Research in Progress: Companies getting political and the influence on CSA public relations

June 16, 2021

Hao Xu, Jisu Huh, and Hyejoon Rim, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

By Hao Xu, Jisu Huh, and Hyejoon Rim, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

In today’s increasingly polarized political environment, a growing number of companies are taking a stance on controversial sociopolitical topics or public policy issues that their stakeholders care about. This includes issues like same-sex marriage, gun control, racial equality, immigration and transgender bathroom policies.

Companies, however, need to be very cautious about how they speak up on such divisive issues. We have seen consumers with opposing ideologies show very different reactions to corporate engagement in almost all contentious topics. Thus, the alignment between corporate and publics’ ideological stances becomes critically important in today’s consumer-company interactions.

Social media, such as Twitter and Instagram, has become an important platform for companies to put forward their voices on sociopolitical issues. The vast reach and viral nature of social media also puts Corporate Social Advocacy (CSA) initiatives under the microscope from various consumer advocates.

With the rise of social media and availability of massive data, the opportunity to directly and objectively assess publics’ reactions to CSA initiatives has attracted a great deal of attention and interest across academia and the industry.

In our project, we propose a novel computational research approach to assess CSA outcomes among members of publics with different ideologies in a natural real-world setting. This project aims to advance methodological innovations in CSA research and enhance theory development on the impact of CSA initiatives.

A nuanced view on public-company identity similarity

By advocating specific stances in sociopolitical issues, companies can demonstrate their own dominant political ideologies. Some well-known examples include Starbucks and Patagonia, on the liberal side, versus Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby, on the conservative side.

In response to a CSA initiative, individual members of publics are readily able to identify the company’s ideology and evaluate how it aligns with or contradicts to their own. Applying the social identity theory, we predict that publics’ reactions to CSA and the involved companies would be influenced by their perceived identity similarity between their own and the companies’ stances on the issue.

It is important to acknowledge that stances on many controversial issues are more complicated than binary terms, which calls for more nuanced understandings about CSA stances as well as individual political views.

On one hand, sociopolitical issues are complex and multifaceted, and disagreements exist even within each ideological group -- between members with stronger and weaker ideological strength. On the other hand, companies take different strategies to engage in multiple sociopolitical issues and corporate stances on multiple divisive issues can influence how strong a company’s ideological identity is perceived to be.

Therefore, we seek to take one step further beyond the extant CSA research approaches and provide more nuanced insights by specifically examining differences in the strength of individual ideological identity, as well as the perceived strength of a company’s ideological identity.

Our computational research approach

In the research on publics’ reactions to CSA initiatives, empirical evidence obtained from a naturalistic setting is scarce. To fill this gap, we will use a computational research approach to naturally measure the nuanced effects of CSA initiatives in an unobtrusive manner.

In our project, we will collect social media data for selected real-world CSA cases. Various natural language processing algorithms will be developed and applied to analyze publics’ ideological identity expressed in their social media posts, company’s different stances in their CSA statements, as well as publics’ attitudinal reactions to the CSA initiatives.

By cross-analyzing these data, we will be able to understand how people react to CSA initiatives, depending on the extent to which their ideologies are aligned with the companies’ stances.

The availability of various types of voluminous data and the emergent computational analysis techniques provide researchers with great potential for extracting semantic information from social media data. We believe our naturalistic computational approach can capture publics’ actual reaction patterns at scale. It can also supplement the current experimental and survey studies on the CSA topic and enhance the generalizability of the conclusion.

We hope our project will open a new avenue for future CSA research by introducing an innovative computational research approach to obtain richer understanding of more nuanced effects of CSA initiatives. Our project will also provide practical insights for practitioners about how different groups of publics would react to specific CSA initiatives and how they should appropriately engage publics in the current political polarization.

For further information on this study, please email Xu at, Huh at, and Rim at Results from the study will be available next year. This project is supported by a 2021 Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grant from the Arthur W. Page Center.