Study finds what public wants and how they want it delivered

By Steve Sampsell
November 11, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- New research is providing a roadmap for companies about how to communicate their corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities effectively. It was funded by a grant from The Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State.

Two communications professors, Sora Kim of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Mary Ann T. Ferguson of the University of Florida, surveyed 663 persons who were statistically assembled to be representative of general U.S. consumers. They were asked 46 questions designed to measure what kinds of CSR information consumers wanted most to receive. The questions also assessed how to reach them most effectively.

The researchers found:

  • Consumers preferred messages that were low-key, less promotional and based on factual information. They especially wanted to know who benefited from a firm’s CSR activities and what actually happened as a result of the firm’s previous CSR.
  • They wanted to learn about third-party endorsements of CSR activities such as a firm’s partnerships with nonprofits or nongovernmental organizations.
  • The sample valued CSR activities that were “personally relevant to external stakeholders” and wanted specific examples of how a firm’s CSR work impacts daily life.

Just as important as the messages to be communicated are the delivery methods and the targets. The survey revealed:

  • The beneficiaries of corporate social responsibility actions are the most preferred communication sources.
  • Companies should avoid using CEOs and public relations spokespersons “…as such corporate sources may increase public skepticism.”
  • Direct communications from the company in other ways are valued, however. “Controlled and interpersonal media channels” such as a firm’s local stores, corporate websites and face-to-face promotion events were all deemed effective.
  • Females are more receptive to CSR communication than are males. They are also more turned off by self-promotion, lack of message transparency and lack of consistency in CSR messages.
  • Young people (18-24) and older people (65+), showed the highest levels of interest in CSR information.
  • Democrats tend to be more interested in basic CSR information than Republicans and they are more concerned with self-promotional message tone and message transparency.

“There has been little done in this area before,” said Kim. “Previous research has emphasized the general consequences of CSR activities on the financial performance of an organization or general attitudes toward the organization without much consideration on communication aspects.”

The research paper by Kim and Ferguson, “Public Expectations of CSR Communication: What and How to Communicate CSR,” is in the November 2014 issue of Public Relations Journal, an open-access electronic research journal focusing on the fields of public relations and communications. Its purpose is to aid the transfer of knowledge from the educational community to the professional community.

The paper can be viewed on the website of Public Relations Journal by members of the Public Relations Society of America. For nonmembers of PRSA, the paper can be accessed at this link on the website of the Arthur W. Page Center.

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Last Updated June 02, 2021