‘Embracing a responsibility to advocate for change’ by senior research fellow Holly Overton

January 6, 2021

Holly Overton

By Holly Overton, associate professor at the University of South Carolina

Is corporate social advocacy (CSA) the new corporate social responsibility (CSR)? Do stakeholder expectations vary for companies’ CSR vs. CSA efforts and how they should communicate about them? Do company motives matter any more or less for CSR or CSA?

These are some research questions that I explored in a recent study with co-authors Joon Kyoung Kim, University of Rhode Island; and University of South Carolina doctoral students Nanlan Zhang and Shudan Huang.

While some scholars still debate about the definition of each, this blog post is based on the conceptual notion that CSR is, in a broad sense, contributing to societal good while CSA is an intentional effort to take a stance on a controversial social or political issue.

Our study results suggest that individuals have more positive attitude changes toward a company and are more likely to engage in positive word-of-mouth communication about a company and its efforts in response to its CSR communication than its CSA communication.

With regard to motives, we found that viewing a CSR message increases perceptions of values-driven motives more than CSA messages do. This seems at odds with the assumption that a company’s decision to take a stance on a social or political issue is inherently a reflection of its values, not something driven by the bottom line.

What would account for these unexpected findings? Societal expectations have shifted. According to The Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Brand Trust in 2020, 80 percent of consumers want brands to solve society’s problems. They expect them to “walk the talk” to advocate for change. So when they view a CSA message, they may be more skeptical about the company’s motives unless those words are accompanied by action.

This goes back to Page Principle #2: Prove it with action: "Public perception of an enterprise is determined 90 percent by what it does and 10 percent by what it says."

Public expectations of a company's intentional actions to invoke change continue to soar as issues such as racial injustice, immigration, health, climate change, and even voting are at the forefront.

It is no longer acceptable for companies to simply talk about what they will do. They need to prove it with action. And they need to do it explicitly and intentionally. Perhaps only then will their efforts be accompanied by the positive outcomes companies have seen in response to their CSR communication. Or perhaps they won’t, because unlike CSR, CSA is not based on a triple-bottom-line principle. CSR is about doing good, but CSA requires companies to do more than pull out their wallets — they need to act.

For this reason, I would argue that CSA is not the new CSR but that companies have a social and ethical responsibility to advocate for change.

A call for corporate social advocacy scholarship

Scholars have begun to disentangle the concepts of CSR and CSA (e.g., Dodd & Supa, 2014; 2015), but it is clear that there is more work to be done. Although we are beginning to identify theoretical distinctions between CSR and CSA, there are still many unanswered questions about CSR vs. CSA communication and how companies can most effectively meet public expectations.

Through my own CSA-focused scholarship published in Public Relations Review and the Journal of Applied Communication Research, I have worked with teams of scholars to test theoretical models and to offer guidance for companies attempting to navigate how, when, and through what source(s) they should speak out about a social or political issue.

Some of my current and ongoing projects focus on engaging stakeholders in advocacy efforts through collective action, disentangling CSA and CEO activism, and examining how personal values and perceptions of congruency with company efforts impact outcomes. These studies aim to clarify how companies can negotiate the evolving societal expectations in the areas of CSR and CSA and how strategic communications professionals can communicate effectively about it.

Furthermore, through my role as a senior research fellow, I look forward to coordinating the 2021 Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar grant competition on CSA and supporting innovative research projects that will advance theoretical and practical knowledge about this topic.

Building a better society together

As we enter a new year, we have opportunities to reflect, heal and grow. As our expectations for companies continue to shift, we as individuals should also embrace our responsibility to work alongside these companies to advocate for change through collective action.

Speaking out about social and political issues can be risky for both companies and individuals, but if we expect companies do it, we should expect the same of ourselves. As we continue to hold companies accountable for their actions, we also need to “walk the talk” and hold ourselves accountable. We have an opportunity to build a better society together as advocates for change.