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Why CSR initiatives should be bold and aspirational

TwitterTweet this: "Companies need to be ambitious with their CSR strategies. This is why."

Some people may be sceptical, but research shows that bold, aspirational communications can help to make CSR initiatives more effective.

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There are plenty of reasons to be cynical about corporations who claim to care. Time and again we’ve seen grandiose statements from big businesses who say they’re doing something about the environment, only to find out it’s all for show.

But new research suggests we should be careful not to write off companies that are outspoken about their good intentions. There is a delicate balance to strike between talk and action in CSR, and as one recent study shows, both have their place.

“Among language theorists, talk is considered to actively shape and constitute reality, and talk itself is regarded as action. Adopting such a view means that CSR programmes are not merely decided upon, but are made ‘real’ through communication”, explains Lisa Koep, the author of the study.

After interviewing CSR professionals from the UK, Ireland, and the US, Koep found that while action may be the ultimate measure of success, aspirational talk is vitally important. Not only do public statements about CSR trigger action within an organization, but they create external accountability – as one executive put it, they act as a “commitment device”. Public statements can even trigger action outside the organization by spurring on competitors.

The study found that CSR professionals were keen to ward off accusations of greenwashing – when a company overemphasizes their CSR intentions, but fails to implement them. However, Koep observed that the risk of overpromising and failing to deliver can deter companies from making the sort of aspirational statements that can drive success.

“The research findings suggest that aspirational talk is a useful resource for organizations to help them transition towards becoming more responsible businesses”, stated Koep. “Rather than censoring aspirational talk to avert the scepticism of some…robust auditing and verification systems should be adhered to so as to deliver proof of CSR achievements over time.”

Read the research ▶

This blog is based on "Investigating industry expert discourses on aspirational CSR communication", published in Corporate Communications: An International Journal.

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