Sustainability and CSR research at the International Public Relations Research Conference

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One of the most popular conferences for academics in public relations is the International Public Relations Research Conference (IPRRC) which is held every March in Miami. This year I noticed a long list of studies on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability communication. That was a pleasant surprise, given the Page Center’s recent efforts to fund high-quality research in this area.

Three of the studies were funded by a Page Legacy grant. Melissa Dodd and Dustin Supa looked at corporate social advocacy, how a company’s stand on a social issue impacts consumer’s purchase intentions. They have been working on this topic for a while, and this is another nice addition to their stream of research. Georgiana Grigore and Tom Watson presented a paper on internal communication about CSR, and how skepticism plays a role in the advocacy. We were pleased to fund this project, too, because the topic of CSR skepticism needs more attention. Melanie Formentin (a grad student here at Penn State) and I wrote the third funded paper, which reported the results of a content analysis on CSR and sustainability report videos that companies have posted.

Below is a more information about the three papers.

Title: A “Corporate Social Advocacy” Approach to Gun Control, Firearms Violence: Attitudes Underlying Consumer Purchase Intention and Policy Recommendations

Authors: Melissa D. Dodd (University of Central Florida), Dustin W. Supa (Boston University)

Abstract: This research uses the theory of planned behavior to expand upon past research by the study’s authors that has attempted to identify the relationship between organizational stances on social political-issues (gay marriage, healthcare reform, and emergency contraception) and consumer purchase intentions (termed, “corporate social advocacy”). The current research seeks to further this agenda by the social-political issue of gun control.

Title: Employees as CSR advocates: The role of skepticism

Authors: Georgiana Grigore, Anastasios Theofilou, Tom Watson (Bournemouth University, UK)

Abstract: This research offers a framework to public relations and corporate communications practitioners, which enhances the understanding of the use and value of internal CSR communication strategies and practices.

Title: Stakeholder Engagement on YouTube: Corporate Use of Video to Introduce and Explain CSR and Sustainability Reports

Authors: Denise Bortree and Melanie Formentin (Penn State University)

I would like to share a few other notable papers that I believe make an important contribution to the field of CSR and sustainability communication. One interesting paper covered the overlap between CSR and public relations. An important contribution of this paper is how CSR has been integrated into business strategy and goals.

Title: Untangling the Relationship Between Public Relations and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): A Best Practices Perspective of PR Goals and the Use of CSR Initiatives

Author: Holley Reeves (University of Georgia)

Abstract: Eleven in-depth interviews explore the relationship between PR goals and CSR programs. Findings indicate that CSR initiatives primarily serve the community and support long-term business goals. PR interests are secondary.

I first met with the author of another paper, Matthew VanDyke, a few years ago, and I knew he would make an important contribution to our knowledge of environmental communication. His paper at the conference, with fellow grad student Zijian Gong, proposed an interesting study to test perceptions of green messages during crisis.

Title: Does Green Strategic Communication Help During Environmental Crises?: The Influence of Personal Involvement and Crisis History on Company Evaluations

Authors: Matthew S. VanDyke, Zijian Gong (Texas Tech University)

Abstract: This experiment tested the influence of a company’s environmental crisis history and individuals’ level of crisis involvement on perceptions of a company’s pro-environmental messages. Participants evaluated messages using continuous response and self-report measures. Results inform theory and practice of the roles crisis history and personal involvement play in subsequent evaluations.

Two studies at the conference confirmed what public relations professionals have long known. CSR communication has an impact on media coverage, but certain types of CSR initiatives are more likely to garner coverage. Using the agenda setting framework, both studies had somewhat similar findings.

Title: Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Communication: Intermedia Agenda Setting Effects between News Releases and Press Coverage

Author: Laishan Tam (Purdue University)

Abstract: Based on intermedia agenda setting theory, this study examines the extent to which CSR-related news releases published by electricity providers in Hong Kong influences press coverage about CSR. News releases on CSR topics which are more relevant to the core operations of the corporation and have higher impact on society are found to be more likely to be reported in the press.

Title: Agenda-building in corporate social responsibility: Analyzing influence in corporate crisis

Authors: Young Eun Park, Sung-Un Yang (Indiana University)

Abstract: Following agenda-building theory, content analysis of CSR news releases and CSR media coverage involving two time frames (before vs. after crisis) will be conducted. This study demonstrates (1) positive associations between salience of issues in CSR information subsidies and media coverage and (2) influences of information subsidies on media coverage.

