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«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»

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The CPRD has been a department in the midst of change since it started and 20 months later, it is still adjusting to some changes an preparing for many more. The management of this department will be even more crucial in the upcoming months as hospitals merge and departments begin to metamorphasize. This could be the toughest test yet for O'Grady's leadership style as she supports her department through potentially tumultuous times. It may also dramatically change her role in the hospital's dominant coalition that may no longer exist in its current form.



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Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has emerged as a prime topic of interest for scholars and practitioners alike as companies desire to be ethical corporate citizens. The concomitant need for positive publicity and firm value has produced a shift of focus from altruistic giving towards the strategic nature of CSR activities. The current study analyzed how the intent of a CSR initiative and the communication of said initiative influences consumer perceptions of company motives. This study utilized an experimental design with random assignment to test the effects of information source and valence on consumers’ attributions of CSR. Our findings suggest that the source of information influences consumers’ perceptions of the company’s underlying motives of the CSR initiative. Individuals exposed to an internally published press release perceived the corporate motives to be more stakeholder-driven and more strategic-driven as compared to individuals exposed to an externally published press release.

Our findings also suggest that proactive CSR is viewed as being values-driven while reactive CSR is perceived as being more stakeholder-driven. Practical implications of these findings, limitations, and guidelines for future research are provided at the end of the paper.



Over the past decade, corporate social responsibility (CSR) has risen in both priority and profile for firms operating in a global marketplace (Franklin, 2008). This shift in business strategy has been most clearly evidenced by the millions spent developing and implementing various CSR initiatives (Waddock, 2004). According to Hutton (2001), CSR communication is the third largest expense item on a company’s communication budget. Thus, CSR has become an integral strategy utilized by public relations practitioners and “… social responsibility has become a major reason for an organization to have a public relations function” (Grunig & Hunt, 1984, p. 48). Corporate unethical business practices, which were so prevalent during the first half-decade of the beginning of the twentieth century, have also heightened the importance of communicating CSR. Headline making companies such as Enron, Arthur Anderson, Global Crossing, WorldCom, and Martha Stewart Worldwide; have triggered the rapid shift in how companies are viewed by the public at large. This has forced managers to focus increasing attention on the strategic aspect of CSR. Increasingly, profit-centric mangers seek to engage in socially responsible efforts that synergistically align with their business activities. Managers must be cognizant of their fiduciary duties and must effectively communicate the value of these efforts to shareholders.

In 2005, 360 different CSR-related shareholder resolutions were filed on issues ranging from labor conditions to global warming (Porter & Kramer, 2006) and more recently, of the 250 largest multinational corporations, 64% now publish CSR reports. An issue that challenges companies in this area is striking the appropriate balance between altruistic giving and strategic goal attainment. Porter and Kramer (2002) describe this predicament: “… executives increasingly see themselves in a no-win situation, caught between critics demanding higher levels of CSR and investors applying relentless pressure to maximize short term profits” (p. 5).

While achieving the exact balance is still an important question, today it is clear that firms must properly communicate their CSR initiatives in order to maximize the potential benefits these activities provide (e.g., image enhancement, reputation management, etc.) (Husted, 2000).

Much like marketing a product or service to the public, the structure and placement of CSR messages has become a function so central to a business that it requires careful nurturing and a considerable amount of personal attention. And only after this care has been taken, the initiative’s effectiveness is activated when salient stakeholders are made aware of the content.

Once awareness has been established though, research has shown that attitudes, perceptions, and subsequent behavior toward the organization begin to manifest (Wigley, 2008). While these studies have shown (in the aggregate) that consumers react favorably to CSR (e.g., Hoeffler & Keller, 2002; Becker-Olsen et al., 2006; Nan & Heo, 2007; Walker & Kent, 2009), little is actually known about how to optimally frame and communicate social initiatives. Accordingly, some initial work has indicated that consumer attributions (i.e., perceived corporate motives) toward CSR can affect consumer intentions (see Ellen et al., 2006; Vlachos et al., 2009).

