels?

What were your findings?

A factor analysis yielded two strategies of CSR communication—stakeholder engagement and stakeholder responsiveness. With responsiveness strategy, companies regard the communication of CSR activities as both proactive and reactive responses to current pressures and potential threats. The newly emerging stakeholder engagement strategy reflects managerial recommendations from corporate stakeholder relationship perspective and two-way symmetrical communication. The engagement strategy brings in stakeholders at the beginning of the planning process and builds initiatives through brainstorming and stakeholder input—creating buy-in from the beginning.

According to the results, both responsiveness and engagement strategies connected positively with company goals for business and community relations, while only the engagement strategy had a positive correlation with goals related to employee relations.

What do you think the implications are for the discipline/profession?

According to Edelman’s Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability Communications Report, the media view a company’s CSR communication as the least credible source for information about its CSR activities and are skeptical of its CSR reports. As stated in the Edelman’s Report, the main reason for the media’s skepticism about official company documents stems from their perception that companies just talk about what they are doing without actually doing anything.

Based on the results of this study, Dr. Greenwood and I believe that executing stakeholder engagement in the process of CSR communications is the best way to ensure accountability while reporting a company’s CSR efforts. Accordingly, this stakeholder engagement approach to CSR communications appears to be well in tune with the idea that a company’s CSR should be evaluated by actions, not aspirations.

If there are implications for the future or new directions for the work, what are they?

The project emerged after Greenwood and I observed a wealth of research literature on how stakeholders felt about a company’s CSR activities. We wanted to get a managerial perspective—a difficult population to reach. Pulling from a collection of the largest publically-traded U.S. companies, we identified communicators that may have a role in their company’s CSR planning. With assistance from their Page Center grant, we sent surveys to the group with in-depth questions on different ways their company’s strategic planning helped reached CSR goals.

In the future, we would like to expand the study to include even more executives, specifically executives responsible for CSR decision-making. This was essentially an exploratory study. A larger response will provide a lot of value, but what we found was quite illustrative about how corporations go about their engagement process.

Joon Soo Lim: Corporate social responsibility

Publication:

Lim, J. S., & Greenwood, C. A. (2017). Communicating corporate social responsibility (CSR): Stakeholder responsiveness and engagement strategy to achieve CSR goals. Public Relations Review

Abstract:

In this current study, we compared two contemporary CSR communication strategies (engagement vs. responsiveness), along with communication channels, in achieving CSR goals. We conducted an online survey with public relations, corporate communication, corporate social responsibility, investor relations and sustainability executives within the companies listed on the Wilshire 5000 Total Market Index of publicly traded U.S. companies. Results showed that CSR engagement strategy had a positive effect on achieving all three CSR goals we identified through factor analysis: business, community, and employees. The responsiveness strategy was positively associated with only business and community goal achievement. These findings lend support for the testimonials from industry CSR reports regarding the benefits of the engagement approach in achieving intended organizational goals, including attracting and retaining talented employees.

In analyzing the impact of communication channels on goal achievement, we found that print ads played a significant role in achieving business goals.

 

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