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Stakeholders may not always expect companies to be proactive in their CSR activities but it is reasonable to surmise that many stakeholders do expect companies to rectify any societal wrongs they may have caused. Based on this finding, the results support the prediction that reactive initiatives are perceived to be more stakeholder-driven than proactive initiatives. As such (at 654 least in this context), the subjects in this study believed the company engaged in reactive CSR because of pressures from salient stakeholders. Table 2 contains the cell means and F-test scores for stakeholder-driven attributions.
Strategic-driven attributions. For Hypothesis 5, a one-way ANOVA with source as the between-subjects factor and strategic-driven attributions as the dependent variable was performed. The results of this analysis supported Hypothesis 5 in that, information source significantly affected strategic-driven attributions (F(1,228)=3.57, p.10). As predicted, the information contained in the internally published press release was perceived to be more strategic-driven (M=5.32) than the information contained in the externally published press release (M=5.02). Hypothesis 5 predicted the CSR action communicated via an internally published press release would be perceived to be more strategic-driven or “self-centered” compared to CSR action communicated via an externally published press release. This prediction was empirically supported. Individuals likely believe that the communication of a CSR initiative is an important strategic consideration made by a company involved in CSR activities. As such, individuals assigned strategic-driven attributions toward a CSR initiative that was communicated internally as opposed to that communicated coming from an external source.
For the final analysis, Hypothesis 6 was tested using the same method as noted above.
The effect of valence on strategic-driven attributions was significant (F(1,228)=39.72, p.001), thereby providing support for Hypothesis 6. Individuals in the proactive condition perceived the action to be more strategic (M=5.68) than those in the reactive condition (M=4.68). For this hypothesis we predicted that proactive CSR would be associated with strategic-driven attributions because of the important role corporate planning has in implementing a proactive CSR strategy (Wagner et al. 2009). Unlike reactive CSR, which is simply a response to some negative event, proactive CSR involves a firm engaging in CSR without any prior motive. As such, proactive CSR was perceived to be more strategic than the reactive form. Table 3 contains the cell means and F-test scores for strategic-driven attributions.
This study extends the literature by illustrating the practical importance of communicating CSR. We empirically demonstrated that the source and valence of a message can influence an individuals’ perception of a firm’s motives for engaging in CSR. While prior research has indicated consumer perceptions of CSR are important predictors of firm-level outcomes, the current study suggests that message characteristics may be important antecedents that influence perceptions of CSR. Public relations practitioners will find this information useful when creating and disseminating strategic CSR communication.
Practitioners have many options when structuring and deciding on the placement of CSR messages. Our finding that an internally published proactive initiative resulted in the perception of strategy is particularly noteworthy. While releasing information related to proactive CSR may maximize values-driven attributions, it may also exacerbate consumers’ strategic-driven attributions. This highlights the conflict that many managers face when electing to publish a proactive CSR initiative. In order to maximize the values-driven attributions consumers assign to CSR, managers also run the risk of maximizing the strategic-driven attributions.
Limitations and Future Research
Our findings extend the literature by applying source and valence as independent variables and demonstrating that the placement and source of a press release can affect their perceptions of an activity. In light of our reported findings, we do recognize several limitations to the analysis procedures used in this study. First, we utilized experimental design to empirically test the hypothesized manipulations. A substantial amount of research in the CSR arena has utilized this design to understand consumer responses to CSR (Du et al., 2007).
However, a criticism of the significance of hypothetical designs is questioned as it is difficult to gauge actual consumer reactions (Diamond & Hausman, 1994). Thus, future work should transpose our model to actual businesses to reinforce the importance of message characteristics and the attributions’ consumers assign to various CSR efforts. Second, communication strategies taken by a firm may differ from organizations’ actual ethical policies and practices. CSR communications may amplify the potential benefits of the initiative (i.e., internal communications) or undervalue the practices, reach, and performance of the initiative (i.e., external communications). Given the heightened visibility of many multinational firms and the increased scrutiny that goes along with it, careful selection and focused CSR communications may provide added benefits. Thirdly, based on our design we were unable to illustrate the potential tradeoffs for the different attributions. For example, while many respondents might regard a CSR initiative as largely strategic-driven (i.e., firm-serving), this information has the ability to resonate deeply with consumers. Thus the “any news is good news” saying may prove correct. As addition, there exists a potential conflict between maximizing the values-driven perceptions of proactive CSR and simultaneously running the risk of maximizing strategicdriven perceptions by publishing the information internally. Again, firm discretion and managerial influence on the placement of messages provides an area for future research.
In sum, our results suggest that firms engaging in CSR should carefully evaluate how they communicate their initiatives. Source and valence both influence consumers’ attributions of the action. Future research should continue to explore how varying message characteristics (i.e., location of action, timing, source credibility, different mediums) affect these attributions.
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658 Appendix. Dependent Measures
Abstract This study analyzes the degree to which image repair theory (IRT) and situation crisis communications theory (SSCT) apply to an industry-wide crisis, rather than simply a crisis faced by a single organization. Fundamentally, this content analysis study examines the news releases and national and local newspaper coverage of America’s 10 largest banks from July 1, 2008, through December 31, 2008, a six-month period during which Americans’ average net worth fell nearly 18 percent. Findings indicate that neither IRT nor SCCT adequately address the complexities of an industry-wide crisis. The lessons learned highlight the need for further crisis communications research, as well as awareness among corporate communication practitioners that not every crisis is created equal, particularly when an entire industry is affected.