Research in Progress: Mitigating skeptical perceptions of green CSR initiatives in crisis situations

July 26, 2019

Lewen Wei, Penn State Ph.D. student

By Lewen Wei, Penn State Ph.D. student

Environmentally-focused corporate social responsibility (CSR) helps to create and maintain a favorable corporate image as it appeals to stakeholders and publics who appreciate efforts in environmental protection and sustainable operations.

Despite those promising benefits, using such CSR in a corporate crisis can subject companies to undesirable suspicion as people are likely to consider CSR in this context more as “front-stage performance” to solve the crisis, and not sincere efforts for societal benefits. This is especially so when the theme of CSR matches that of the crisis.

The likely skepticism toward green CSR provokes an interesting question: What strategies can companies employ to mitigate the skepticism?

The first potential solution to my interest relates to the CSR message itself. Current research offers conflicting evidence. With respect to stated intent, claiming corporate intentions might regulate negative judgments before audiences make their own conclusions. Effects of orienting the main goal of the CSR initiative to serve the public versus the company remains equivocal.

Reconciling prior mixed findings on this could well implicate future practices in addressing the tension between using green CSR and having your motives questioned while facing corporate crises.

Aside from optimizing solutions after a crisis happens, companies could also take a proactive role on a regular basis to buffer negative evaluations of crisis-related initiatives that are more likely to occur in a random manner. For the past decade, the rise of social media has offered numerous opportunities for companies to establish and maintain connections through dialogues with their customers, stakeholders, and publics.

Engaging audiences on social media can bolster corporate attitude by incrementally building public trust. That way, when a crisis befalls, skeptical perceptions, if any, could be weakened. Crisis-related CSR would be less considered as opportunistic plans solely for crisis management.

I was particularly interested in the use of environmentally-focused CSR as it has become an increasingly popular practice to manifest corporate values, however, companies might still suffer backlash if used improperly.

With my Page Center research grant awarded, I intend to conduct an experiment to test the effectiveness of different strategies proposed on mitigating public skepticism toward environmentally-focused CSR when a corporate crisis occurs.

Participants will be instructed to go through a hypothetical scenario, react to variations of corporate messages and provide their evaluations of both message contents and message senders (i.e., companies). I am looking forward to collecting and analyzing the data to provide more insights to current practices of dialogic communication, CSR and crisis management.

This research is funded by the summer graduate research grant by The Arthur W. Page Center. For more information about this work, please email Lewen Wei at