Seoyeon Kim presents at IPRRC 2020, see #1, below. Lucinda Austin photo.

Corporate social efforts, whether they be corporate social advocacy, CSR, or purpose-driven campaigns, dominated discussions at IPRRC 2020. The papers given there are the kind of experimental research we all need to make better decisions about what and how to express our corporate social consciences.

1. Choose your cause wisely: beware of being seen as hypocritical

A study by Seoyeon Kim of the University of Alabama, Lucinda Austin of UNC Chapel Hill, and Barbara Miller Gaither of Elon University tested the impact of company-cause fit relative to perceived corporate hypocrisy (see “Corporate Social Advocacy and Perceived Corporate Hypocrisy”) and found surprising results. In cases where a brand engaged in social issues that were more relevant to the company, the advocacy was perceived as having an ulterior motive. On the other hand, where the chosen issue fits with the business goal—i.e., profit making—the brand was seen as less hypocritical. Taking a stand on completely irrelevant issues may also increase suspicion about your ulterior motives and increase the perception of hypocrisy. The authors found that how your audiences perceive your values is closely correlated to whether they see your stand as hypocritical or credible. This paper won the IPRRC Arthur W. Page Center Benchmarking Award.

2. Be wary of spontaneous memorials: they may increase skepticism

We’ve all seen them, those spontaneous tributes to a tragedy or dead celebrity, known as social media mourning. The question is, “What is the most appropriate corporate response?” That timely question was answered by Jensen Moore, Pritch Pritchard, and Ajia Meux of the University of Oklahoma, and Vince Filak of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh (see “Spontaneous Memorials: Examining Social Media Corporate Mourning Posts as Corporate Social Responsibility Efforts”). They conducted a survey of 525 people of diverse ethnic backgrounds and educational levels who followed various brands on social media.

The authors found that expressions of corporate mourning are likely to generate skepticism towards the brand and the cause. That skepticism led respondents to perceive mourning posts as a way organizations take advantage of the tragedy to enhance their reputation. Those that weren’t so skeptical, though, were more likely to perceive such posts a helping improve society.

3. The effectiveness of corporate social advocacy depends on prior attitudes toward the company and the issue

A lot has been written about what happens after corporate social advocacy efforts. In other words, the impact advocacy has on intent to purchase, attitudes, and public perceptions. However, Sungwon Chung of Ball State University and Sun Young Lee of the University of Maryland set out to figure out the impact of people’s prior attitudes on how they view both the company and the cause it supports (see “The Effects of an Existing Attitude Toward a Company and an Issue Stance on Perceptions of a Corporate Social Advocacy Campaign”). They surveyed over 500 people, before and after presenting them with a fictionalized example of corporate social advocacy on a particular issue. They measured the change in people’s attitude toward the company and their stance on the issue, based on whether, at the start, they were positive, neutral, or negative about the company and supportive, undecided or not supportive about the issue.

Results showed that, after experiencing the corporate advocacy:

  • The only people whose attitude about the company improved were the ones who began as both supportive of the issue and either unfavorable or neutral in their attitude about the company. The possible real-world implication is that your corporate advocacy of an issue will not improve the image of your company, unless your audience already supports the issue, and they are also not already supportive of your company.
  • The only people whose stance about the issue improved were the ones who began as both undecided about the issue and neutral about the company. The possible real-world implication is that your corporate social advocacy will not affect people’s attitude toward an issue if they already have strong feelings about the issue or your company.
  • People who were neutral in their prior attitude toward the company were most strongly affected by their level of support of the issue.

4. Finding the right fit is best, but if not, you might be able to work around it

If you find the right fit with a cause it will enhance purchase intention and perception of altruism, boost your relationship to your community, and also motivate people to support the cause you are advocating for. That’s according to research by Frank Dardis of Penn State, Michel Haigh of Texas State, Holly Overton of the University of South Carolina, and Erica Bailey of Angelo State (see “Communicating CSR Fit: How Message-framing Strategies about a Company-cause Relationship Can Enhance Consumer Perceptions of the Corporation”). Additionally, if the fit isn’t perfect, you can enhance perceptions of both the corporation and the cause by putting your support in the context of thematic or episodic framing around the issue.

5. Reciprocity builds social capital and drives trust

Building social capital for an organization—also known as building up your “trust bank”—is frequently the leading driver of CSR and corporate social advocacy programs. Researchers William Kennan, Vince Hazleton, John Brummette, Shuo Yao, and Hilary Fussell Sisco conducted an extensive survey to determine the role of communications in building social capital for institutions (see “A Theory Grounded Social Capital Measure: Connecting Theory, Research, and Professional Practice”). They found that when people perceive that your organization exhibits reciprocity, as in give and take with others, it has significant impact on increasing trust. Cooperative problem solving in particular is most likely to build social capital, while communicating punishments or bargaining decreases it. In other words, if you are working with a community or a non-profit, make sure that your messages emphasize the cooperative and collaboration problem solving that you are doing.

6. Organizations need to acknowledge that their publics may hold opposite views on the issues about which they are advocating

In an intriguing piece of research, Yi Grace Ji and Cheng Hong from Virginia Commonwealth University examined the role that personal beliefs on highly controversial issues play in people’s reactions to social media posts (see “Can Advocacy Posts Break Echo Chambers on Facebook? A Digital Ethnography Study”). For two weeks, 46 students selected a controversial social political issue (e.g., gun control, abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.) that interested them, and then followed five public accounts on Facebook that shared opposite opinions. At the end of the two weeks, the students were asked about their thoughts, perceptions, and emotions.

The authors found that emotion-based messages only worked better than information-based messages when empathy was evoked. And visual-based messages led to higher message recall but did not necessarily facilitate a better understanding or any desire to seek more information on the opposite stance. Their advice is that organizations should acknowledge that their publics may hold opposite stances on controversial issues. And that “…messages with empathy can facilitate mutual understanding among people with different sociopolitical stances.” ∞

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