However, much of this work has centered on either corporate ability (i.e., ability to produce a quality product) or company commitment to social causes (i.e., CSR).

Given this dichotomy and to contribute to the growing body of knowledge in this area, the purpose of this study was to evaluate how the message framing characteristics of source and valence influence the perceived motives consumers’ assign to a company’s CSR practices.

Guided by attribution theory (Jones & Davis, 1965), we employed a framework which described consumers’ attributional judgments as being values-driven, stakeholder-driven, and strategicdriven (Ellen et al., 2006). This paper is organized as follows: First, a conceptual background highlighting the importance of CSR information source and message valence is outlined. Next, a series of hypotheses predicting the influence of source and valence on consumers’ perceptions of CSR are provided. Following this is a description of the method deployed to test the hypotheses.

In the next section, the results of the experiment are described and a brief discussion of the specific findings is offered. Finally, the last section contains a general discussion of the study’s findings including implications, and provides limitations and guidelines for future research.

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Source While a substantial body of work has elucidated the importance of communicating CSR (Biehal & Sheinin, 2007; Brown & Dacin, 1997; Wagner et al. 2009), research on the importance of information source has not kept pace. When choosing to communicate their CSR initiatives, companies utilize many different mechanisms such as advertising, online distribution (i.e., website, social-networking sites), press releases, social sponsorships, and word-of-mouth dissemination. Some of these tools involve information being offered to the public through internal sources (e.g., published in an annual report or on a company website) while others involve information being offered to the public through external sources (e.g., published by an outside news organization). Little however, is known as to which communication method resonates more (or less) desirably with stakeholders. In one of the few studies that examined this idea, Simmons and Becker-Olsen (2006) found that CSR information released from a partnering organization (i.e., a nonprofit) instead of the company caused fewer impressions of misfit between the company and the cause.

Correspondingly, a small body of research has emerged highlighting the effects of source bias in message delivery (Artz & Tybout, 1999; Grewal et al., 1994). Primarily using attribution theory, this work implicitly argued that an observer assumes a behavior is done to achieve a certain outcome and then assumes there are underlying motives directing the behavior (Jones & Davis, 1965). For example, individual skepticism towards a message directly from a firm is largely seen as self-serving because the organization had the ability to craft the message content.

Because of the potential biasing of this information, both credibility (Grewal et al., 1994) and firm trustworthiness (Morsing & Schultz, 2006) are often called into question. Simply put, stakeholders are often cynical about message from an internal source if they perceive bias – especially if the information is responsive (e.g., covering up corporate malfeasance); and careful elaboration of a message is more commonplace when an individual’s question the motives behind the message (Artz & Tybout, 1999). Conversely, externally produced messages may result in less skepticism resulting in far less critical evaluations of the underlying motivations (Birnbaum & Stegner, 1979). Therefore, the perceived motives (i.e., attributions) that individuals assign to the CSR initiative should be affected (either positively or negatively) by the source of the information.


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strategy is when firms engage in (and support) CSR before any negative information is received by stakeholders; thereby leading to increased visibility and an enhanced firm image (Du et al., 2007). Conversely as Murray and Vogel (1997) maintained, reactivity implies that firms engage in CSR to protect (rather than enhance) their image after an irresponsible action has been reported.

As indicated in the literature, consumers typically respond favorably to positive CSR campaigns due to its seemingly altruistic nature (Becker-Olsen et al., 2006). Consequently, most CSR messages are framed in a positive and ethically charged light (e.g., corporate giving, philanthropy). However, some CSR messages might also evoke negative stakeholder attention (e.g., compensating for damages) that will involve some level of negative affect for the consumer, which may overpower a previously held positive view of the firm (Ricks, 2005).

Thus, negative information has the propensity to resonate deeper resulting in the “negativity effect” that Wright (1986) discussed. Similarly, Hutton et al. (2001) noted that reactionary CSR may carry more weight, finding a negative correlation between reputation and social spending.

In contrast to proactive CSR, the reactive form illustrates that while good is being done, the effect on the attributions consumer make may likely be different in nature.

Consumer Attributions

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