The New Corporate Social Responsibility: Company Stances on Controversial Issues

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Today we bring you a guest post by Melissa D. Dodd, Ph.D., assistant professor of advertising and public relations at University of Central Florida’s Nicholson School of Communication. Follow her on Twitter @mellydodd.

Public stances regarding controversial social-political issues by executive leaders of major corporations have become increasingly commonplace. For example, the following megabrands have taken stances on same-sex marriage: Amazon, Barilla, Ford, and Microsoft; healthcare reform: Papa John’s, Applebee’s, and Denny’s; and gun control: Levi Strauss & Co., Hallmark Cards, and Ben & Jerry’s, among others.

Public declarations surrounding controversial issues may be proactive organizational initiatives with planned communication. They may also be unintentionally spoken by organizational leadership, prompting reactive communication.

Regardless, the outcome from the standpoint of consumer perceptions is the same: the company has become aligned with these positions.

Headlines such as the following found in well-known media including Forbes, U.S. News & World Report, and the Huffington Post, respectively, exhibit organizational alignment with issues and potential impact: “Barilla earns gay boycott, learns taking sides is bad for business,” “Chick-fil-A’s Controversial Gay Marriage Beef,” and “Starbucks enters same-sex marriage boycott wars.

Recent research conducted by Drs. Melissa D. Dodd, University of Central Florida, and Dustin W. Supa, Boston University, and sponsored by the Arthur W. Page Center has demonstrated that corporate stances on controversial social-political issues (corporate social advocacy or CSA) have financial implications for the organizations that engage in this dialogue.

When organizations risk the isolation of stakeholder groups and diminished returns, it seems that a higher-level goal is in place than financial return-on-investment. And, research surrounding corporate social responsibility (CSR) reasons that voluntary actions taken by corporations may be aimed at the “betterment of society” as an overarching goal.

Legislation such as Citizens United allows that corporations play a larger role in social-political issues that impact a variety of audiences. And, several real-world examples seem to support the notion that CSA may be the latest reincarnation of CSR.

For example, in January 2012, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced support for the legalization of same-sex marriage in Washington State. Following the announcement, the advocacy group National Organization for Marriage, implemented a “Dump Starbucks” boycott with a petition signed by some 56,000 people. Schultz also later defended the company’s support for the issue when complaints were raised by an investor at a shareholders’ meeting.

Similarly, in July 2012, Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy made clear in an interview with the media the company’s support for the “traditional family,” opposition to gay marriage legislation, and support for anti-gay marriage advocacy groups. Supporters of same-sex marriage staged protests and a “Kiss-Day” at Chick-fil-A locations across the country. Politicians in cities including Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. spoke out against the organization, with some saying Chick-fil-A was not welcome in their cities.

Researchers Dodd and Supa argue that despite a great deal of overlap with CSR initiatives, corporate social advocacy materializes as a specific area of interest for strategic communicators and CSR specialists in three primary ways:

(1) The social-political issues addressed by corporations are divorced from issues of particular relevance for the organization.

(2) Engagement in social-political issues is controversial and serves to potentially isolate stakeholders while simultaneously attracting activist groups.

(3) As a result, there is a particularly necessary emphasis on desired goals and outcomes for the company.

Starbucks engages in environmentally friendly business operations across four relevant areas. It makes strategic business sense for Starbucks to engage in CSR initiatives surrounding their existing operations, as in the case of forest conservation. Likewise, engagement in environmental conservation efforts is not controversial, nor does it have the potential to outrage stakeholder groups or incite boycotts.

Starbucks’ public stance in support of same-sex marriage, on the other hand, is removed from particularly relevant issues for the company’s business operations. Because it attracted activist groups and isolated stakeholders, it has the potential to impact financial outcomes for the company.

A previous PRNewser post brought together related research to conclude that there’s a “Catch 22,” where Americans prefer that their brands stand for something, but companies risk losing audiences when they do.

Academic research such as the November issue of Public Relations Journal, edited by Dr. Denise Bortree of Pennsylvania State University, goes a long way toward better understanding how companies can navigate these environments. But, more research is (always) needed, and academic-practitioner collaboration is a must.

Moving forward, Dodd and Supa hope to examine the “real” impact of CSA for moving the attitudinal needle at a societal level for social-political issues.

Melissa DoddMelissa D. Dodd, Ph.D. is the (co)author of multiple refereed journal publications and book chapters and has presented award-winning research at top-tier academic conferences around the world.

Dodd’s grant-funded research has earned her the title of Arthur W. Page Society Legacy Scholar 2012-2013 and 2013-2014, and in 2010, she received the Brigham Young University Top Ethics Paper Award. Dodd is an advisory board member and social media chair for the International Public Relations Research Conference. In the recent past, she served as social media co-chair for the Association of Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s Public Relations Division. She has held consulting positions with major corporate clients, including the Corporate Communication Department of Bacardi U.S.A. and the University of Miami’s Emergency Management Department.