Research on social media seems to dominate at IPRRC, with many academics and professionals searching for better ways to quantify the impact of social media engagement. One study of Twitter posts looked specifically at CSR communication.

Title: CSR dialogue on social media platforms: An analysis of CSR tweets

Authors: Lina M. Gomez (Universidad del Este, Puerto Rico), Lucely Vargas-Preciado (Johaness Kepler University of Linz, Austria), Ramiro Cea-Moure (Universidad de Burgos, Spain), Ismail Adelopo (University of the West of England, UK)

Abstract: This paper aims to discover who the most important “CSR actors” are and what they are discussing about CSR on twitter. Our research conducted a content analysis of 1623 public tweets from different twitter users. Cross collaboration between actors is needed in order to enrich the practice of CSR communication.

At the awards ceremony on the last day of the conference, Executive Director of the conference, Don Stacks asked members of the audience to raise a hand if they had travelled internationally for the conference. About a third of the room indicated that they had. And, the impact of international researchers is evident in the conference schedule this year. Here are three examples of good projects that look at CSR in an international context.

Title: Green Social Movements and Government Public Relations Efforts in Turkey

Authors: Gülşah Aydın, Duygu Aydın Aslaner (Yeditepe University, Turkey)

Abstract: This study discusses Green Social Movements in Turkey and PR efforts developed by the government. It is scrutinized in the scope of media relations, reputation and crisis management.

Title: Corporate Social Responsibility: Perceptions and practices among SMEs in Colombia

Authors: Nathaly Aya Pastrana (Adinas Group S.A.S, Columbia), Krishnamurthy Sriramesh (Purdue University)

Abstract: This study sought to understand the perceptions and practices of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) among a sample of Colombian SMEs. The data were collected using a self-administered online questionnaire (54 corporations), and from interviews with five opinion leaders and two representatives of SMEs permitted to assess the activities, motivations, stakeholders, decision-making processes, communication processes, resource allocation, evaluation, and the benefits of CSR among Colombian SMEs. Additionally, the study presents a brief analysis linking the findings to the specific socio-cultural context of the country.

Title: Corporate Responsibility in Post-Communist Eastern Europe

Author: Sorin Nastasia (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville)

Abstract: This paper discusses corporate responsibility in Eastern Europe, taking a critical public relations approach to examining cases from Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Data was collected through archival research. The study discusses the opportunities and challenges for corporations to position themselves as accountable and responsible social actors in Eastern Europe.

In addition to international context, the studies of CSR and sustainability looked at environmental issues that hit close to home, affecting the quality of life in local communities. Here are two examples.

Title: Strategic Ambiguity in Crisis: Fracking Information Designed to Educate or Deceive?

Authors: Kristi S. Gilmore, Sun Young Lee (Texas Tech University)

Abstract: This textual analysis of company websites examines the use of strategic ambiguity in the crisis communication efforts surrounding one of the petroleum industry’s most recent controversial activities: hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”

Title: Improving Grease Disposal among Latino Populations in North Carolina: A Public Relations Case Study

Authors: Alan R. Freitag, Robin Rothberg, Sayde Brais (University of North Carolina at Charlotte)

Abstract: This project aimed at addressing the problem of improper disposal of fats, oils and grease (FOG) by population segments in North Carolina. This project aims to gauge levels of issue awareness among the target populations, identify constraints preventing desirable behavioral changes, then craft and implement a strategic communication plan to encourage proper FOG disposal.

And, I will wrap up this blog post on a topic particularly close to my heart, nonprofit communication. Christine Willingham at Florida State University took a look at the controversy between Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood and discussed the role of brand values as they match with cultural values. (Note: See my earlier blog post on this case study

Title: Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood: The Cost of NOT Understanding the Connections Between Cultural Values and Brand Values for Nonprofit Organizations

Author: Christine Willingham (Florida State University)

Abstract: The SGK—Planned Parenthood case demonstrates the necessity for organizations to understand the connections between cultural values and their brand values. Further, it is important for public relations practitioners to understand how stakeholders are conceptualizing the brand; particularly a nonprofit brand that encompasses a vision of an idealistic future.

The strong presence of CSR and Sustainability research at the conference indicates to me that the public relations field sees increasing value in knowledge about effective communication strategies in this area. The Page Center is about to launch a new Sustainability Communication Initiative to fund professionally-focused research in this area and offer useful research-based insights for practice. More information to come on this new initiative.


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